Pronouns II, or how others need to figure this out
Last year, I wrote about me and pronouns. This is the next part of that story. For some of you, this may be your first reading in how I identify and how I need to be referred to because I potentially have not felt ready to share this part yet or felt the context we inhabit together is not the "right" place for that conversation. Lemme start the work of doing better for our relationship now: my name is Alex and I need you to use they/them/their pronouns when referring to me. Here's a helpful tool for you [link]. Now, back to the post.
Over the last year, I have been asking that people use they/them/their pronouns when referring to me. It's been over a year. It's been on my name badge at work, indicated with a mailing label I folded over the bottom - now I have this nicer ribbon to indicate my pronouns for others. It's been in both my work and personal e-mail signatures. It's been on conference name badges and in most of my introductions, even when not prompted. Basically, I use they/them pronouns and I'm here to stay.
Gender is reinforced through language constantly. The search for language that fits me, that makes me feel belonged and valued is fluid and varied over time and context. It is not arbitrary. In fact, systems that have internalized so much of my gender socialization compounded by my racial socialization have continually forced me to think long and hard about my language out of fear that if I change it up too quickly or too abruptly, I will lose credibility and relationships. Indeed, in my previous post I even said:
While I never thought others who used different pronouns each day were illegitimate, I thought about conceptions of legitimacy among my fellow student affairs colleagues if *I* changed my pronouns. I thought about how I could be viewed as less than just because folks would have “to deal” with a fluid conception of my gender (identity). I thought about how I have fought to establish myself as competent (especially with some of my identities) but feel like because I didn’t figure this all out in undergrad, I am developmentally behind in some way...
In the post I refer to above, I talk about how I asked others to use ze/zem/zir pronouns at the time. I must admit that I switched to they/them/their exclusively over a year ago and still do not know how I feel about it. For one, in an effort to dodge using ze/zem/zir pronouns, folks either just used my name or defaulted to they/them/their. While they/them are becoming incrementally more accepted as singular gender pronouns (even though they just are that regardless if one accepts that or not), those were not the pronouns for me at the time. When I or others ask you to use certain pronouns, I/we expect that you use the pronouns I/we indicate. Too often, both in and out of different communities I occupy, I see folks defaulting to they/them/their to avoid other gender pronouns that they are unfamiliar with as a sort of scapegoat to show they are inclusive yet do not want to engage in further work. As I discovered would become a constant theme, folks' comfort and needs took priority over my own.
And as I discussed in the previous post, my internalized ish still prompts me to say: "Wow, Alex, you are making it hard on other people to know how to refer to you." This also speaks to my own internalized anxieties of messing up other folks' names and pronouns. Indeed, as I still come more into my identity, as I gain more confidence and resist colluding in the systems that make me believe my identities are abhorrent and unworthy of love and attention, I still think about how my identities and my entire being are oriented to making life easier for others, to center others' needs and comfort. Changing the pronouns to they/them seemed to fall into this thinking.
Then, as I have been reflecting with folks who are my chosen family, it hit me one day. Those who seek to be in community with me, who continue to invest love in me and see things in me I still do not see in myself, are going to make the deliberate choice to be better. Those who want to be part of my kin are going to do this work. To be in relationship with others, I needed to be clear with myself: my responsibility is to say what I need from others, honor what I can from others' needs, and if one or both of those cannot be met in our relationship, it's time to address it or move on. Seriously.
I often talk about the importance of self-care. Today, I was speaking with a dear friend over lunch and we talked about how we continue to center others' needs and make excuses for them when they harm us. The tough work of uncovering and dismantling our own internalized ish is a daily practice and won't be solved with one good self-help book or a few sessions with a therapist.
My office colleagues and I are currently reading Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. In our latest reading and discussion, a staff member pointed out how they often use self-care as a way to avoid things for their actual self-care. For instance, rather than waking up and having breakfast in the morning, I often skip it in the name of getting more sleep for the day ahead and because I stayed up late. Rather than staying up late to be more in control of my schedule, I need to go to bed earlier to wake up earlier to do things in the morning, like eat breakfast, to take care of myself.
