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The Pronoun Dilemma

Dr Yarrow AndrewFlinders University

One of my dilemmas as an academic, and one who researches gender issues, is how to enact my beliefs and values as a researcher in my relationships with colleagues, students, and the wider public. I identify as non-binary, which to many people I encounter is a mysterious concept. That means pronouns are always an issue for me. I have been delighted to see this become a more prominent issue in recent years, with activists devoting efforts to promoting pronoun alternatives, or scholars giving their backing to stigmatised grammatical forms.

When people ask me what my preferred pronoun is, I will happily tell them it/its, but I usually add that I am fine with they/them, because I know that ‘it’ can be confronting for some people to use. Honestly, I am pretty comfortable with any non-gendered pronouns – I am pleased to see people remembering and trying to respect my gender identity. However I also know how long it took me to work through my own transphobia, and language habits, so that I didn’t misgender myself – a subject that is not often talked about. I still occasionally make mistakes, because I have spent so much more of my life conforming to a binary gender system than moving beyond it, which is why I tend to be pretty forgiving of others making similar mistakes.

This is all pretty straightforward – Post-Gender 101, if you like. Where it gets tricky is working out under what circumstances I should call people out on this, which is where it becomes a sociological question. I am a lecturer within a university, and so have a reasonable amount of status and access to discursive power within this place, even if I am not particularly powerful within the university hierarchy. When undergraduate students misgender me in my hearing, should I correct them? I struggle with this, because I am conscious that from their perspective I am perceived of as an authority figure, and certainly have influence over their lives in terms of grading their work in my classes. I sometimes correct students by email, but certainly not publicly, seeing this as an unnecessary imposition on the pedagogical relationship that we have. I do make students aware of my gender and preferred pronouns in the introductory class, but after that I feel I have to live with how they read my gender, however this makes me feel.

With colleagues, I usually have to think hard about whether I have a meaningful ongoing relationship with this person, and what the costs and benefits are of correcting them. I work in a large school of education, so I have many colleagues I know by name, but only a few I work with more closely, in terms of teaching into particular courses or subjects. So, for example, with a senior academic I work with, I did raise the issue of their misgendering of me. With younger colleagues this is less of an issue, and many embrace the challenge of gender-neutral pronouns with enthusiasm.

In an everyday sense, this hardly matters. I find it distressing to be misgendered, but I can at least be philosophical about it, musing over the ways that gender perceptions are rooted deeply within our speech and thoughts. We seem, as a society, to have a significant taboo around getting someone’s gender pronouns wrong, and so we learn early to make astute judgements about where someone identifies within a binary-gender model, and then ‘pronoun’ them accordingly (an effect of bigenderism, an issue discussed expertly by Lucy Nicholas). Curiously, in calling attention to my desire not to be described as ‘he/him’ (as I am most often read as male), I seem to challenge this taboo, and can get an angry reaction, as if I have told someone they are incompetent in their ability to recognise gender.

Where this gets most difficult for me, and where it is hard to brush off, is where I am referred to as gendered in various public ways, such as in emails that I am copied into, or when others speak of me in front of an audience as male, not realising that this is simply an assumption they have made. It is often challenging to think of a respectful way to correct this person which will not shame them in front of others, and thus damage our ongoing professional relationship. It presents a difficult dilemma for me, because this is not about my relationship with an immediate other, in which I can make an assessment of whether their misapprehension is worth correcting. Instead this is about them advertising their misunderstanding to others, effectively announcing my gender to a group of people, many of whom I have never met, and who will now propagate this misunderstanding further. It is easy to feel powerless in this situation, as the misrecognition by others propagates much faster than my own attempts to assert my identity more accurately.

As an LGBT-identified person, I have come out in various places and ways over the last twenty or thirty years, and I know that this is not a one-off action, but an ongoing, and sometimes wearisome process. Nonetheless, there is a sense that word does get out about my sexual identities, and that this can be reinforced in various ways by my gendered performances. In addition, sexuality is not considered relevant in many social contexts or situations, making this issue a manageable one. In contrast, gender infuses even the most trivial aspects of everyday life, making a non-binary coming out a seemingly never-ending process. At times this can even take on a comical edge. Recently I overheard, through the thin walls of my university office, a colleague refer to me by name on the phone to an unknown other. They then proceeded to misgender me repeatedly for the remainder of the conversation. Should I storm into their office, interrupt the phone conversation, and demand to be referred to in ways that do not perturb me? Of course not! Yet I am aware that this functioned as a micro-aggression, derailing my emotions on that day in ways that were hard to recover from quickly.

I remain conscious of how much privilege I do have, across all sorts of domains, and that this is not a huge problem. I know also that I am living through a short moment in history where genderqueer and non-binary identities remain largely unintelligible and unimaginable, Miley Cyrus notwithstanding, making this ideally a very temporary phenomenon, prior to a greater normalisation of multiple gender identities. Does anyone have any thoughts on effective interventions around this pronoun issue? Have you found graceful or amusing ways to correct people? Are we awaiting the development of recognisable performances of genderqueer identity, in ways that will do this work without all the tedious reminders. What might these behavioural or fashion signifiers look like?

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