In September 2018, Rachel Levin published an op-ed at the online news site Inside HigherEd about the vogue for asking students’ “personal pronouns” as part of first-day activities in college courses.
Such practices have been encouraged in recent years as a way for instructors to signal support for transgender or gender non-binary students who may use pronouns different from what might be assumed based on their appearance. For example, a student might outwardly appear feminine and a woman, but identify as a man and use masculine or gender-neutral personal pronouns.
Despite being promoted as a gesture of support and inclusion, Levin described several examples where the practice of asking a person’s pronouns had a contrary effect. It can force transgender students to choose between lying or publicly disclosing their transgender status to a roomful of strangers on the first day of a class. Or, it can imply to a transgender person that they’re not successfully presenting their gender in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.
Others have written how the provision of gender pronouns highlight a person’s gender, often to the detriment of women. These examples show how even well-intended gestures of inclusion can have unintended harmful consequences.
As a university professor who regularly teaches courses on gender and sexuality, including LGBTQ Studies courses, I’m committed to creating a classroom environment where transgender and gender non-binary students feel comfortable and supported. And I also feel that “mis-gendering” transgender people by intentionally referring to them using incorrect gender pronouns is a form of verbal violence akin to a hate crime.
And, yet, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with requests to provide “my pronouns” in activist, community organization, and professional settings. Lately, I just respond with, “I don’t care. Use whatever pronouns you want.” But Levin’s essay opened space for me to explore the feelings of discomfort and, frankly, fraudulence, I experience every time I’m asked to “give my pronouns.” Because how I really want to respond is, “No, you can’t have my pronouns!” Here’s why:
Requests to “give your pronouns” purport to be an inclusive gesture aimed at creating a more welcoming space for transgender and gender non-binary people. But they’re actually an exercise in power; a form of social coercion that only masquerades as inclusion. In linguistic terms, such requests “position” the recipient of the request against their will and without their permission.
Requests for pronouns offer those present three choices: respond honestly to the request; refuse to respond; or lie. I hope it’s clear that lying is neither ethical nor consistent with the creation of an inclusive or welcoming space where everyone is free to be their authentic selves. But refusing to respond or rejecting the request can come with potentially negative repercussions. That’s because requests for one’s pronouns often occur in social settings marked by an imbalance of power — the classroom, the workplace, community organizations, etc.
Refusing to respond to a pronoun request in such settings can be interpreted as insensitivity to the concerns of transgender people or lack of concern for inclusion and diversity. It potentially opens one to accusations of intolerance, discrimination, or even transphobia. Similar vulnerability accompanies even questioning the purpose or appropriateness of such a request.
Acceding to requests for one’s pronouns does not mitigate the imbalance of power that accompanies such requests. Nor does failing to recognize that pronoun requests can be coercive or making such requests with benevolent intents. Just because such requests are well intended doesn’t mean they don’t occur in social contexts marked by power inequity.
Thus, a request for “your pronouns” isn’t a request at all. It’s a subtle but powerful demand that effectively dis-ables the recipient of the request and threatens negative consequences for any questioning or resistance.
Like all questions, requests to provide one’s pronouns contain the answer within the question. Asking someone “their pronouns” is asking them to give an account of themselves in terms dictated by the request: verbally communicate the personal gender pronouns one wishes others to use when referring to oneself.
Those pronouns entail describing one’s experience with gender — usually one’s gender identity — in terms of the personal pronouns provided in available language. Though expanding, the options in English are limited: she/her, he/him, they/them, etc. (Other languages are more thoroughly ‘gendered’ than English but some do not have gendered pronouns at all.)
All these “gender pronouns” imply one’s gender is a static or fixed condition, reducible to words comprised of a few short letters. The expectation upon provision of one’s pronouns is that those small words accurately describe one’s gender and are to be used in perpetuity, unless other, similarly limiting, pronouns are provided to replace them. However, the implication of such language (that gender is static and fixed) does not reflect many individual experiences with gender or contemporary understandings of how gender works.
Speaking just for myself: though I’m male, I’ve never strongly identified as a man but don’t object when others use masculine pronouns (he, him, his) when referring to me. But during my junior year of college I took to wearing a black feather boa to class in an attempt to resist the stifling hetero-normativity of my very conservative school. (The faculty were quite amused.) And, gay men like me still occasionally refer to other gays using feminine pronouns like “sis,” “gurl,” “she,” and “her.” Though I don’t really feel my gender identity is in flux, my gender presentation and gender pronouns have changed with time and context. Which ones should I offer when asked?
