You raise a number of important points!

It was not the purpose of my piece to propose alternatives to what is rapidly becoming standard practice but, rather, to analyze that practice and the power relations at work when one asks another for their gender pronouns. Rachel Levin (in the Inside HigherEd story I cite) offers some suggestions for how these problems might be sidestepped in the classroom: emailing students before class to ask if they have any preferred name or specific gender pronouns they’d like her to use, etc. I can see how this also might also work in the workplace or community groups. However, that’s not practical in one-on-one encounters.

But that still does not avoid the larger issue: a readable gender is still viewed by many, many people as central to social identity. Some people are moved to the most awful kinds of violence when another person’s gender is not immediately and unambiguously intelligible. And asking others to make their gender readable through publicly expressed gender pronouns perpetuates, rather than resists, the larger requirement that a readable gender is a requirement for social citizenship.

What’s important to remember is that we’re all trapped in a society that has decided to place a premium on gender intelligibility and none of our individual actions are sufficient to escape that (though, I do feel the choice to remain gender unintelligible is a powerful, if risky, form of resistance). It should not, then, be surprising that trans and gender non-binary people’s efforts to navigate that system operate according to existing gendered power relations. In other words, it’s not trans/enby folx fault that asking for pronouns is a necessary or coercive practice. They didn’t decide to live in a society that places a premium on readable gender any more than the rest of us did.

Thus asking others for their gender pronouns may be the best that we can do within a society that celebrates the cultural fiction that gender is binary and demands a readable and intelligible gender as a condition of social citizenship. If that’s the case, we still need to be aware how that practice can be coercive and oppressive, even if it’s necessary.

But I also want to reiterate another point: asking others for their gender pronouns isn’t just a burden for transgender and gender non-binary people. It’s a burden to EVERYONE. Because it often occurs in a coercive context, requires one to express gender in terms provided by the language, and is inaccurate to how we live and understand gender. The gender binary isn’t just oppressive to those who cross boundaries. It’s oppressive to everyone. The boundary crossers just make the binary’s fictional nature especially apparent.

Michael J. Murphy, MA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois. 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 (Routledge, 2019).

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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