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I support people having any gender identity they wish, referring to themselves by any name they choose, and assigning to themselves any set of pronouns they feel most apt. I think people have as much right to vary these as they do their hair or their clothes, and for similar reasons. I, consquently, reserve the right to stand to one side questioning any person’s taste on any or all of these matters, and they have all the beautiful freedom to ignore my twitching eyebrow, and the world shall roll on. So far, so good.
Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular in various social circles I move through to both choose and then conspicuously advertise one’s preferred pronouns, giving them shared or even equal billing with one’s name. This trend has developed to the point where, over the last several months, more than one person has noticed that I do not do this in any of my online profiles, and has asked that I start. I have always demurred, and promised to unpack my reasons in writing sometime. This essay constitutes my first attempt to do so.
In general I avoid answering the pronoun question entirely, if I can. If asked for preferred pronouns directly, I say “I don’t have a preference.” If encouraged to choose a “pronoun sticker” or a similar piece of nametag-flair at a gathering, I’ll go without. So far, nobody at such an event has given me an overt Where is your ribbon, citizen? challenge about it, even though it feels increasingly inevitable. Still, unless we enter a point where not wearing pronouns is like not wearing pants, I will continue to politely decline to pin them to my lapel, real or virtual.
My reluctance comes down to two factors: a distaste for obligatory political signifiers, and a desire to avoid implying that I care what people call me. I want to be clear that both of these are very specific to me personally, and do not represent any expectation regarding anyone else’s behavior. But it is me we’re talking about, here — the ways I prickle at people asking me, specifically, to modify how I choose to present myself to the public, setting aside anybody else.
Every part of my public presentation as I currently implement it, whether you see me in-person or just as a row on a spreadsheet, cues a bog-standard-binary masculine identity, which has — to my great and lazy fortune — never changed since birth. Today, this includes my name, my manner of speech and dress, how I carry myself, and how I wear my beard. As such, for me, advertising “my pronouns” feels redundant: any good-faith assumption based on immediately available evidence, and delivered by pretty much any human old enough to talk, will almost certainly fit just fine.
Now, an argument goes that one in my position can, and perhaps even should, pin on pronouns as both a statement of solidarity with our friends having non-conforming gender identities, who may have great practical reason to choose and display preferred pronouns, and also to help normalize and demystify this practice. That’s fine! I can even remember the first time I saw a fellow boringly cismale acquaintance fasten a “he/him” to his Twitter profile, and how I found it surprising, and then thought-provoking. It delivered its intended psychic payload, and I became wiser for it.
But, I resist the implication that not literally wearing a symbol of solidarity means that you do not support its underlying stance. I did not join my friends, a few years back, in tinting my online avatars green in sympathy with Iran’s citizens, though I held them in my heart. Nor did I tint my avatars purple to show my shock and sadness at Prince’s passing, though I felt it. I wear no insignia overtly declaring my nationality or other political allegiances, even though I certainly possess these things. I never festoon myself, my laptop, or my car with any candidate’s banners during election season, though god knows I can get unshy about who I support.
In short, I feel sufficiently protective of my presentation that even strong feelings of membership with or support for a group makes me extremely reluctant to wear its signage. Perhaps this comes from a fear that pinning one movement’s symbol to my breast would falsely imply its nearness to my heart more than any other group I belong to? Regardless, I much prefer to dress myself “neutrally”, as much as possible, letting my social and political alignments show through my words and deeds, rather than through pins and ribbons.
I wish also to advance my long-time personal policy of being extremely easygoing about my name. I tend to not correct people who get it slightly off-angle, unless they’re sitting across a desk from me at the DMV or whatnot. I often find myself thought of as a Josh, or a James, or a Justin. I understand why, and I just let it slide, and everyone has a better time for it. More rarely, people will intentionally hang creative names on me; that’s fine too, if delivered in good spirit. (My most treasured nickname of “Jmac” came from this, in fact. A photographer at my college newspaper made it up on the spot one day, and then immediately liked it so much that he told me it was my name now. I liked it too, obviously.)
Given that I have long felt quite fluid about what people call me to my face, then, it seems disingenuous to imply that I care much at all what words people use to refer to me behind my back — the very definition of third-person pronouns. I really and truly do not care. And again, I understand how and why other people may care very much, with the language used to describe them, themselves. But for me, this level of interest not only doesn’t apply, and suggesting otherwise even conflicts with how I view myself, and how I desire others to view me.
All told, then, the prospect of conspicuously wearing an obviously redundant declaration of gender identity as both a political in-group identifier and a standing order of personal-label prescriptivism simply does not fit me well. The thought of it makes me squirm, like wearing a shirt with horizontal stripes, or a shade of red that simply doesn’t become me. It’s asking me to add a new, highly visible element to the way I have long dressed, and it clashes. With all due love and respect, I have to decline, and hope that I can make up for it with the way I live my life.
Finally, I want to suggest that if you, reader, feel as I do, you can also simply leave it blank. The “worst” that will happen, in my experience, is that folks who feel especially obliged to tread carefully around gendered language may default — and perhaps with some quiet exasperation — to using they/them when talking about you. I have, in fact, overheard this applied to me at least once. And, honestly, as a long-time booster of this form (ever since Language Log threw in its lot for it many years ago), I find my passive advancement of it a perfectly acceptable side-effect.
My working title for this post was “My pronouns are 🤷♀️/🤷♂️”. You’re welcome.
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