Pronouns And Privilege: What We Really Communicate To Marginalized People
Being a member of several online support groups for parents of TGNC (trans and/or gender non-confoming) children & youth, someone in the group always seems to mention that they have a skeptical friend or family member requesting scholarly articles regarding trans people, why they should be supportive of trans people, or what the scientific/psychological/psychiatric/medical research says. While it’s never the duty of a marginalized person to educate or enlighten others, it seems that often trans people (at least the ones I know) are willing to do so, usually with grace and a smile.
Now, I’m in no way advocating for anyone to go ask a trans person to explain everything. It’s 2017. We have the luxury of Google, Google Scholar, and a world of internet resources available at our fingertips for free, if we really care to learn.
If you’re asking a TGNC person which pronouns they use, that is totally different, and totally respectful. But asking them, “so are you going to have THE surgery?” is completely different (not to mention presumptive, because there are many, many different types of surgery a trans person might choose to have, or not have, any of which may or may not complete a trans person’s journey, all of which are none of our business unless the trans person invites us into that conversation).
Marginalized groups should never have to teach others about inclusivity, to educate people on social progress, or to fix systemic problems (like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc), because the marginalized people did not create the “isms” and phobias in the first place. As a white, cishet person, working to change systemic problems is part of my job. Parents of TGNC children, along with other community allies and advocates also typically see it as part of our job to help chip away at those those transphobic things in society, in order to make the world a little better for the next generation. Ultimately, though, the onus of fixing systemic problems falls on all of us non-marginalized people.
For example, I’m a cishet (cisgender/heterosexual), white person. Those categories are all non-marginalized, privileged categories, not only because they’re the majority but because society as a whole favors them to the point of normalization. I can browse online, on TV, in books, movies, plays, newspapers, magazines, commercials, even on billboards — literally everywhere, and see more people who outwardly “look” more like me than not. My kind is highlighted most everywhere in our society as the default “normal.” Wherever I am, I have the unearned, born privilege of almost always feeling racially comfortable. I can see myself recognized and favored all around me, which is clearly not the case for a black, genderqueer, pansexual person. Thus, I have privilege.
Because of intersectionality, which means that by nature, often we have several different interconnected social categorizations that overlap or intersect with one another, I do not have privilege in the way of gender (because I’m not male), mental health (because I have chronic depression and anxiety disorder), socioeconomic status (because my family of 5 lives paycheck-to-paycheck, barely making it most months), or class (I was not born into a wealthy family, what we call around here, “Old Raleigh Money,” or “Inside the Beltline”). So while I am clearly privileged in several aspects, I’m not in others.
I wish people wouldn’t be insulted by that word — privilege. As Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote in her widely-shared essay, Explaining White Privilege To A Broke Person, “it’s not your fault that you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. But whether you realize it or not, you do benefit from it, and it is your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.” As a white, cishet person who writes, and who also happens to be the parent of/advocate for a TGNC child, I try to always acknowledge that I’m speaking or writing from a place of privilege, rather than trying to talk over the voices of those who are actually marginalized. I don’t live it myself; it’s only through the very narrow lens that I watch my child’s TGNC discrimination occur, that I can write about it. I try to somehow always acknowledge that first, before I try to speak with any authority on the matter.
Because I’m a privileged person living in a society that currently favors my color, my cisgender identity, and my straight sexual orientation over all the other colors, gender identities, and sexual orientations, it’s therefore my duty to read, listen, and learn, on my own time. It’s my duty to figure out how not to offend already marginalized people. And if I’m so inspired or inclined, it’s also my duty to help educate my fellow white, cisgender, heterosexual people. We are often blind to the issues that do not directly affect us. This is particularly true with respect to marginalized groups, whose struggles largely are invisible in a cishet-normative culture.
If I’m a woman dating or married to a man, I don’t have to give a second thought before I reach over, grab his hand and hold it while walking in public. If I’m gay, I do have to worry about that. Even if I’m notorious for not caring what other people think, if I’m a man, holding hands with another man, walking in public, I’m still going to notice being stared at, pointed at, whispered about, laughed at, mocked, harassed, or denied service. (For that, we can thank Trump’s May 4 Executive Order for Religious Liberty — which in actuality is vague and likely unenforceable, but still gives the impression of government-approved carte blanche discrimination).
Likewise, if I’m a mother of only cisgender kids, I don’t have to worry about things like disclosure; whether my child will be stealth, semi-stealth, or out; if they “pass” as their gender identity in all social situations; which public bathroom would be the safest to use in any given situation; whether or not my insurance company will understand that puberty blockers are medically necessary in order for my teen to not commit suicide; and the strain of family objections that inevitably take a toll on my marriage and children.
What parents of TGNC kids wish others would realize is that it’s not their job to either approve or disapprove of our parenting decisions, or our advocacy for our TGNC children. I say with confidence that there isn’t a single question or idea that anyone can pose to us that we haven’t already spent sleepless nights and long days agonizing over, before deciding to wholeheartedly recognize our child’s authentic identity and advocate for their needs (and even their acceptance). I haven’t yet heard an original question or comment regarding my own experience in this area. I’ve heard them all, from “so if my child says they’re a cat, should I accept that they’re a cat and buy them catnip?” to “what about their safety — aren’t you worried they’ll get bullied?” to “you should be locked up for child abuse.”
