Kimberly Lopez: On pronouns and perfunctory trans allyship (Column)

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Recently, a colleague of mine and I were finalizing a presentation on how libraries can be more welcoming to trans people in their communities. When we were working on a specific slide on how individuals can be better allies, I asked my colleague, “should we include something about sharing pronouns?” and I swear, I could hear their eyes rolling in the back of their head. 

But, Kimberly — you might ask — isn’t sharing pronouns a good thing? In fact, aren’t you a huge proponent of destigmatizing regular usage of pronouns so that when trans and nonbinary people share their pronouns, it’s less awkward or unexpected, and isn’t that the practice most listicles on the internet would suggest to be not total turds to trans people?

Yes, you are correct in thinking that sharing pronouns is an outrageously good idea and that, in theory, widely and proudly sharing pronouns offers a safe(r) environment to people who are trans and/or nonbinary to authentically represent themselves without fear of backlash or microaggressions. Destigmatizing regular usage of pronouns could, potentially, lead to that nonbinary kid in the back of the classroom, or your coworker or your best friend or your partner, to feel comfortable enough to change their pronouns and openly embrace their own identity. 

In fact, that’s the first advice I often give to cis people who want to be good allies — “Share your pronouns! Make it less weird!” The thing is, though, there’s something I’ve noticed about the cis people that do share their pronouns, in either email signatures or name tags or otherwise … Nine times out of ten, they’re also the ones who regularly misgender me and others like me. 

It’s a bit of a strange phenomena based on personal experience alone, and obviously one that wouldn’t stand up to any methodology queens out there, but still, I find this incredibly interesting. Has the purpose of putting your pronouns on a nametag been lost? Do they not connect this to the trans community? Have they not consciously thought about how lumping someone who uses they/them pronouns into a group of afabs and referring to them as “ladies” means they’ve blatantly misgendered someone?

I genuinely do not believe that this comes from a place of hatred or bigotry; it merely comes from a lack of understanding about what pronouns truly mean to trans people, and what it feels like to be misgendered on a regular basis. 

The colleague I mentioned before is also a dear friend of mine, and they once described getting misgendered as finding a pebble in your shoe. Each time you get misgendered throughout the day, another pebble is added, and by the end of the day, you’ve got a shoe filled with rocks. It might start out as a minor annoyance, but after a while, whether those moments of misgendering come from a place of malice or not, it hurts

In our culture, there is also a total lack of consent when it comes to gendered language, which often closely aligns to pronouns and identity. I identify as nonbinary — on most days, my gender is more fluid than fixed, and therefore, the types of gendered language I prefer don’t necessarily coincide with what our society would assign to someone with an F stamped on their birth certificate. When someone refers to a selfie of mine as “handsome”? Reader, I swoon

There isn’t a larger culture of consent regarding gendered language, which makes properly respecting people’s pronouns when they don’t conform to the binary a confusing experience. I get that. But here’s what you can do to combat your own internalized views regarding gender, and how you can actually be a good trans ally regarding pronouns:

1. Eliminate general usage of gendered language, and ask what people’s preferences are before referring to them in any gendered way. I know, I know, it takes time and energy and effort to be a good ally, but that’s just the way it has to be. 

2. Don’t cut your allyship off at the pass. Putting your pronouns in an email signature does not make you “woke.” It just means you are capable of honoring language trends. Practice using they/them at home, or research issues that affect trans people, and gain a better understanding on why this is all so important. 

3. Use your position of privilege for good and not ambivalence. If you know a trans person is being misgendered, correct the person who is misgendering. A caveat, however: sometimes it is severely inappropriate or unsafe to correct pronouns, so check with your trans loved ones beforehand on their opinions regarding pronoun correction. 

4. Idk, buy your trans friends and loved ones and colleagues a coffee every now and then. We’re all tired and overwhelmed and our shoes are filled with pebbles. 

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