Grammar, Preferred Gender Pronouns, and I

butch-tool-kitThe past imperfect: I was thinking about my pronouns. I recently joined a group that starts off every meeting with each person sharing their first name, preferred gender pronouns (PGPs), and answering the question of the week (e.g. who is your favorite cartoon character?).

Most cisgender people have no problem disclosing their pronouns, and resort to the pronouns they were assigned when they were born. Their gender expression is the same as their sex, and both are congruent with their pronouns. It is tidier when everything matches and nothing changes. There is nothing to explain.

I feel trapped when asked to share my PGPs. I can barely say they/them/their. I know I secretly prefer he/him/his, but I won’t say it. It would be a “pronouncement” that I’m transitioning socially. I’m not ready. I may never be ready. 

Being asked to state my pronouns makes me feel like I’m “not trans enough.” I hedge my answer. I explain that most of the people in my life, including Donna, use she/her/her, but I prefer they/them/their. I don’t hear the question as “What do you prefer I use when I refer to you?” – I defensively hear the question as “Do you use male pronouns and why not?”

In my mind he/him/his pronouns and testosterone go together like love and marriage. As the song states “you can’t have one without the other” even though I know several exceptions to this rule (butches on low dose testosterone who use female pronouns, and trans guys who have never gone on testosterone and use male pronouns). Name change and top surgery don’t push you over the pronoun cliff unless you choose to jump.

If I could think of the he/him/his pronouns as masculine, as opposed to male, I might be able to use them. If I could think of he/him/his as the pronoun equivalent of men’s jeans (constructed for men but also worn by others for a variety of reasons) then they might fit me. I wouldn’t be caught dead in women’s jeans. But every day I live with she/her/her.

They/them/their would be fine if I could screw up my courage and ask people to use them consistently. Even asking friends to use they/them/their pronouns makes me feel like a demanding special snowflake. Gender expression is full of nuance; gender neutral pronouns are grammatically clunky. It is unrealistic, but I hope that somehow, someday, someone will start using they instead of she, and it will gather momentum and snowball.

I don’t want anyone to play along condescendingly. I want them to understand that, until everyone uses the same gender-neutral pronouns, my pronouns should have some relevance to who I am and how I present. She/her/her are wearing thin.

I don’t want to be referred to as “her” for the rest of my life. I struggle with residual feminist guilt over it. When I try to articulate why female pronouns annoy me, all I can say is that wearing anything feminine and being called by anything feminine bothers me. It always has and it always will. It is why I changed my name. It is why I dress the way I do. It is why I see myself as a boy, with my dog.

The title of my blog is “A Boy and Her Dog” because it captures my conundrum. When I started the blog I hadn’t started trying to use they/them/their. If I called it “A Boy and Their Dog” you wouldn’t get the picture. If I called it “A Boy and His Dog” I’d be probably be sued by the author Harlan Ellison.

Notes: While stumbling around looking for a history of gender neutral pronouns I discovered the term “epicene pronouns” and this article by Dennis Baron. I mistakenly assumed that the English language search for gender neutral pronouns started in the 1960’s or 1970’s. He traces it back to 1850.

34 thoughts on “Grammar, Preferred Gender Pronouns, and I

  1. krisalex333

    You are right that she/her/her are wearing thin, especially after top surgery, but having lived with them for half a century+, the male/masculine versions sound strange with reference to myself. I would love to hear them being used by the people in my life, including B, but it seems like a losing battle to and for me. I do not like they/them/their, as they give rise to, if not verbal questioning, then strange looks saying, “Have you multiplied like an amoeba overnight?” or, “You always DID look too fat for one person.” But it grates and it hurts…

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The problem is that pronouns are in the other person’s speech, not in ours (we never say our own third person pronouns except to correct someone). Even with our names, we can introduce ourselves – put pronouns are all about how we are read.
      In the 70’s there used to be a button that said “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual” and I kind of would like something along the lines of “Don’t presume I want you to use she and her to refer to me.” Meanwhile, here I am stuck 90-95% with her.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. ayellowcrayon

