A Pronouncement on Pronouns

The Primer

Not quite 3 months ago, I started Testosterone, and my reasons, while took forever to congeal, were clear:

I’d much rather be perceived as not-female than as female. Which leads me to the only other option: being perceived as male.

The key word is perceived, and that takes two. Taking hormones is a physical means of making my body more androgynous. But physical cues are only one way in which other people perceive gender.

I’ve often distinguished between the needs of physical and social transition, as well as differences between physical and social dysphoria, all experienced in endless combinations by each individual person and their particular place on the gender rainbow. Therefore, it is only fitting that, exactly one year after writing a post grappling with pronouns, I revisit the matter and (gasp!) come to a conclusion. This does not make anything definitive, but it does make it decisive, an act with which I seem to struggle most.

The Preferred Pronoun

The pronoun that fits me best is they, or simply no pronouns.

People still call me she, and thus far I’ve been reluctant to correct them, mainly to avoid a long winded conversation about my gender and what that exactly means, because “they” is an unusual pronoun at best, and at worst informing someone of your preferred pronoun is unusual already.

Moreover, in previous experiments with real live situations, people have been unable to use “they” correctly in a spontaneous way. They trip up, mess up, forget it, and call me whatever they want (he and she in the same sentence even). Mostly people stumble with the supposed grammar complications – which, in my opinion, is no more complicated than how we really do speak anyway. But I can’t force my brilliant and intelligent understanding of grammar on people all the time, or pull up Wikipedia or other very informative articles with examples of its use. And let’s not forget we are trying to avoid a long-winded and unnecessary explanation about gender and/or grammar in the first place, at the very least for practical reasons.

The Decision

So what to do if “they” is such an inconvenient pronoun? You make up a Plan B. Well, I’ve finally (finally!) decided to go with he.

(Oh what agony two/three letters cause, yet how important you are.)

The Process

Just like I am currently in the process of physically inching my way towards a more masculine-like appearance, the plan is to very slowly shift pronouns publicly. This should, in effect, jumpstart my public social transition.

In fact, this process has already begun, albeit amongst a closer cirlce of friends. Mostly there have been implied hints and often-too-subtle sneers on my part, but the smart ones have already caught on that a) I’m really not a “she” and b) pronouns are an issue for me.

What do they do instead? They employ one of many strategies for speaking in gender-neutral terms:

  • Use singular they: “They like to eat chocolate.”
  • Use the person’s name: “He/She/Name likes to eat chocolate.”
  • Substitute descriptivie phrases in place of a pronouns or a name: “What does the little one think?” or “Yes, spunky does indeed like to eat chocolate.”

But gender neutralizing language is not so straightforward, and despite careful calculations, people slip. Even my partner has tripped up with pronouns and gendered titles. We usually discuss each situation afterwards, and decide how to handle it in the future. However, this analysis tends to happen when the event in question has already passed, which means that during the moment of confusion, it was just plain difficult to find the right words. Moreover, it’s impossible to deconstruct and predict every single word or phrase one might need in a sentence, and have the foresight to think of a gender-neutral alternative beforehand, especially without much practice – as is the case for most people around me who are not me.

The [Fallback] Plan

In order to avoid this, it’s therefore best to agree upon a fallback plan. And “he” is an acceptable fallback plan for me. My girlfriend can say she has a “significant other” or a “shorter half” but when pressed for time – or neurons – she can say “boyfriend,” and that’ll be fine too. And my well-meaning (and smart) friends can say “he” should they run out of unique monikers to describe me. Now, should my friends ever slip, I’d prefer they slip with a “he” instead of a “she.”

Lastly, I’ve briefly mentioned how Spanish is my first language, and you don’t get much of a choice in Spanish. My girlfriend and I have already switched to using the masculine to refer to me, and a few people have fortunately caught on and taken it in stride. My girlfriend’s aunt now calls me “sobrino,” yet I bet she still wonders whether “niece” or “nephew” would be more appropriate.

So I guess the next step is letting these well-intentioned friends know about all this. I can sit around and make excuses for why it’s so hard to tell them, and agonize over every pronoun they mis-use, or I can sit down, have one nice little conversation, and be done with it. After all, they already know right?

As for the other circles – extended friends, acquaintances, work – well, I’m just not going to bother for now. You tell one person, and sooner or later the rest will catch on. And when they do, I don’t have to dread a long-winded explanation about the complexities of my gender, all I have to say is “yeah, I go by he.” And that’s that.

39 thoughts on “A Pronouncement on Pronouns

  1. Wonderful post! I’ve come to about the same conclusion, if my own posts on pronouns are any indication. I may just show this to my family and friends, because you seem to explain things a lot better and in more detail than I do.

  2. I wrote a blog last year about the need for a gender neutral option on government forms. I focused on the biologically neutral statistics, but the concept is certainly applicable for many others. (It’s here: http://shawnbird.com/2011/06/07/xyz/ )

    As to the neutral pronoun issue. As an English teacher, to use of the plural subject pronoun ‘they’ as a neutral pronoun drives me crazy. When writing, I tend to use ‘s/he,’ though that is a little awkward to say. We do have two neutral, singular pronouns in English however, and one of these could be adopted by the gender neutral community: ‘it’ and ‘one.’ While the denotations fit, the connotations of these options offer some complications. Nonetheless, they both function as subject and object pronouns, they are both singular, and they are both neutral.

