Queer Mirror: Transitory pronoun disorientation

Tuesday 09th, September 2014 / 15:23
By Kevin Allen
Kevin Allen, founder of the Calgary Queer History Project.

Kevin Allen, founder of the Calgary Queer History Project.

CALGARY — I live a lot in the queer world. When I do not have my head stuck in queer history – my current preoccupation – I am thinking about queer culture, queer rights and queer relationships. Consequently, when BeatRoute pitched the idea of a column, I wanted the first article to be about something that had been confounding me – the use of pronouns in the transgender community.

It has happened to me on more than one occasion that I have been corrected when referring to a trans person I know. I said “she” and “her” when I should have said he or they (also known as misgendering) and I have made the same mistake a number of times. I am a gay man sensitive to issues of discrimination – or so I thought.

“People are comfortable when they can categorize people,” says Brianne Langille, a trans woman and consultant with CalgaryTransHub.com. She prefers female pronouns and explains that getting misgendered really affects her self-esteem.

“Quite honestly it depends on the situation I am in. If it is somebody whom I am going to have future interactions with, I would say, ‘By the way, I would prefer you to use female pronouns for me,’ but if I am standing in a line at Subway and get misgendered I probably would avoid saying anything. I don’t want to create an awkward situation even though it does make me feel bad.”

Langille adds, “Misgendering can happen quite a lot when you are first transitioning, but when you are finally gendered correctly it makes your day; it would send me over the moon when it first started happening.”

Son Edwards, part of the staff collective at CommunityWise identifies as genderqueer and prefers the pronouns they, them and their.

“I think about it often, how to communicate to people my pronoun preferences,“ they say.

Edwards found references to singular forms of “they” from zine culture and it resonated with them. “I found it a way to express what my gender actually feels like. I never identified as he or she throughout my whole life; it was not something that I had language for. I chose “they” because it feels natural – people can adjust to it easier. And it still brings up question of gender and identities and challenges assumptions about gender.”

There have been numerous attempts to socially engineer English with manufactured pronouns in order to make it gender neutral or gender non-specific. Newish examples include: ze, hir and xem. And there are even some cases of English dialects where variant pronouns naturally occur. For example, in Baltimore, “yo” can refer to anyone in the third person. Yet language constantly changes: no one really laments the loss of thou anymore. However, “they” might have future staying power, because it comes from the past.

According to language scholars, “they” was used for singular, plural, masculine and feminine, right up until the 18th century when English grammar was codified. It fact it was commonly used by queer people in modern times for disguising same sex relationships while at the same time trying to maintain some semblance of honesty – as in, “My date last night said they wanted to see me again.”

Social media – particularly Twitter – may be abetting the evolution of language to serve a needed multi-driver pronoun function (it also saves characters when you are limited to 140). Anecdotally, “they” is making a comeback in this forum.

Brett Mason, executive director at Calgary Outlink Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity, also identifies as trans, prefers masculine pronouns, but is also comfortable with they.

He says, “when people use female pronouns for me, I am confused – I don’t realize they are talking about me. When I realize that I am being misgendered I can feel invisible, angry and disrespected.”

Mason explains that it is not the end of the world to misgender someone but that people should endeavor to work on their pronoun use to not make the same mistakes repeatedly. “For trans people it is not a one-off occurrence – they do not get misgendered that one time only – eventually there is a cumulative effect,” he adds.

Edwards concurs, “advocating for my own gender all the time can be exhausting.”

My high school friend Katie in university wanted to be called Kate. Her circle of friends found it impossible, until finally she got really mad at us – and then we remembered…

Langille tells me, “that is not a bad little parallel for people who identify as trans. Sometimes getting angry is what it takes! People respond, ‘Oh, you are actually serious about this, you actually want this to happen – to use these pronouns.”’

Ultimately it is a matter of decency and respect. Gay people in the past had the dominant culture confounded by their very existence. We should endeavor to not make similar errors with the trans community in the present.

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