    I struggle with this too. Using he and him feels strange, and I guess it’s not something I’ve ever been called on a consistent basis before so it’s just going to take time to adjust. Even more trippy was getting a letter from the clinic which included the term ,female to male transexual’-meaning me. Seeing that term written in such a clinical way took me aback. And yes, then you do go through the ‘not trans enough’ questioning in your head. Thank you for writing Jamie, it help me to feel better knowing that others are feeling the same.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I don’t understand my own “not trans enough” feelings (I could get a post out of this) – I am aware of them and notice when they crop up, but I never, ever, felt not queer enough or not gay enough, even before I had a girlfriend. Culturally, I don’t know why I expect any of this to be easy, but I think I expect it to just be a trans version of coming out gay, when it is way bigger and more complex (and as you have written, not as much in my control).

      Like

      Reply
  3. Tea With Ess

    This is something that is a big issue for me now. For some reason I get more and more upset by the fact that I’m supposed too choose one pronoun, and stick to it for a long time, even though none of the pronouns available fit me. At the moment I’m leaning towards “he” but I’m not ready to take the plunge yet, if ever. Your thoughts on the connection between “he” and male versus masculine is very helpful to me, thank you for sharing your wise thoughts!

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The male vs. masculine part is critical. It wasn’t that long ago that women were “not allowed” to wear men’s pants in public – but now it is accepted in many settings, because pants became masculine/unisex vs. male. Pronouns aren’t there yet – I kept trying to find something definitive on male vs. masculine pronouns and female vs. feminine, but everything was murky, the way that sex and gender are confused by people who think the two are the same, and incorrectly use them interchangeably.

      Like

      Reply
  4. Beck Rothke

    Wow. You capture this conundrum perfectly. I love your blog. I too am trying to navigate these definitions/boundaries/questions.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for reading and for the compliment. It helps me to know that I am not the only person who is struggling to find a way to be honest about how I feel.

      Like

      Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I remember seeing your piece when it was published. I hope the Swedish “hen” term takes off; I’d rather there be one term for everyone (do away with “he or she”) but I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, my life is starting to resemble one of those science fiction stories where the characters morph into non-binary beings ….

      Like

      Reply
      1. paulacoston

        What a wonderful world it would be (there’s a song in there somewhere) if we could all be non-binary beings. Perhaps we should start with a term for THAT: trinary? unitary? – or preferably, something much more elegant and cool. Ideas?

        Like

  5. Lesboi

    I’m so right here with all of you here on this. Even with the hormones, without top surgery I feel silly asking anyone to use male pronouns. And then I’m not all that comfortable with them either, though more so than with feminine ones. I’m kind of in the they, them, their camp at the moment because I feel stuck in the middle, grey zone. I like the concept that male pronouns are more about being masculine than male. Will give this some thought.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      As least you are moving in the hormone department, and won’t be stuck in the grey forever. It is just weird that you can have so much masculine gender expression but people will not budge out of she/her until they look stupid referring to you that way.

      Like

      Reply
  6. txbridgefarmer

    This is very thought provoking. I never really thought about the fact that we tend to assign gender to the words we use. Saying he/him/his are “masculine” is the norm but I think you are right; they tend to be more “male”. That almost gives them a life of their own and I could see why it would be hard to adopt them.

    Like

    Reply
  7. DogDharma

    It would be much easier to live in a country like Finland that lacks gendered pronouns, no? But I do think the “male” pronouns are about masculinity rather than “maleness.” Or something like that. I note that there is not an absence of “effeminate” cisgender non-gay males who are perfectly comfortable with he / him. It’s a quizzical topic and language doesn’t do it justice. Language fails us in so many ways, not just where it comes to gender.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Not sure I want to move to Finland for the pronouns – I think I prefer sunshine and a little more cultural diversity. I’m hoping that the English language will evolve, and that is will get easier to move away from strict interpretations of gender based pronouns.