    Would you consider using either of them? Which? Why?

    All the best with your time of transition. It’s an amazing idea to be able to transform so dramatically. You are choosing who you are in a way that most people will never be able to even fathom.

    1. (BTW – I LOVE the post you linked to. Everybody should read it and take your example.)

      There is controversy over “they” and I personally believe it is not only grammatically correct, but we already use it more than we realize. That said, there are sentence combinations where it gets tricky, and people just don’t seem to get it. (I recommend reading the articles I linked to if you enjoy stimulating grammar talk.)

      For “s/he” – in fact, all the “inclusive” combinations like she or he, ladies and gentlemen, man or woman, etc – those are even worse, since they are trying to be inclusive but still gapingly exclude me, since I am neither he nor she. How about instead using humans, or people, or they?

      I believe a word can have any connotation you want it to, depending on context. So yeah, if you say “it” in a derogatory tone, it will sound derogatory. The use of “it” seems to be split among the gender-neutral / trans* community. I would gladly use “it” but again, people have trouble using “it” for other people in conversation, much like using they.

      Alas, there is no easy way out….

      1. Also, an important aspect to keep in mind here is that I am the _object_ of these pronouns, meaning I’m not the one using them for myself; rather, _other people_ use them for me. In this sense, it’s the other people who are transitioning, which is much harder to accomplish without the right motivation, especially for something so engrained as speech.

    2. hi! i’ll just toss in my two buttons.

      my gender is non-binary and i prefer people to either use my name or singular “they”. through extensive field research, i’ve learned that people WON’T refer to me as “it” unless they’re actually being derogatory. i spent months trying to get people to call me “it”– but nobody would even try. most people are open to singular “they” and/or my name, though.

      @maddox: i seriously love all your posts! they’re always methodical, yet comfortable huzzah!

      1. That is the general experience I hear from people trying to use “it” – which is interesting to note. People who are open and willing to try DO use at least just my name or no pronouns, but almost nobody outside of a trans* online context use “they” for me. It’s good to hear others have better luck with it.

        Seriously, thanks for the praise! I really do hit the “Publish” button and then try very hard not to take it back, thinking “what did I just do? everybody’s going to read all this nonsense!” so at least some of it is good, methodical nonsense.

      2. That’s because “it” is an object pronoun. In the English language, personhood implies gender. The only time people normally get referred to as “it” is at birth, during the process of being assigned a gender: “It’s a girl” or “it’s a boy.” After that, they get referred to by the pronouns assigned in that moment.

  3. Best wishes. I chose to embrace the pronouns of my correct gender, but we are all different, and we all get to choose how we are labelled.

    1. Thanks Nelle! Unfortunately there are really no pronouns for my “correct” gender, and the issue is that sometimes we _don’t always_ get to choose how we are labelled (by others, not ourselves)….

      1. You wrote: “…we _don’t always_ get to choose how we are labelled…”

        That was my point in a recent blog post — not that it’s wrong to want to choose how we are identified, only that it tends to be an uphill battle. As you note, sometimes that’s true even with friends.

        Normally, people use pronouns and gendered terms based on their perception (snap judgment, really). They don’t really think about it. It’s difficult to counteract people’s instincts.

        1. Thanks for linking to your blog post! It is interesting to read your perspective, and that it mirrors mine. Also goes to show we face the same challenges over and over…

  4. I totally hear you on not wanting to go into a huge explanation every time you meet someone though- thats why I still accept “she” for myself, but secretly wish everyone would just spontaneously start using ey/eir/em. I like they, but I know its plural so have a difficult time reconciling it to my own life.

  5. awesome post. definitely feeling similar things, just swap ‘she’ and ‘he’. good luck, you’ll rock it, dude.

  6. Yes, that’s it, charismaticsaredangerous! I’m going with “dude” as Maddox’s pronoun! Wouldn’t it be great if each individual chose their (there’s that singular “their”) own pronoun, and the pronoun was some descriptor of the individual? Maddox, what descriptive word would you choose to be your pronoun of choice?

    1. I’ve recently changed my skype name at work to “Little Awesome” and it seems to be going over well. It’s very fitting too.

  7. I am so happy to read this! The subject of Preferred Pronoun has been on the forefront in my life and my anxious musings for the last few months, and has been in the background of my thoughts for much longer. This serves as a pretty great guide, or perhaps outline, of how to come out with atypical pronouns.

    1. Glad to hear it’s useful. Sometimes I don’t know if what I write makes sense to anyone other than myself (sometimes not even to myself, it seems).

      What’s weird is that it has taken me a year to realize already had the answers, at some level, it just was never clear enough to lay it all out like this.

  8. I read through this, thinking all the while: “this is me”. So much so, it’s hard to believe. I came to the exact same conclusion as you, pronouns-wise, for the same reasons, and am taking the same kind of action with regards to my Less-Close People.