Today, we understand the apparent stability of gender to be constituted through repeated, mundane social performances. Gender appears something that ‘is’ because we endlessly ‘do gender.’ And, though there’s some room for improvisation, everyday gender performances are constrained by social, cultural, and historical contexts. Derogatory terms like “tomboy” and “throwing like a girl” both speak to the social constraints on gender performances and the possibility of performing gender in ways not licensed by society. Some girls do climb trees and some boys do “throw like a girl.”
Even the biological and physiological contributions of the body to one’s gender identity and gendered social status exist in a dynamic, interactive relationship with social, cultural, and environmental contexts. Our bodies change over the course of our lives as they contribute to and record our ongoing individual and social experiences in a gendered society. Though commonly understood as a fixed, stable thing, increasingly we understand gender as more of an ongoing, lifelong process. At both the theoretical and experiential levels, gender is less something we are and more something we do. Or, rather, gender is something we are because it’s something we do endlessly.
The messy, personal, and ongoing quality of gender cannot be adequately captured by gender pronouns that imply our gender is stable, fixed, or constant. It is in this sense that all gender pronouns are, at best, provisional, and, at worst, lies. My gender now is not the same as my gender when I typed these words.
When I began to explore my feelings about being asked to “provide my pronouns,” I started wondering why transgender or gender non-binary people would want to encourage this practice, at all.
Requiring people to give an account of themselves in terms of gender is a form of what trans legal scholar Dean Spade has termed “administrative violence”: the kinds of everyday violence committed by agents and agencies of the state that are “just” following the rules or doing their jobs.
Driver license applications, medical intake forms, college applications, etc. all routinely ask applicants to disclose their gender in terms provided by the requesting authority: your healthcare insurance company, the state, an admissions committee. Administrative requests for gender often obscure the complex or transient reality of gender for transgender, gender non-binary, and gender expansive people. They frequently conflate or confuse terms for sex (female, male) with terms for gender (man, woman), provide insufficient response options, or are not justified by the purposes of the requestor.
Given that, why would those who argue that gender is fluid want to confine anyone within static gender boxes? Why would gender expansive people want to institutionalize the practice of demanding others give an account of themselves in terms of gender? Why would they want to amplify a system well known to oppress transgender and other gender-expansive people?
And, what kinds of power and resistance are being short-circuited by adopting the tools of an oppressive system in the name of tolerance, inclusion, or support? What about the power of opacity, unreadability, or illegibility in the face of demands to give an account of one’s gender? The freedom that accompanies remaining beyond the reach of inquiry? Of remaining unintelligible or unknown? How are these forms of resistance and activism foreclosed by well-meaning requests that others publicly declare themselves in gendered terms?
In the context of widespread demands that citizens make themselves legible to the state in terms of gender, refusing to give an account of oneself in those terms represents a kind of resistance to an oppressive gendered regime of knowledge. Institutionalizing a practice that coerces others to give an account of themselves in terms of gender seems contrary to that project.
I don’t doubt some transgender people’s statements that it’s affirming or supportive when others provide their gender pronouns; that doing so opens space for them to offer their gender pronouns; and, that it implies one understands that gender identity does not always align with outward appearances.
But it does not seem moral or ethical that such affirmation should come through an oppressive and coercive practice that compels others to publicly disclose their gender identity and associated pronouns, suffer negative consequences for refusing, or simply lie about it. The outcome is roughly the same: compulsory participation in a gender regime that oppresses everyone involved.
The solution to this conundrum would seem to be to stop thinking about people in terms of gender or making assumptions about a person’s gender identity (and their gender pronouns) based on their physical appearance. But that ignores the fact that gender isn’t only a personal trait, characteristic, or attribute.
Gender is a complex social institution reproduced through numerous social practices and communicated through vehicles of cultural expression like art, music, literature, mass media, and (most relevant here) language. If gendered pronouns didn’t exist in the language, the entire practice of “giving your pronouns” would have no need to exist. All pronouns would be gender-neutral. Everyone would always already know the appropriate pronouns to use when referring to others.
But transforming oppressive conventions of gendered language and the salience of gender to individual social identity will not occur through coercive practices that require everyone give an account of themselves in (predetermined, insufficient, and inaccurate) terms of gender.
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.