Now, here's something else I do in the name of self-care that often avoids what I actually need to take care of myself: correcting people (or asking other people to help me correct others) when folks misgender me through language. Don't get me wrong - there are physical, emotional, and mental safety dimensions to confronting others' use of exclusive language that are often wrapped up in power. That's not what I am talking about here. I am talking about calling in those who I desire to be or I am already in community with about my pronouns when they mess up. In my brain, I'm like "ugh, why do they keep messing this up?" or "I am not gonna do this now because we are in front of other people" or "how many times do I have to say this?"
So this is me asking the folks who desire to be in community with me.
First, practice this stuff when I am not around. As someone who works in education, my colleagues and I often talk about the need for folks to study and practice outside of the classroom environment. When I am around you, I often feel like I am in class all the time and have to continually educate while in your presence. Don't get me wrong - asking for help, resources, and the like is all good as long as you are showing me progress. Even folks who realize their error and correct mid-sentence, they are on the path. However, nothing infuriates me (and I imagine others) more than when folks keep saying "gosh, I am so bad at that" or "I really don't get this thing." If this is your fourth or fifth time saying that to me, it seems like you've got plenty of self-awareness yet none of the self-actualization to do anything about it. It sends the message to me that you don't care and you're looking to me to excuse your passive/active refusal to work on this. And I am not really giving out passes to that ride anymore.
Second, especially my cisgender folks, correct others when they are not on target. I too often see my trans kin and I having to be the ones to stand up for ourselves to correct this stuff. I am not asking you to come in on a horse and save me. I am asking you to do this work alongside of me that contributes to my feelings of belonging and mattering. For cis folk especially, your doing that work often means more to other cis folk than when I do it. For some folks, often those who I am in relationship with, they will generally take in what I am saying regardless. For those I am not in relationship with or we are still developing our relationship, help me. Work with me on this. Because to be in community with me means we lift one another up and there is not a savior in sight.
Third, make this about us to the extent you center my feelings and needs. To be in relationship together means that when I hurt you, when I mess up and don't show up in the ways that you need me to, means I need to apologize and do better. Now, while I think there's plenty to think about in regards to the do better illogic, doing better means apologizing for what you did or just skipping on to doing better rather than saying you are going to do so. Lemme give some examples. First, I was in a training for some undergraduate students around social justice education. My co-presenter, who is a good friend and colleague, messed up and used the incorrect pronoun to refer to me when discussing an example. When she realized what she had done, rather than focusing on how she felt about slipping up or what she had done wrong, she said "he...I mean they" and went about the example. This is a good example of what I am looking for. In that moment, I don't need folks to make it about them because in that moment, in that sentence, it was about me. Correct the problem and just go about doing better without needing to name your need to do better in the future. Second, I was in a large meeting with over 100 colleagues a few months ago. One colleague in particular when referring to me continued to use "he" to refer to me. This is not the first time this has happened with this person, they have been corrected on this before with me, and yet no one stood up to correct him. Clearly, no one took him to the side in between misgendering me to say "those are not the pronouns Alex uses" because it continued to happen. A strategy someone could use to even relate into this person would be "I know that it takes some shifts in language, I've had to practice myself to get it right." But none of that happened. This is a great example of where I need folks to show up and a place where you can use your relationship with me to help work with others to get them on the same page.
Finally, honor me as I continue to expand the ways in which I think about my identities. As I have said before, for now, this is the name and these are the pronouns I am using. They may (or will) change at some point in the future. The frequency with which they change, the ways and times in which I share (or do not share) that information with you is about giving me dignity while I am still trying to figure this all out and that does not make me confused, underdeveloped, or deficient. In fact, it makes me reflective and resilient in the ways that I will continue to push back and imagine the expansive possibilities of sharing my gender, my identities with the world.
And in my commitment to the both/and, I say all of that above and I still feel this too:
There are days where I walk in my office or go around town with no painted nails, with neutral colors, with reserved expression because I just feel that way on a given day and then I wonder if I am transgressive enough to identify as genderqueer or use gender neutral pronouns, feeling like a cisgender imposter co-opting identity. Feeling a sense of obligation to the students I work with and alongside that they want to see more transgressive figures in administration and positions on our campus. And then I feel the other side of those feelings, thinking about how I am mentally preparing myself for the worst, the confrontations, the internalized ish around being loved...
Choosing my pronouns is a radical act. It continues to be. And to be in community with me means not making excuses (you or me), doing our own work (you and me), and to move the world a bit more to a place where we both feel like we belong just a bit more. Because regardless if you are in relationship with me or not, my name and my pronouns are to be used and respected.