Maybe We Should [Not] Talk About Pronouns?
The practice can be hard for the very kids you think it's helping
Here’s the scene: It’s the first day of summer camp, and the seven- to nine-year-old kids are assembled in a circle around their counselors. One 20-year-old counselor has a shag haircut, peach fuzz, and scars from top surgery peaking from beneath a sleeveless shirt. The other has long braids and a tank top. They tell the kids their names and pronouns—they and they/she, respectively. The kids are all unfazed, likely aware that the counselors are both female but so used to people claiming pronouns unattached to biological sex that they think nothing of it.
Then the kids are asked to name their own pronouns. All of the kids conform to some kind of gender stereotypes—that is, no one looks particularly androgynous, like the counselor, and no one is fazed by the kids’ pronouns, either. Then one little boy—so the kids assume—says that she’s a girl and her pronouns are she/her, but that she doesn’t really care what anyone calls her.
“Wait, you’re a girl?” a little boy says incredulously. He, like so many other kids, has not experienced a child claiming a pronoun that doesn’t match their gender presentation. He’s met trans kids, who conform to the gender role of the opposite sex—who look like the boys or girls they identify as. But he’s never met a child drawn to the gender role—the norms, expectations and stereotypes—associated with the opposite sex, who didn’t identify as a member of that sex. He’s never met a genuinely gender nonconforming child.
The girl shrugs. She’s used to this, but it’s not fun. Every pronoun circle requires either drawing attention to her gender nonconformity, thus making it a topic of group discussion and often putting her in a position to defend herself, or lying about her sex or gender identity, just to keep other people from questioning her.
As is often the case, what liberates one group often constricts another.
This is just one of several stories I heard like this from the gender nonconforming kids I’ve interviewed. Many have parents who facilitate and support this nonconformity, allowing the kids to look and act how they please, but not finding that this shift in appearance or behavior leads to a shift in identity or sense of self (though of course that can change at any time, and some GNC kids I interviewed did identify as trans at puberty).
Many people now think it’s vital to ask for pronouns—that youth are at risk if you don’t respect their pronouns—and to announce their own as a signal of solidarity. The Trevor Project reported that “Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all of the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected by anyone with whom they lived.” But anyone reporting on such research should be clear that there is no way to establish causation between those two things, only correlation. Meanwhile, many of these kids have been told that not respecting their pronouns is violence and that people adjusting to their preferences is support, thus they feel supported when their preferred pronouns are used, and so, yeah, they feel better.
But I think many people are not properly examining what has become the compelled speech of pronoun circles or announcements, or what it means when someone claims a pronoun that doesn’t correspond to their sex, or that this practice is unpleasant for some people.
Take this piece, for example, from Jen Manion, author Female Husbands—referred to as a trans history, despite the fact that there was no concept of gender identity in the time she writes about and it is academically irresponsible to impose modern understandings of gender and sexuality on the past. Jen, who says she doesn’t care about pronouns, talks about how many eyes fell upon her when the pronoun circle arrived at her:
I was also very comfortable being referred to using the gendered pronoun she. I still am for two reasons: being referred to as such my whole life and a feeling that it has no bearing on my gender. My gender — a lifetime of non-conformity, masculinity, butchness, and transness — is neither validated nor undone by a one syllable word.
As a female-bodied masculine-presenting person, there was no good answer. Whatever I said would force me into a box — a new box.
If you’ve lived your life upending gender norms, you already know that no words can explain you, but you also may not want the attention, the sense that your existence requires explication.
But for other people, especially the young folks being introduced to gender identity ideology, pronouns are often not about identity but about being released from gender norms, and this practice is quite liberating. An acquaintance told me that her son—and I use that term to mean male offspring—came home from summer camp requesting they/them pronouns because they didn’t feel like they fit the image of a boy or a man. In this case, the child is declaring their liberation from expectations associated with their biological category, though of course changing your personal pronouns does nothing to change gender norms. It’s much easier to change the way other people refer to you than it is to change society.
John McWhorter, normally my hero, has declared that this wordplay is exhilarating, and while I get what he means, I don’t think he understands that this use of pronouns, decoupled from sex, is also complicated, because it assumes that gender identity always trumps sex, and as many people have been writing about, that has profound implications—mostly for women. It is a cultural form of gender self-identification, which still needs to be debated.
I love grammar and words and am happy that suddenly people are interested in them. I think people should announce their pronouns if they want to and to not do so if they don’t, without it being expected or compelled. And, as always, I think we should de-emphasize sex and gender, and help kids develop resilience. Most of the world uses pronouns to refer to biological sex, and if someone misgenders you, wouldn’t it be so much better to learn to shrug it off than to interpret it as violence? I’ll respect your pronoun choices, but if you call me he/him because I’m middle-aged and increasingly masculinized by perimenopause, it might make me feel bad, but it won’t change the material reality of my sex.
But requiring people to announce their pronouns feels less about language than about trying to control how people talk about you when you’re not there. Who wouldn’t want that? As someone who has been called a bitch and a child abuser by strangers on social media, I would love such control. But the way people talk about you in your absence doesn’t address the larger cultural issues with which I am concerned.
I have now spent years studying the biology, psychology and history of gender nonconformity, and I still contend that we have very little understanding and tolerance of it, and that pronoun circles do not increase understanding or tolerance. Of course, pronoun circles aren’t the biggest obstacle for gender nonconforming kids. The world is not set up to accommodate them in a whole host of ways, from bathrooms to sleep-away camp cabins. Our job as parents is not to snowplow all the obstacles down for them but to teach them to navigate them. And sometimes asking for pronouns is a kind of obstacle. We can talk to these kids about how to respond to the question, and how to respond to the inevitable reaction to the question.
In the meantime, it’s worth us all debating and discussing if we should be asking the question in the first place.