once more . . . with feeling
by MISTER dean spade
lately my life is about pronoun enforcement. it’s one of my primary social occupations. how did things end up this way? how paradoxical: my trans project is about destroying rigid gender, and occupying multiple, contradictory subject positions and non-cohesive gender characteristics, but i spend all this time enforcing ‘he.’ have i turned into a dreaded gender defender? no, it’s not that. every day i’m forced to confront the fact that most people, even people I expect to meet me with thrilled excitment about the work i’m doing with my own body and mind and the minds of others to destabilize gender, can’t handle calling someone ‘he’ who they used to call ‘she’ or who doesn’t ‘look like a boy’ to them. of course, if you’re with me, you start noticing that no one, and everyone, looks like a boy.
so when i ask to be called ‘he,’ these are the things i get back, (all from people i truly believe have good intentions and would say they support me and trans people generally) and this is what i think about it:
category 1: burden shifting. two versions exist. the first occurs when i meet someone and let them know in the conversation that i prefer the pronouns ‘he,’ ‘him,’ and ‘his’ and they say something like ‘that’s hard’ or ‘you’ll have to be patient with me’ or ‘correct me when i mess up.’ it’s usually its a combo of those. the second version is the person who has known me for a while and knows i go by ‘he’ but continually uses ‘she’ when referring to me. when i remind them, they say ‘c’mon, i’m trying’ or ‘c’mon, i get it right most of the time.’
these people are telling the truth. it is very hard to make pronouns into a concious process instead of an assumption based on social signals that we’ve all been trained in from birth. however, their willingness to fail at the difficult task of thinking where non-thinking has existed is not okay. it is inexcusably short-sighted to look at this difficulty only from an individualized perspective of how hard it is, rather than from a understanding of it as a political condition imposed upon everyone. it’s understandable to feel daunted when coming up against a new and difficult concept and use of language, but it’s not okay to refuse critical engagment and expect those whose identity positions you foreclose to be infinitely patient.
there is no innocence nor insignificance to the mistake of ‘she’ for ‘he’ when referring to a person who has chosen to take on a ‘wrong’ pronoun. even if it is done thoughtlessly, that thoughtlessness comes from and supports the two cardinal rules of gender: that all people must look like the gender (one out of a possible two) they are called by, and that gender is fixed and cannot be changed. each time this burden shifting occurs, the non-trans person affirms these gender rules, playing by them and letting me know that they will not do the work to see the world outside of these rules.
in addition, and this is where the burden shifting gets more apparent, by expecting that they will always be corrected when they mess up, and that i’ll only reasonably expect compliance with my proferred pronoun part-time, they make sure that the burden of breaking the rules stays with me. in reality, by following and enforcing the rules which tell them to call ‘she’ people who ‘look like a girl,’ they burden me with the rules of gender fixation. this effectively makes the problems arising from gender confusion the responsibility of the confusing person -- the trans person -- rather than the result of a diabolically rigid gender system that screws over everyone’s ability to fully inhabit their lives.
as i mentioned before, the people who give me burden-shifting responses often identify with feminist politics, and would agree to the principle that gender rigidity and hierarchy is terrible and that people should be able to change their gender positions and identification and change the meaning of traditional gender identifications. however, they still let me know, when they give me the burden of how hard it is for them or how they get it right most of the time, that what i’m asking them to do and to re-think is just too much to expect. it isn’t. it is possible to change how you think about pronouns. it’s confusing and wonderful and totally fucks up your ability to navigate dichotomous gender easily and that is the point. if you aren’t confused and frustrated by trying to use words like ‘he’ and ‘she’ to label everyone in the world, then you should be working harder.
category two: to be a transvictim. a popular response to my complaints about the pronoun enforcement problem is a sympathetic discourse about ‘respect.’ i got this from quite a few people after the gay shame fiasco where i was introduced on stage as ‘she’ before i spoke. many of the wonderful people who were also outraged by this described it as an issue of ‘respect’ and of not making a trans safe space at gay shame. though there is a respect problem and it does in fact make the space unsafe for trans people, this approach individualizes the problem to trans people. when i hear non-trans people say that i should get called by the pronoun i choose as a matter of respecting my choice, it almost feels like a tolerance argument. as if trans people are these different people, and when they come around you should respect their difference, but do no more. this lines up with a view that all ‘different’ people, whether disabled, old, immigrant, of color, trans, gay, etc, should be ‘respected’ by calling them what they want, but that the fundamental fact of their difference and of the existence of a norm should not be analyzed. often, this view accompanies a perspective of these different people as victims, sort of pathetic outsiders who others should smile at and maybe have a special day at work or school where we all discuss how difference is good.
the thing is, i’m not looking for people to mindlessly force themselves to call me ‘he’ in order to avoid making me uncomfortable. if comfort was my goal, i could probably have found a smoother path than the one i’m on, right? i haven’t chosen this word ‘he’ because it means something true to me, or it feels all homey and delicious. no pronoun feels personal to me. i’ve chosen it because the act of saying it, of looking at the body i’m in and the way that my gender has been identified since birth and then calling me ‘he,’ disrupts oppressive processes that fix everyone’s gender as ‘real,’ immutable, and determinative of your station in life. i’m not hoping that people will see that i’m different, paste a fake smile on their faces and force themselves to say some word about me with no thought process. i’m hoping that they will feel implicated, that it will make them think about the realness of everyone’s gender, that it will make them feel more like they can do whatever they want with their gender, or at least cause a pause where one normally would not exist. quite likely, this will be uncomfortable for all of us, but i believe that becoming uncomfortable with the oppressive system of rigid gender assignment is a great step toward undoing it.
so, go ahead, try thinking outside the confines of ‘tolerance’ taught by the diversity trainings you were given at college or work or on TV. challenge yourself to do more than mimic respectful behavior that will make individual ‘differerent people’ feel at home. instead, take a look at what those differences mean, how they got invented, what they are based on, and how they determine behavior, power, access, and language. respect and safe space are a good start, and usually a hard-fought accomplishment, but i certainly fantasize about a more engaged approach to difference.