    While I have more binary aims for my transition (so it’s easier for me to “go along with” male pronouns, if that makes any sense at all), it’s very nice to read such a well-expressed post on non-female pronoun options, so thank you!


  9. This is like what I’m going through right now. I’m trigender, but I prefer male pronouns. Some of my friends are good about using the right pronoun, but others are still adjusting I guess.

  10. As the significant other – It has definitely required time and effort for me to switch pronouns, not because I don’t want but because it just requires relearning something and that takes time. “they” feels more natural for me and it comes out easy when we are alone but as soon as you put me in a group of people I start tripping over (I was so proud of myself when I was on a ski lift with my instructor and yelled at Maddox and then turned back and naturally said “oh I was just saying hi to him” ). My safety net has become using Maddox’s name on every sentence to avoid pronouns, it sounds silly but it works. I also love saying “my shorter half” people who know who I’m talking about find it really funny “cause I am already small.”

    Also, without a doubt Spanish was much easier, not sure why, but I only trip over 1 in 1000.

  11. Thanks for this post. The same thing has been happening for me very recently. Last month I came out to a bunch of people and I tend to tell them that while I prefer the pronoun “they”, I can appreciate that sometimes it is difficult to negotiate with our ingrained (if incorrect) notions of what constitutes proper grammar. I then explain that “he” feels pretty good too, but I find “she” upsetting and they should try not to use it. Most people end up using “he” all the time because they find it easier than “they”, and that’s fine by me.

  12. Wonderful. Yes, I find them entirely divisive.

    “I” am “we” and “they”: you think there is benefit me giving a 2 hr cognitive science lecture on how I think neural processing confers personality every time I go for coffee? Hell no. The whole thing is impractical. Also we believe our right to be correctly identified it not that different to the right for the other to call us whatever they want; especially with no malicious intent.

    Maybe in class I’d insist on a pronoun, but only because teachers would be bound by it with some legal constraints, as well as PC norms, and we get bored easily. Plus the social interface tends to be a “he”.

    Though, that probably isn’t strictly accurate. Actually he doesn’t even have a name. I don’t even talk in plural, because of the same reasons. But i do think that way, effortlessly as well; not from practice but rather because it is correct. Natural for that reason.

    I appreciate you walking us through your process to choose “he”. Gross morphology is an interesting leading cause for hormones though; but again I haven’t read the HuffPst panel nor the second piece I glanced on your dosing.

    And we are genderless, but dominant sex drive is another one of those biological cues that seems IN-ARGUABLY towards the male end of the spectrum (though, people will argue – especially self identified feminists: nb that’s only from experience too, not to group feminists ^^).

    That stark reality was difficult for me to reconcile for a long time. And indeed the newest neuropsychiatry shows those sex seeking regions to be on average ~300% larger in male brains, from IU and the pre and pubescent T-rone spikes. It appears to be life long too; such that on average “men” and “women” tend to equal in sex drive only in the twilight years.

    I like your writing. Thanks again. ❤

  13. I’m with you about pronouns. Neutral is best for me but hard to achieve in real life. I haven’t switched over from “she” yet and get sir occasionally which is ok. I never correct anyone. I don’t usually let pronouns bother me much in public unless someone makes a big deal about it. Lately a teller at my bank has suddenly started calling me madame multiple times during my transaction with her. I find it incredibly unnerving and don’t know whether I should say something to her about it. Personally, I’d really prefer if people didn’t feel they need to use the formal sir or ma’am, let alone MADAME!! Along this vein I’ve been wondering how to deal with my niece and what she should call me. I don’t mind aunt too much and uncle is actually more weird for me. And what about when someone goes out of their way to call you a WOMAN or LADY? I had a co-worker that always called me lady when she saw me…as in “Hey lady, how are you today?” UGGG!! I find most people get that hurt look when you say something about this stuff like, “I didn’t mean any harm. Why are you picking on me?” It’s very frustrating! Thanks for your posts!

    1. The people who go out of their to say “Madame” are a mystery to me. I also had a co-worker who called “hey girl” every single time. I guess they are either really upset at our gender ambiguity, or want to be super polite and open minded or feel smart by “figuring out” our gender.

      Your niece can just call you by your name. In my family we don’t use honorifics for family members.

  14. It’s so refreshing to see someone in such a similar situation, and it’s nice to know that the “solutions” I usually consider are already being used by someone else! I don’t know, I’m still closeted, so it’s nice to see that’s it’s.. Valid, I guess? I’m Peruvian, so my first language is also spanish (and my girlfriend is Mexican so she speaks in spanish as well), and even though I’m much more comfortable with neutral pronouns in english, I’m rather okay with he/him, while completely repelled by she/her (and my birth name, and most girl-words). I don’t think I’ll ever come out in Peru, but I’d like to move to the US soon (preferably next year for grad school), and hopefully things will get better there.

    It’s nice to know that someone is already living it. I’ve read some of your entries and most of the things that you’ve done or have thought about doing are the same things I’d like to try. So, thank you for your blog, it has given me a bit of hope (and courage)!

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