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Opinion: Community Voices – The pronoun predicament

by Sondra Wilson

Recently I joined a local transgender support group, hoping to connect with people who have similar goals, challenges, trauma, and experiences. What I did not realize when joining, however, is that there is an ideological split causing an unfortunate rift between two types of transgender people: binary trans folk and non-binary (“enby”) trans folk. The disagreement has to do with whether or not it’s appropriate to ask people, “What pronouns do you use?” 

Within the past few years, this question emerged and is now frequently asked within LGBTQ+ circles. It is also promoted to people outside the community as being both appropriate and thoughtful to ask. The purpose is to give people the opportunity to identify themselves as either he/him, she/her, or other pronouns often used by enbies, such as they/them or ze/zir. While many enbies and allies insist that we normalize the practice of asking pronouns to prevent people from being misgendered, many trans women express that being asked feels triggering, hurtful, and rude.

Many trans women put a lot of time and effort into our physical appearance to increase our chances of “passing”. We don’t like being clocked as trans, not only for our emotional well-being but also because it can compromise our safety. This is why many of us may seem touchy when asked what pronouns we use. For many, “What pronouns do you use?” sounds exactly like, “Are you a man or a woman?”

Proponents argue that trans women who take this position are being insensitive. After all, we know how much it hurts to be misgendered. Therefore we should look out for other trans-folk (enbies) by encouraging people to ask and asking others when introducing ourselves. 

Although many trans women and enbies fall on their respective sides of this issue, some agree with the opposing view. Some women don’t feel triggered when asked, and others do. Regardless, the asking movement is gaining steam. It’s time we look at how people are responding. How this issue is handled will affect our everyday lives and the lives of people for generations to come.

Enbies and Binaries – what’s the difference?

When most people hear the term “transgender”, they think about a male who is turning into a female (male-to-female/trans woman) or a female turning into a male (female-to-male/trans man). We call these two types mtf and ftm for short. They are also called binary trans because they represent the binary genders: male and female. For decades these types are what the vast majority of people meant when discussing transgenderism. 

Non-binary people, also called gender non-conforming or genderqueer, represent a spectrum of identities not exclusively masculine or feminine. “These are all terms that have come out of personal experience,” said Dr. Lou Himes, a non-binary clinical psychologist based in New York City. “That means there are no concrete definitions to go by. Plus, these terms are relatively new to academia, medicine, and mainstream discourse. The beauty of that: each person can interpret their differences for themselves and identify with the one that resonates most with them … [M]any people identify with all these terms and use them interchangeably. [Many] identify with only one of these terms. Interpretations about the specific differences between them vary. But one thing always remains true: if you are going to refer to someone’s identity, you should always ask what label they prefer, and stick to that one.”

Non-binary people may identify as having two or more genders (bigender or trigender); having no gender (agender, nongendered, genderless); moving between genders, or having a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid), or being third gender.

A major difference between enby and binary trans people is that almost all binaries undergo hormone replacement therapy and corrective surgeries in order to physically transition. Most, but not all, enbies do not. As a result, many enbies are not easy to spot. You would not know simply by looking at them that they are non-binary. For example, many biological females dress and act according to socially prescribed female gender roles, but identify as non-binary, and therefore do not use she/her pronouns. A genderfluid person might dress in women’s clothing and makeup one day, then men’s clothing the next. Their pronouns, in turn, may fluctuate or remain static. Binary and enby transgender experiences are often radically different from one another. Our shared goal is acceptance.

Trans women face extraordinary amounts of violence and harassment:

Many trans women face violence, verbal abuse, and harassment on a regular basis. Although most LGBTQ+ people relate to being bullied, trans women have it especially difficult. We cannot hide the fact that we’re “out” from anybody, not even for a moment. Enby, gay, and other LGBTQ+ folk often have the safety and assurance of being able to choose how, when, and with whom they come out. They also get to decide who not to come out to. It is considered rude to out someone without their permission. As a result, these groups tend to be harassed less than trans women are. This is why trans women require additional consideration when discussing pronouns. 

The most common form of verbal abuse trans women experience is being misgendered. Although sometimes done by accident (especially by people who knew us before we transitioned), it is often done with malice — the perpetrator emphasizes the pronoun in order to let us know their disapproval. Others misgender us because of what they’ve been taught. For instance, they heard on television or from someone else that trans women are men. Regardless of the reasoning, being misgendered causes emotional suffering and surfaces lingering insecurities.

Physical safety is also an issue. I’ve been attacked on several occasions on account of a stranger’s prejudice towards trans women. In more than one of these situations I was nearly beaten to death. Although I am fortunate to have escaped these situations, many women did not survive. From what I have seen, the majority of violence, hate crimes, and harassment against trans people is done against trans women.