      Like

      Reply
    2. DogDharma

      I was thinking about this after I left my comment, Jamie, and it’s really a complex topic. From one angle, pronouns are about respecting a person’s self-ascribed gender identity, which isn’t already apparent for people who are in the middle ground like you, or for FTMs who haven’t gotten far enough down the road of transitioning yet. But they can be used to purposefully hurt and disrespect people. I was thinking about an incident I briefly posted about when my wife had disclosed that I was transgendered to someone without my knowledge or permission, and and the person referred to me as “it” and her “wif…. er, husband.” Probably, the rather few “effeminate” cisgendered non-gay males don’t mind being called “he,” but there might be a select even-fewer of them who would like to embrace their feminine qualities from time to time. Then their are the languages that are even odder to me, where nouns are ascribed a male / female gender, like Italian and German and French. The nice thing about languages like Finnish is that even God is not given a gender, and they don’t grow up thinking God is an old man in the sky with a long gray beard. When I went to Finland in ~1993, it was actually warmer in Helsinki than Washington, DC, and more diverse, or at least more progressive than the US (as long as you don’t mind seeing reindeer wallets and purses in upscale department stores). No sunshine, though, and the long, dark months of winter. Getting used to the male pronouns after fully committing to transitioning is a bit hard at first, but I am completely content, at-ease, and at-one with it now. We have a lot to teach people about the “analog” vs “digital / binary” reality. Language WILL eventually catch up.

      Like

      Reply
  8. rimonim

    Switching pronouns is messy and awkward for everyone involved. And, like so many things in life, there’s sometimes a lag between what we know we want and what actually feels normal/comfortable. I think you deserve to be called by the pronouns that feel right to you, whether that’s he/him/his or they/them/theirs, everything else be damned. It feels really weird to ask for something like that, but, in my experience, it’s well worth the hassle.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      First priority is to get through top surgery (December) and the recovery process, with my relationship intact. I keep hoping that the pronouns will take care of themselves, but I can see that if I want them to change I am going to have to be insistent.

      Like

      Reply
      1. gok9go

        Jamie, you’ll do terrific with the top surgery and recovery (just remember to do your scar care once you are allowed to and don’t overdo the lifting for the required period of time–I’m still working on building back what I had). I believe that your relationship will come out intact on the other side–you’ve got a strong foundation of mutual respect. My very best on all of this.

        As for gender pronouns, I’m torn too. Neither female nor male pronouns fit, and the problem with they/them/their is agreement in number (multiplicity, anyone?). I’m my girlfriend’s significant other, and I view us as in a lesbian relationship, even though I am gender nonconforming and don’t identify as female (or male). My name change to a neutral name is in 13 days. My documents will still all have the F for female (why can’t we have an O for other?). I have been going the path of least resistance, and letting people use the pronouns for me that work for them (mostly female pronouns because they’ve known me for so long). When I have to talk about myself (e.g., a bio for a presentation), I avoid all pronouns.

        This is a very complex situation, especially for those of us who choose to stay somewhere in the middle. Maybe language will catch up, but a linguist told me that personal pronouns are probably the hardest to change. (That gets an “argh.”)

        Thanks for the post–as usual you bring up great things to think and talk about!

        Like

      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        It is interesting to me because I did not have a lot of problems getting people to understand the name change, and met almost no resistance (except initial resistance from Donna) but I feel a huge social resistance to gender neutral pronouns, as if they are a bigger threat than changing to male pronouns (which makes sense if you doing a binary transition but more difficult in mid-life with a DIY transition).
        I’m hoping that everything goes smoothly for top surgery – medical and with my relationship. So far Donna is still on board but she is avoiding the subject – trying not to think too much about it until it is over and done with.

