This morning I saw a tweet that implied that cis people who use “(he/they)” or “(she/they)” in their email signatures but who present in a way that matches their gender are being opportunistic. One reply referred to it as virtue signaling, and another mocked someone who said their pronoun is “she” but that neutral pronouns were also acceptable.
There’s quite a bit to unpack in that. For instance, gender non-conforming (GNC) people don’t owe you anything with regards to presentation. A nonbinary person can look 100% like what society has deemed to be “a woman”. We can’t tell by looking at someone and declare them to be gender conforming. Just as sexual orientation and gender are two different things, gender and gender presentation are two different things.
But I want to address the issue, specifically, of cisgender people allowing gender neutral pronouns.
Note that I say “allow”, not “prefer”, because I feel like that’s the crux of the issue. Because GNC people have traditionally been ostracized to the point of losing jobs, housing, and even lives — marginalization that persists today — we tend to be softer than we should be when it comes to our language.
So, speaking entirely for myself and not the community at large: They’re not “preferred” pronouns. They’re pronouns. If you use something that’s not on our list, you’re not ignoring our “preferences”, you’re ignoring who we are.
My brothers are named John and Joel. Common nicknames for people named John include Johnny and Jack. Common nicknames for people named Joel include Joe and Joey.
But my brothers are named John and Joel. In my mind, they don’t “prefer” not to be called those other forms. Those aren’t their names. They choose not to be identified by them, and that’s their right.
I had a friend named David. For years, people called him Dave. Then he decided that he wasn’t going to accept that anymore. That was his choice.
Calling him Dave after that point would be an act of disrespecting who he was as a person. I know another person who is fine with either Dave or David. I used to know someone who went by Davey. All their own choices.
Can we call them “preferences”? When it comes to names, that’s a touchy call. The David I know that’s good with Dave or David prefers Dave, between the two. But to say he prefers not to be called “Davey” is an understatement.
When it comes to SOGI issues, though, the word “preference” has been weaponized. Sexual orientation used to be called “sexual preference”, as if gay people are perfectly capable of being straight and happy, but they prefer to be gay.
No, that’s not how it works.
As far as I’m concerned, a list of pronouns should be treated as the complete list of what someone allows to be used for themself. It’s not a statement of “use anything, but these are best”. It’s a statement of “ignore this list at your peril, because you’re disrespecting me”.
My current pronouns are ey/em/eir, they/them/their, and … literally anything else. I have a preference list, so if you want to make me feel good, use ey or they. Here’s my whole list, for whatever it’s worth:
- Any other neopronouns
- Just my name
That’s my entire list in order of preference, but that’s me. I have made the decision that I don’t want to argue, so everything is permissible. (And I reserve the right to change my mind.)
I summarize this as “(ey/they/any)”. Why not just “any”? Because I do have an order from “like the most” to “like the least”, and I want people to be aware of it.
When I see “(she/they)”, I assume that I can refer to that person as “she” or as “they” without offending them. I assume that I can’t call them “he” or anything else.
That’s useful, because there are people who are so aligned with their gender, both cis and trans people, that “they” is offensive to them. I would love to live in a culture where everyone is just “they” and leave it at that, that would be so much simpler.
But I don’t, and I don’t want to offend anyone if I can help it.
Within the GNC community, “(he/they)” or “(she/they)” is complicated. In some cases, it means the person is fine with either option. In others, it means the person wants you to alternate between them, even in the same sentence. And in yet others, the person is genderfluid and wants the pronoun that matches their current gender. The best approach is to ask for clarity, with politeness.
The relevant point is that I don’t see “(she/they)” or “(he/they)” from a cis person as virtue signaling. Could it be the case that I get to know the person and find out they’re doing it cynically, sarcastically, or opportunistically? Absolutely.
Is that the assumption I’m going to make from square one? Absolutely not. I’m going to assume that the person is attempting to acknowledge an awareness of the struggles of being GNC in a language that insists on identifying gender.
I don’t think there’s been a day of my life where I’ve interacted with people and not at some point been gendered. “How can I help you, sir?” “Excuse me, mister.” “Could you help this person, he wants….” It’s exhausting, and it’s refreshing to see a gender-conforming person say, “Hey, it’s okay to call me ‘they’, I’m good with that.” It scrapes a pebble off of the boulder I carry daily.
Do you need to? Nope. You don’t need to tell me your pronouns at all. Or you can share them privately. And if you do share your pronouns, I don’t need to know why you’ve included what you have and excluded what you haven’t.
The key, though, is that pronoun lists (when provided) are not “preferences”, they’re “available choices”. If we’re not just going to call them “pronouns”, let’s at least call them “pronoun options” instead of “preferred pronouns”. Because they’re options, not preferences.