Many trans women suffer from PTSD and trauma-induced anxiety. For me, when harassment occurs, past experiences begin to replay in my mind. In a work environment, I can no longer function and need to leave to regain composure. Heightened anxiety, caused by fear of imminent danger, serves as a survival mechanism. It is great for preventing a worst-case scenario by compelling me to promptly leave the situation; however, it is terrible for functioning in the here and now. 

Other trauma-induced mental health problems trans women suffer from include depression and thoughts of suicide. The suicide rate for binary trans people is nearly 10 times the national average. Grief, sadness, anger, fear, feelings of abandonment, and a myriad of other feelings upwell as a result of the mistreatment we commonly endure. Being asked about our pronouns can trigger these feelings.

Collage of transgender murder victims in 2018

Non-transitioning enbies are generally safer than trans women:

Most binary trans folk are prescribed hormones and undergo drastic physical changes, sometimes including surgery. This process can be perceived by the public as shameful and perverted. Conversely, an enby’s appearance may grant them the safety and privilege cisgender people enjoy. Just as people possess white privilege, enbies who appear cis are said to have cisgender privilege. This can even benefit them economically. While trans people have much higher poverty rates than non-trans folk, cis-passing people often don’t suffer the consequences of non-passing people.

Photos of people who identify as non-binary

Trans women get singled out to be asked our pronouns:

Although many LGBTQ+ community members insist we ask everyone, it is neither safe nor practical in many cases. 

For example, most LGBTQ+ folk aren’t going to compromise their safety by asking every Joe Shmoe Trump supporter what pronouns they use. The answer is obvious and some may act hostile when asked. For me, this makes me not want to ask about half of the population.

Trump supporters celebrate at a rally

Another scenario where it feels uncomfortable is when I first meet people. For example, when encountering a group of women, it’s not customary to ask them for their pronouns. Their pronouns are assumed based on their appearance. It is not only natural for people to instantly think of them as women, it is not a social norm to address them by anything other than “she”. Expecting trans women to ask them their pronouns puts us into a self-outing scenario, and I, for one, do not want them to ask in return. Furthermore, we do, at times, get verbally abused by cis women who perceive us to be men. Unwittingly provoking a woman with such views puts us at risk.

A group of women walk casually downtown

By presenting unambiguously female through my dress, grooming, etc., I am deliberately signaling, through widely understood cultural norms, my gender, and thus my pronouns. This is because I do, in fact, want my gender to be assumed. It is the goal I have worked and sacrificed for because I gain psychological comfort and satisfaction from participating in life and society as a female. Within the past few years, however, I feel like some in the LGBTQ+ community have challenged this form of nonverbal communication as illegitimate. Urging people to ask trans people, and others, what pronouns we use is inadvertently undermining the work that trans folk have been doing for generations.

A transgender woman

With roughly ⅔ of the population exempt from being asked, is it fair to target trans women based on physical characteristics we have no control over? Promoting asking inadvertently reinforces the targeting of trans women, even if we encourage people to ask “everyone”.

Just call us “she”:

While not every trans woman feels triggered when asked what pronouns we use, many do not want to be poked or prodded in any way about our gender or pronouns. We’re tired of sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere we go. We want to be treated like attractive, run-of-the-mill girls. 

Blending in, however, is usually a long-term goal which takes years and even decades to achieve, and for many this goal is never reached. Our masculine physiological characteristics are too pronounced. Facial feminization surgery —  which is actually amazing and does help us pass —  is financially out of reach for many, and few insurance companies cover it. Therefore, passing is a luxury. The best many of us can hope for is that when people do ‘clock’ us, they’re educated and respectful enough to simply call us she. There’s nothing more comforting than when someone doesn’t skip a beat and just says she.

Ohio resident Brianna Witt shared her feelings, “I personally like being called she/her at first glance. I need that affirmation. Being asked or defaulting to they/them almost seems like I don’t appear woman enough, or I look so questionable that I’m failing.”

Although many well-meaning people within the LGBTQ+ community are advocating to normalize the asking of pronouns, many of us within the community feel misrepresented. I think we need to find another way to support our enby allies, because this question is inadvertently causing harm to women in the trans community.

Thank you so much for reading. Please leave feedback below or send to Distance@WildWillpower.org

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian The author, Sondra Wilson, is a freelance author and founder of Wild Willpower PAC (www.WildWillpower.org). She began hormone replacement therapy in 2003 at age 23 and is currently seeking to raise funds for facial feminization surgery and gender reassignment surgery.  Here is the link to her fundraiser: https://fundly.com/alexandra-s-ffs-transition-fund 

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