What are your pronouns? Do you prefer she/her? He/Him? They/them? Any of the above? Are you wondering what I’m talking about? No doubt you’re familiar with “pronouns” in the grammatical sense — those little words that refer back to a noun mentioned previously: he, she, it, they, etc. But maybe you’re not familiar with the idea of choosing one’s pronouns and then sharing that choice so that others know your preference.
You see, we all make assumptions about a person’s gender based on the way they look or what their name is. But our assumptions aren’t always correct, so in order to preempt mistakes, some people share their preferred pronouns. They might do this when they first meet you, or casually in a later conversation. They might announce their pronouns on social media, or they might ask their supervisor or co-worker to make known around their workplace what their preferred pronouns are. Where I work, plenty of people share their pronouns by adding them to their email signatures and business cards. Are people doing that where you work?
Naturally, there are people who say you can’t choose your pronouns. “You are what you are born,” they say, “and it’s not a choice.” Well for one thing, there’s a difference between sex (your biological makeup which is determined by your chromosomes) and gender (the social construct of male/female and its associated behavior and attributes). But besides that, you can always expect uninformed push back from certain people regardless of the issue — some people just can’t cope with change, no matter what form it comes in. I’m not going to get into the argument here. It’s been discussed and explained very well in many other places by many people who are in a better position than I am to make the case.
But here’s the reality: Not everyone’s correct gender is immediately apparent, so if a person’s preference is something other than what people might assume, it’s easier if they just let everyone know. And if some people share their pronouns, then it’s a kindness if the rest of us — even those of us who might not have to — share ours.
But I haven’t shared mine, and I’ve been asking myself why.
It’s not because my outward appearance and name match my preferred gender, meaning that I don’t need to go to the trouble of specifying my pronouns. No, I recognize the concept of gender privilege. I understand that some people do need to share their pronouns, and it just makes sense that we all do it.
It’s not because it’s a young person thing (and I am not a young person). It’s true that a lot of people of my generation are pretty binary in the way we think and talk about gender, and adding pronouns to our identifying information isn’t something most of us do. But no. I understand that humans are complex, multi-dimensional beings and we don’t live in a binary world.
It’s not because I think it’s wrong or strange or inappropriate for straight or cisgender people to participate in the LGBTQ+ “agenda.” And it’s not because it makes me uncomfortable to talk about gender issues. There are lots of ways that we can support people in marginalized communities, and showing that we understand the complexities of gender is one way we can be allies to our LGBTQ+ friends.
And it’s not because misgendering doesn’t matter. I understand that misgendering someone is absolutely not okay. Especially when it’s done out of willful ignorance or deliberately to hurt someone. And I understand that although I’m not personally subjected to it, it causes real pain to those who are.
So then, what is the reason?
I think perhaps the question is wrong. Maybe rather than asking why I haven’t shared my pronouns, I want to ask “Why do we need gender pronouns at all?” Here’s a revolutionary idea: Let’s get rid of them. Why does anyone need to identify their gender? Why don’t we just refer to everyone by “they/them”? Like land lines and glaciers, gender distinction is an idea whose time is done. Imagine how much richer and more fulfilling life would be if we were all able to pursue our goals and live our lives exactly the way we chose. What if we could all be who we are without the restrictions and limitations that society places on us because of gender.
I’m not minimizing the problems faced by LGBTQ+ individuals — they are real. But the struggle against gender stereotyping isn’t limited to non-binary, gender fluid or gender dysphoric individuals or even the larger LGBTQ+ community. Cisgender heterosexuals also struggle against societal pressure to behave and present themselves in ways that often run contrary to their true nature. Since the beginning of recorded history, people have been chafing against the limitations and restrictions of the social constructs of gender.
Society is full of expectations about what is appropriate or “normal” for boys and girls. It starts at the earliest age: Girls like pink and play with dolls. Boys are aggressive and play with cars and trucks and they don’t wear pink. Girls are nurturing and submissive. Boys are strong and dominant.
Our culture assumes that young women aren’t good at math or science, want to be nurses and school teachers, and all of them want to grow up and get married and become mothers. We assume it’s normal for young men to like sports and be sexually promiscuous and violent and unruly.
Whether we realize it or not, we internalize a lot of it, but many of us struggle against a lot of it too. Some people do fit the mold, whether by their nature or because they contort themselves to fit expectations. But we know that the assumptions aren’t necessarily accurate. We all know people who don’t fit the mold, maybe in one area or maybe more. Maybe we are people who don’t fit the mold. So why don’t we just get rid of the mold?
I have interests that are traditionally female: I like cooking and shopping and nail polish. I was a nurturing mother to my children. But I have interests that are traditionally male, too: politics, technology, science, engineering. Is one set of interests more “right” for me? Should I suppress the interests that are “wrong” for my gender? Of course not. I ought to be able to pursue my interests wherever they lead.