Occasionally we get asked, “what do you wish people could understand about trans and/or gender non-conforming children?” I’d have to say that because there is not one universal way to “look” trans and/or gender noncomforming, in an ideal world, we should never assume someone is male, female, trans, cis, or agender. We’d never assume to know someone’s first name before being introduced, why do we assume their gender identity? But I know our society collectively is nowhere near that point yet. So I (and I’m sure the majority of TGNC people) would settle for this: If known, respect a person’s pronouns, always. If you don’t know, ask.
My TGNC child experimented with using “they/them/their(s)” pronouns in 5th grade, but only in what were considered safe spaces, like our home and our local LGBT Center where we formed a monthly, year-round playgroup for TGNC children ages 12 and under, and discussion group for parents. But our child still felt like using “he/him/his” pronouns at school, because those kids and teachers had known them for several years as a boy, so it just felt easier and safer for them. Even though our child was expressing feminine at school through their clothing, shoes, and accessories, they felt it was most comfortable to not change up the pronouns at school, even though they were rejecting everything “masculine” more and more regularly.
The second — and I do mean second — that elementary school ended, so did our kid’s association with “he/him/his” pronouns, and being referred to as our “son.” Our child announced their intention to henceforth go by “they/them” pronouns everywhere, all the time, but said they would also be okay with “she/her(s)” pronouns (or at least, wouldn’t correct people who used female pronouns.) Pronouns are important. They may seem like a little, insignificant thing to cis people, but to TGNC people, they are everything, and they aren’t negotiable.
Some people may not understand what they’re actually communicating when they refuse to use someone’s preferred and correct gender pronouns. When a person says, “I’ll totally support you, but the new pronouns are just too hard for me to use,” what they’re actually communicating is “I support you, but I don’t want to talk about you. At all. Ever.” When someone changes pronouns, it is a difficult change. Mistakes will happen, and fortunately, many trans people are gracious with this. But at some point, when they continuously mess up and say they just “keep forgetting,” or the pronoun thing is “just too hard,” what they’re actually communicating is, “I really don’t want to put in the effort.” Which is a BS excuse, because people are quite capable of learning new words, nicknames, languages, and speech patterns all the time. Does it take extra time and effort to make that change? Yes. But you actually need to put in that extra time and effort. When you don’t, you’re saying that you don’t respect that person enough to use basic words that authentically describe them.
When someone says, “I’m sorry, I just can’t make the pronoun switch, I’m too much of a grammar police,” what they’re really communicating (aside from the ironic fact that they’re wrong about the singular use of they) is, “My personal comfort is more important than your physical safety.” Because repeatedly continuing to misgender a trans person is not only considered harassment, but can also lead to violence and worse. If you refuse to use someone’s correct gender pronoun, you could “out” a trans person who was up until that moment “stealth” (meaning nobody knew that person was trans to begin with), and there may be some very transphobic people in the room who have a propensity for violence, who may become aggressive in that situation.
When someone tells you which pronouns to use, whether that is he, she, they, ze, hir, “no pronouns just (insert name here),” or anything else, they are politely asking for your respect. If you choose not to use the correct pronouns, you’re communicating a host of negative things, possibly unintentionally, but hurtful and damaging regardless. This can be torturous for trans people, who, in defending themselves, often have to “come out” over and over again, day after day. When you refuse to use someone’s preferred, correct gender pronouns, you’re communicating all of these (and more):
- I know you better than you know yourself.
- I am more knowledgeable about your personal truth than you are.
- Your identity (who you are) isn’t real, and should not even be acknowledged.
- I heard your “truth,” but I’m not accepting it.
- I don’t believe you, so I will reject your truth and replace it with my own version of the truth/my own understanding/my own assumptions, (or, what I actually wish was true)
- Offending you is perfectly okay if it makes me feel more comfortable.
- I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I refer to you.
- Your sense of safety is not important to me.
- My personal comfort is more important than your safety.
- Being your authentic self is an inconvenience to me.
- Yeah, I get that transgender people face disproportionate rates of discrimination, homelessness, violence, suicide, and murder. But the real inconvenience here is me having to change which pronouns I use to refer to you.
- Because your struggle isn’t difficult enough as it is, I’m going to assert that it’s my struggle — the struggle to switch pronouns — that is the real tragedy here.
- I’m not just going to disrespect you, but I’m going to teach everyone within earshot how to disrespect you. (Because, you know, they are forced to correct not only you now, but also, all the people in your circle who are misgendering them, and thus, they are having to come out as transgender over and over again, as if the first time weren’t hard enough.)
While certainly most people don’t intend to communicate those things, it still doesn’t change the impact of how refusing to show basic respect through someone’s correct pronouns affects the person on the receiving end. Conversely, here’s what you’re communicating when you correctly use someone’s preferred pronouns (even if you slip up and sincerely apologize every now and then, but are clearly making a legitimate effort):
- I see you, I hear you, I respect you. You matter, and I care about your well-being.