Image Credits - Alexander Grey

Mandatory pronoun sharing – progressive or regressive?

What we get wrong about pronouns

When asked by a student how many genders exist, Joe Biden replied, “at least three”, epitomising the west’s current attitude towards gender and (the sharing of) pronouns. The corporate, liberal world is floating in a fearful limbo of treating queer and gender non-conforming people in a certain (correct) way. We’ve all found ourselves in a space -be it educational, professional, social or activist- where some well-meaning coordinator or group leader has nervously asked everyone to share names and pronouns. Whose benefit is this for? 

In our highly gendered society, even in an era of relative, albeit precarious,  LGBTQI+ rights and awareness of gender subversions, the burning question on everyone’s mind still seems to be “what is your gender?” (read: “what’s in your pants?”). This curiosity hangs in the air even before the fateful question of name and pronouns is uttered. Bewildered fascination is tangible in any space a queer-person enters. How different really is going around a circle of (majority) cis people hurriedly sharing their pronouns while waiting for the gender non-conforming person to validate or dispel their presumptions (presumptions they made as soon as they saw them), to a teenager on a bus shouting at you from a few rows back: “what are you? a boy or a girl?”.

English is not a language that necessitates the use of pronouns, she/he/they/xe or any other combination of pronouns can easily be substituted by referring to a person by their name or addressing the person directly. What cannot be substituted linguistically is the power-dynamics and relationships that accompany gender; the contemporary largely globalised conceptualisation of gender is born from colonial conquest, the obliteration of alternative imaginings of gender and closely related to the modes of production expected and required from different people. 

The bizarre fascination and obsession of cis people in asking (and knowing) others’ pronouns lies in a need to reaffirm their faith in a (hyper)gendered world and the comfort of being able to fit others into neat identitarian boxes, understanding their fundamental selves within the first sentences that are uttered. The catering of sharing pronouns to cis comfort and ease over respect of trans people is reflected in the fierce rejection of these practices by many radical queer and trans people:

 “The ‘I’ in ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’ is not an ‘I’ which transcends those statements. Those statements do not reveal a truth about the ‘I’, rather they constitute the ‘I’. Man and Woman do not exist as labels for certain metaphysical or essential categories of b  eing, they are rather discursive, social, and linguistic symbols which are historically contingent.’’

 How then, can a queer person be understood through binary systems and boxes to be filled when to be queer is to break-out of binaries and systems of essentializing categorisation.

Of course, creating spaces free of predisposed assumptions about gender that are inclusive, and welcoming is by no means a bad thing. Indeed, for queer or trans people who have recently come out or simply wish to share their pronouns and gender identity as part of how they wish to be understood by the world, it is by all means positive. 

The light prompt of everyone sharing their pronouns can be a helpful and comforting ritual, especially in queer majority spaces. However, spaces that ask participants to share their pronouns in order to create genuinely safe and inclusive queer spaces are unfortunately a minority. Such spaces and groups may also seek to encourage and foster stronger interpersonal bonds and interactions, that in themselves negate the need to have a “on-the-spot” surface level sharing of pronouns. Our knowledge of each other comes from understanding one another and communicating/interacting on a deeper level.

 However even the most radical and progressive spaces do not exist outside a gendered world. To see this, you need look no further than spaces or parties that are existing “for women and non-binary people”, falling into the trap of feminising gender non-conforming people and assuming a minimum standard of femininity to gender queer people and reinforcing gender essentialism. How many genders are there? at least three, and of those, at least two would appear to be synonyms for “woman”. In a gendered and difficult-to-navigate world, the sharing of pronouns can often provide some path to exoteric recognition and understanding.

And so, radical spaces aside, we arrive at corporate hijacking of queerness, pink washing and assimilation of queerness and gender nonconformity. Institutions and workplaces have diversity quotas to meet, inclusivity policies to write. And while some of this must be credited to queer peoples’ battles over the decades to create fairer and more inclusive social spaces, the conversation on gender identity in contemporary society cannot be had, without discussing co-optation and neutralisation of radical revolutionary movements into the mainstream. 

‘Where there is power there is resistance’ Foucault tells us, yet by creating the illusion that there is no longer a power imbalance, that all quotas are met, all inclusivity policies adhered to, that gender no longer plays a role in an individual’s socialisation, the radical resistance of years past can (in theory) be subdued and in time, abandoned. 

 Our concept and perception of gender, though influenced and changed, is malleable not solely by queer people or a radical movement but by those who have the power to create training, briefings, narratives and processes. Gender roles are not what they once were, but this change rather than liberating us, ties us down into new assumptions, power-dynamics and gender relations, reflecting a new sort of capitalist globalised society. 

That is, gender as we understand it in the female/male binary is a product of western colonialism and the industrial revolution, and in turn, gender as we see it changing, while we have little part in this change, runs parallel to a more individualised, globalised and intense version of western colonial-capitalism. The rules of the game have changed but the game prevails.

Sharing pronouns must be understood in the context of an era of isolation and individualisation, when people seek out community wherever it exists; “An endless set of positive political projects have marked the road we currently travel; an infinite set of pronouns, pride flags, and labels. The current movement within trans politics has sought to try to broaden gender categories, in the hope that we can alleviate their harm. This is naive.” 

We cannot “do gender differently”. Rather than being helpful and inclusive, systems of sharing pronouns and identities are instead forcing people to choose and cling to these identities as a path to community and acceptance even when they don’t necessarily represent them wholly. Cis comfort is prioritised over allowing queer people to develop, discover and be inquisitive about themselves, their identities and communities. People are expected to discover -and know- themselves within systems structurally embedded in categorisations and binaries.

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