Let’s talk about pronouns.
Everyone has pronouns. (He, she, hers, his) Everyone uses pronouns. (They, them, theirs.) But not everyone quite understands the importance of them. (Zis, zir, ve, vir.)
I was at a meeting recently and we were talking about pronouns, and I mentioned that in my social circles, it has become common to ask what a person’s pronouns are when meeting them.
(As in, “Hi, I’m Alex.” “Hi, I’m Ekie. I go by she/her/hers. What pronouns do you prefer?” Or if you’re going around doing introductions, “I’m Huckleberry. I go by they.”)
Anyway, I said this, and an older guy said, “they don’t do that at the parties I go to!” and he laughed, and other people laughed, but I didn’t laugh, because it wasn’t funny.
Pronouns are not funny.
Pronouns are tiny words wrapped up in history and fear and pain and sexism and homophobia and violence and politics and privilege and they are serious. They are deadly serious because people have been murdered over being transgender. Murdered, just for being who they are.
But perhaps I should back up a bit? I tend to assume that everyone has the same basic knowledge that I do, but as my roommate likes to remind me, I live in a bubble of some of the most liberal people anywhere and I tend to forget that not everyone is lucky enough, like I am, to have friends all over the spectrum of sexuality.
So: transgender means that a person was born with typical male or female anatomy but whose identity is of the opposite gender. Gender identity is a range of characteristics typically attributed to people with female body parts or people with male body parts. Sexual identity is who you think of yourself in terms of who you are attracted to, like lesbian. Cross-dressers are people who enjoy wearing clothes of the opposite gender, but who do not identify as that gender. Transsexual is an outdated word that shouldn’t be used anymore.
I was born female, and I identify as female. This is a privilege. When you are born female, but identify as male, or born male but identify as female, life is a lot harder because you need to deal with discrimination and having people question your identity on a regular basis. You have to deal with the fact that in most states, there is no protection whatsoever against people discriminating against you. You have to deal with the very real fact that your life is in danger because people may not like how you have claimed your identity. (http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/11/more-transgender-people-have-been-murdered-2015-any-other-year-record) You have to deal with people who, when casually asked their pronoun, reply, “your majesty”.
Which brings us back to pronouns.
When people act as though pronouns are not a big deal, when they say, “it doesn’t matter” or “whatever” they are expressing their privilege. They are saying, this is not important enough to me to even think about. They are saying, isn’t it obvious that I’m a male/female? What a ridiculous question. They are making fun of people. They are being mean.
Asking people’s pronouns is such an easy thing to do. It levels the playing field, it makes things equal for everyone. When you ask everyone their pronouns, you are not singling out people who are transgender or who do not look traditionally male or female. You are giving people who might not identify as the gender they appear to be an easy way to state their preference. You are helping people with low or no vision or faceblindness. You are saying, “Who are you? I want to know. Who you are, and who you identify as, matters to me.” You are making things less awkward for people so you don’t have to whisper, “is Alex a boy or a girl?” in a corner of the party.
I identify as autistic. It is an important part of my identity. And just as my friends respect, accept and embrace that part of my identity, I respect, accept and embrace all the parts of their identity. It doesn’t mean I will not get things wrong sometimes, especially if I have known them by one set of pronouns for years and they change, but it does mean that I am willing to acknowledge my mistakes and apologize. It is being an ally. It is…….actually not that hard.
Postscript: Except when it is. When I’m exhausted or my sensory system is going haywire, honestly, you’re lucky to get speech out of me, much less proper pronouns. The absence of ‘he’ ‘she’ and ‘they’ in my speech is actually one of my easiest ways of telling when I am on the verge of a meltdown. Then everyone becomes ‘you’ as my brain struggles to process anything, except in the case of a few people that I become echolalic around. But this was meant to be a post about being an ally, not being autistic. Turns out that, as in all other areas of my life, I cannot ever really separate the two.
No matter how confusing English is, though, I remain very glad that I communicate in a language where a person’s pronoun is the same to everyone. There are lots of languages where you have to determine if your relationship is formal or informal and use the appropriate ‘you’ then – I could never do that, and I honestly do not understand how autistics in Germany or, you know, the rest of the world, cope.