My name is Jordan. I really like my name. I honestly can’t imagine myself with a different one. Becky? Veronica? Crystal? No thank you. I’ll keep Jordan. But Jordan is a traditionally male name and I was born and self-identify as female. I am she, her, hers.
Do you know how many times in my life, to this day, others have assumed I was a man simply because of my name? Too many to count. I could even tell you a story of how I ended up being the only girl at a bird camp because of this sort of a name mix-up. Or the time I couldn’t get help with my fraudulent credit card charges because customer service thought I was impersonating “Mr.” Rutter.
And everyone does it. Men, women, usually older folks but some younger ones too, have all assumed I’m a boy because of my name.
Here’s the thing. To me, a grown adult, I’m now used to it. It’s still annoying and irritating, but I can handle it. It took me a long time to get to this point and not make a fuss. It’s confusing and painful to feel like you’re not seen, you’re not recognized, you’re almost not allowed to be who you are because others don’t acknowledge how YOU want to be perceived by the world.
But first, I need to acknowledge my privilege here. I’m a cis-hetero white woman. The things I’ve personally experienced and felt when it comes to this are minimal compared to some other folks. Maybe more than, say, cis-hetero white men. Men with names like Bob or Matt or William. But my experiences of misrepresentation are the tip of the iceberg compared to others.
So, of course I want to advocate for gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, them, or theirs. It’s an honor to be included in this Quartz published article for that very reason.
It’s a no-brainer. Why assume someone’s identity when you can be safe and inclusive? Why not use a term that applies to anyone? I would rather be addressed as gender-neutral than the wrong gender. I’m also quite certain most cis-men would not want to be confused for a woman either (see: Lindsey, Lauren, Kelly).
Identifying your own pronouns and using gender-neutral pronouns in your speech, in your email signature, on your name tag, in your social media bio, or wherever doesn’t cost you anything. It doesn’t impact you physically. It doesn’t take much more time. It is a small, easy thing you can do. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it could literally make someone not feel alone in the world and help change truly heartbreaking statistics. It is kindness and consideration enacted in a single word. It is certainly not the end of the actions needed to increase inclusivity by white cis-hetero folks like myself, but it is a sorely needed start. So, if you truly value accepting others and loving your neighbor and being kind, then the use of gender-neutral pronouns should be part of your everyday language.
Those she/her/hers at the end of email messages are more than a passing trend
I agree that it’s helpful to identify one’s own pronouns. I do it in my email signature, Twitter bio, and nametags stuck to my body. I do this even though I am not personally at risk of being misgendered–I appear physically male, I have a masculine name, and my pronoun is “he”–because I want to help normalize pronoun-sharing and thereby encourage other people who *are* at risk of being misgendered to share *their* pronouns.
I respect the pronouns of transgender people–once upon a time, I transitioned from “she” to “he”–and also nonbinary people who request “they” pronouns.
That said, it isn’t obvious to me that “they” is the proper choice for referring to a person whose gender is unknown.
First, from my perspective as someone who switched pronouns within the gender binary and who has spent a lot of time with other people who have done this, I am aware that most transgender people feel very strongly about their own pronoun. When such people are referred to individually as “they,” that comment may be interpreted as a not-so-subtle dig at them implying that they do not “pass” as a member of their self-designated gender, and the comment may flag them as trans which may result in “outing” them. Especially since the pronoun “they” is now claimed by nonbinary people, it isn’t clear that “they” is truly a “gender-neutral” pronoun when used to refer to an individual. Rather, it implies that the person is some flavor of gender-nonconforming. If someone has worked hard to be called “she” or “he,” that person may be frustrated at being called “they” because it may misgender them as nonbinary/genderqueer.
Thus, while I hear your preference that you personally “would rather be addressed as gender-neutral than the wrong gender,” I just want to point out that some transgender people don’t share that opinion. I am also challenging the idea that it is indeed “safe and inclusive” to flag someone’s identity as unknown rather than to “assume someone’s identity.” Many transgender people work hard at their gender transitions to get to a point where their gender can be assumed at the level/frequency at which most cis people’s gender is assumed. If it ends up that transgender people are disproportionately called out as “they” because of someone else’s confusion (due not primarily to an ambiguous first name but to their face, voice, body), it’s neither safe nor inclusive.
I recently attended a gender conference at which a stranger called me “they,” presumably because they did not know my preferred pronoun. A lot of people at that conference requested “they,” but I’m a “he.” Thus, it felt like a misgendering or a degendering of myself, which felt a little…weird. (Weird, because it’s something I’m not used to as someone who hasn’t been misgendered in years.) I’m not hypersensitive to it, because it only happened that once, but, if it happened more frequently, I might become hypersensitive to it. It felt like I was being assumed to identify as nonbinary, an assumption that didn’t quite feel like “kindness and consideration.” I mean, I grow out my beard and wear men’s clothes for a reason. I’m trying to flag myself as “he.” And, at that conference, I’ve got a gendered name and pronouns on a nametag for anyone who comes close enough. I don’t refer to strangers as “they” when they are pretty obviously presenting within the gender binary as men or women because that would be degendering them and it actually feels deliberately unkind of me to contradict what they’re apparently trying to communicate, even though I might sometimes guess wrong and commit that accidental unkindness against someone who identifies as nonbinary or is in an early stage of gender transition.
Secondly, though I cannot speak as a nonbinary person, I wonder if some nonbinary people might feel conflicted about using “they” when a binary person’s gender *isn’t* known, as that might confuse or dilute others’ perceptions of what it means to use “they” for a nonbinary person whose gender (or lack thereof) *is* known. When I use “they” to refer to someone who has specifically requested that pronoun, I do it firmly to emphasize for others that that’s indeed the correct pronoun for that person–not to cast doubt on the person’s gender or on my knowledge of their gender.
I do not have a linguistic solution for this. It’s a real-life challenge that I continue to find difficult to navigate.
Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough comment, Tucker. I appreciate it. And I think you make a lot of great points that made me think or are immediate points of agreement. I’m definitely still growing and know I have a lot to learn. Thank you again for sharing.
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