It’s not news that there were once enormous limitations on women’s behavior and legal rights. Women were the property of their fathers until they were married, at which point they became the property of their husbands. They were denied education, forbidden from entering most professions, and were essentially viewed as baby-making machines capable only of functioning within the domestic realm. These rules prevented many women from pursuing interests and careers and living fulfilled lives.
And although there haven’t been many laws which restricted men’s behavior in the same way as women’s, society’s expectations for a man’s behavior was very narrowly defined and it severely restricted them from living authentically. Men were expected to be macho, follow certain career paths, be the family’s disciplinarian and bread winner, not to cry or show emotion or vulnerability. And not wear pink.
It’s only been in the last few decades and with the help of laws such as the Civil Rights Act that Americans have made any meaningful progress towards gender equality. In other parts of the world, the progress has been even slower. But now we’ve begun to take baby steps beyond all of those outdated gender stereotypes and expectations and we’re now more free to explore the rich universe of opportunities and express our true selves in every way.
Once you remove the social and legal restrictions on education, career, household roles and so on and begin to see gender stereotypes for the arbitrary distinctions that they are, other barriers quickly begin to fall away. In a few short years we have abandoned the expectation that women have to wear dresses and high heels and we now find it perfectly acceptable for women to wear pants and flats. Women can be astronauts and Supreme Court Justices. Some are choosing careers over marriage and children. And it’s acceptable for men to wear their hair long or in a ponytail or bun. They can be nurses and kindergarten teachers. Many clothing lines have unisex styling, and men and women work side by side in nearly every field. So what purpose is served by the male/female distinction at this point?
We’re saying goodbye in more situations to those horrible ☐ M ☐ F check boxes. Anti-discrimination laws mean that we’ve eliminated them on applications for jobs and credit cards. One day the world woke up and asked, “why do people need to check ☐ M or ☐ F to apply for a library card? It doesn’t matter!” Bye-bye check box! And I say good riddance. It’s time to ask why it’s needed anywhere. Outside of the bedroom and the doctor’s office, I can’t think of a single place where it matters whether someone is male or female. Can you?
Why must we check M or F or (even X) on our driver’s license? A driver’s license is not a DNA test result. It proves that you have the right to drive a car, nothing more. And it’s insulting to be asked to specify a gender in order to do that. Because it doesn’t matter. Even the argument that driver’s licenses are used for identification purposes falls short when you think about it: putting male or female doesn’t make it easier to identify you by your gender if you don’t fit the mold. So what’s the point of the label?
A few months back my family was at a restaurant and our server’s gender was not clear. After dinner my father predictably asked “Was that a man or a woman?” But did it really matter what gender the server was? Would a man have taken my order differently than a woman? Would the food taste different when it arrived? Would we get better service? Of course not.
The truth of labels is that they don’t do anything to change the person they are pinned on. But they do change what happens inside of the person who sees the label.
Think about what goes on inside your head as soon as you discover whether someone is male or female. The label instantly allows you to make judgments about them. You create a mental picture about that person’s intelligence, about their abilities, about their likes and dislikes, and about their nature. You assess whether their behavior is appropriate or not. You make assumptions about what topics are appropriate for conversation. You assess whether they might be attracted to you or whether you could be attracted to them. You may even evaluate their status in relation to you: are they your equal or your inferior or superior? It might be that absolutely none of your assumptions are true, but you will proceed as if they are, and you’ll adjust your attitude and your behavior accordingly.
You don’t know me, but I bet you’ve made certain assumptions about me because of my name. You interact with my writing and make inferences based on the fact that you think I’m a woman. But what if my name wasn’t actually Eleanor? What if it was Eric. Would your opinions change? What if my name was Pat, or Chris? How would your assumptions change then?
There’s real danger in labeling people. It clouds our judgment and creates an artificial barrier to interaction. So let’s stop judging people on whether or not they match assumptions and let’s look at their actions as individuals, in specific circumstances.
Next time you see an individual whose gender is not obvious and you wonder if they are a man or a woman, stop and ask yourself why it matters. What will change when you know the answer?
And of course, gender isn’t the only thing we use to categorize people. We also use race, skin color, religion, education, socio-economic status, appearance, and more besides. Labels are really just a vehicle for judging other people in relation to ourselves and others. Next time you’re out, take some time to reflect on what assumptions you’re making about people based on the labels that you apply to them. Your reactions might surprise you. Then go ahead and remove the labels and just interact without judgment. Without assumptions. Without expectations. Just person to person. And see what happens.
Because underneath the labels we’re all simply people.