        Like

  9. Carl

    I have heard of people who are gender fluid will wear something unequivocally masculine on days they are male and people know to use male titles/pronouns, on female days the same in the female, and androgynous days they will work hard to look unisex and people know to use their preferred neutral pronouns.

    Before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 70s, he/him/his actually meant both the male and the gender-neutral forms. Maybe that can shed some light for you? There are times of the month where I may not feel as masculine as I can, that I feel more like a transmasculine non-binary trans* person, somewhere still masculine-of-center, but not like completely a guy, you know? Just like my sexuality varies over the course of the my menstrual cycle, so does my virility. Have you ever looked into that?

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is interesting, I feel very consistent in my level of internal masculinity, how I dress, how I present. I don’t always know how to categorize/label it. My dysphoria levels vary, but I don’t track them – so I don’t know if my discomfort/anxiety is related to hormonal cycles.

      Like

      Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I wasn’t ready to change my pronouns when I changed my name. Changing my name felt urgent, pronouns less so. I was hung up on gender markers matching pronouns, so I changed my name (legally) first without changing my legal gender.
      When I feel the urgency, and it becomes important, I’ll probably do something about the pronouns. Meanwhile, I’ll just cringe.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  10. Dynamitochondria

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Being a cis man, I’ve only had to remember what pronouns my various trans and fluid friends and acquaintances prefer, and to be gracious when corrected. This was my first look into someone’s internal struggle with choosing a pronoun set.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for reading the post and commenting. Sharing PGPs is supposed to make everyone more comfortable, but for me it is still difficult and stressful to disclose that I don’t want to be she/her. I hope at some point it will feel more natural.

      Keeping track of pronouns and identity terminology is pesky. I hope it isn’t completely outdated by the time I get used to it.

      Like

      Reply
  11. Pixie

    It is good to know I am far from the only one who struggles with pronouns. Lately I seem to be stuck on “but I can’t be he/him/his because I still can’t pee standing up!” which is completely arbitrary and nonsensical. She/her/hers is like sandpaper on freshly-burned skin. But I’m not at all comfortable asking people to use male pronouns. Maybe once I get my legal gender change stuff done, that will change. But I said that about hormones, and top surgery, and hysterectomy… So maybe not.

    I keep getting told it is supposed to make me more comfortable, but it does the exact opposite for me. If it is about my comfort, then my preference of not specifying pronouns ought to be acceptable.

    Incidentally, whenever that oh-so-rare thing happens of some stranger identifying me as male rather than female as usual (like two days ago a bus driver calling me “sir”) I get this thrilled-but-horrified feeling, more delight than pain but still enough ouch to let me know I’m a freak.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I know what you mean about wanting to opt out of pronouns altogether. When I changed my first and middle names, I realized that I could eliminate all the honorifics (Ms.) and that a lot of websites and forms allowed you to leave it blank! I still like it when I get mail and it has no honorific on it (until they allow you to specify Mx. or some other gender neutral one). On a couple of sites they made me put an honorific and I chose Dr.just to get rid of the Ms.

      Like

      Reply
  12. lostinthelakes

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve been attending trans groups since about 2008, and doing the whole pronoun dance since that point, and it’s never, ever gotten any easier. I struggle with ‘not trans enough feelings’ all the time, and I’ve found that they are most prominent when I am around other trans folks. And I struggle with that feeling, too! At the meetings I attend, there is a lot of “hey brother,..” thrown around, and I just never feel that kind of camaraderie because of my identity. I would never say to folks that it is better to not go to trans-specific events, but am saying that I notice that for me, that ‘not trans enough’ feeling presents most when I am around others who are secure in their trans identity, or really any identity. I’ve got to write a post about this soon,.. I feel a lot of guilt about this particular topic. Does that ever happen to you?

    Like

    Reply
  13. Pingback: The Dissonance of Referring To Myself As Ms. | A Boy and Her Dog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s