The Significance of Pronouns in How We Interact with Others

By Max O’Connor

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Companion Material

Essay Prompt

After returning from a long walk around the library to rejoin my friend, she shared with me the thoughts that had gone through her mind during my absence. Moments when she had wanted to share funny images found online with me, then looking over to remember that I was also being similarly unproductive. Despite me telling her a few times in the past that I would prefer gender-neutral pronouns over feminine ones, her sentences were laced with the word "she," referring to me in the third person, as is common for her speech pattern. She was understanding and supportive when I had conversations about my chosen pronouns, but the conversations seemed to vanish from her memory as soon as they were over. I knew she meant no harm, as when I would correct her, she would apologize profusely, but being reminded that I was born a female, while also feeling so disconnected from my sex, causes me to wince at every utterance of a feminine word thrown in my direction. I often find it is easier to deal with being misidentified by people I see infrequently than I find explaining who I am because of how much of a joke the topic of gender has become. Nonetheless with the role that gender plays in our society, it is not something that we should take lightly.

With the significance of gender, it becomes important to make clear the distinction between gender identity and gender expression. What many consider gender expression is often confused with gender identity. Gender expression involves the roles that we feel we must take on, including how we present ourselves, and comes mostly from our culture, while gender identity determines which sex our brain aligns with. We are socialized to believe that our sex determines how we act, but gender expression is something that is constructed socially. The distinctions between sexes and how these distinctions determine how we present ourselves, for the most part, are completely arbitrary. High heels used to be men's fashion, and pink used to be associated with masculinity. Now, a man wearing high heels is sneered at, and a pink onesie mean the baby has a vagina and will soon be given a doll with an outfit to match. Young girls are brought up to believe that there are innate differences between their interests and those of their short-haired peers, for a reason yet unknown to them. Today, this idea often goes challenged, and parents seldom have an issue with their daughter preferring pants and toy cars over tutus and Barbies. Rather than allowing a girl to express herself without judgement, she is labeled a tomboy because many objects or items are trivially assigned gender, and a girl preferring pants and toy cars is considered outside the norm. This is even more of an issue when a boy takes a liking to traditionally feminine objects. The parents who have no problem with their daughter wearing pants generally do not buy their sons skirts. Choosing to present in a more feminine manner than what is expected is seen as a joke. Men who wear lipstick, eyeliner, or dresses are scorned because femininity is often seen as less worthy of respect than masculinity. Making women equal to men is a step in the right direction, but pushing for separation where there should be none only divides us. Rather than pushing for gender equality, we should be pushing for the elimination of gender as the deciding factor of the roles we play in the world.

I was born female, but I do not feel comfortable being one. Despite how right it feels when I pass as male, I felt as though I was in the wrong to distance myself from femininity—as if everyone feels the way I do. When I was both young and old enough to just begin choosing the ensemble I would walk out the door with, I refused to put on a dress or allow my mom to braid my hair. I did not understand why I had to do these things if boys could wear pants all the time and have un-styled hair. I still have not willingly worn a dress in years, because I feel uncomfortable in my body and the assumptions that come with it. I know that clothes do not have an inherit gender, but the ones placed on a person by our culture impacts how we view the people wearing them, and that is not something that can be easily unlearned. Gender plays an important role in how we view ourselves and our connection to our own bodies, but having a strict divide in gender expression is an outdated concept, because our sexual organs should not determine how we dress or whether or not we wear makeup. People recognize this, but instead of getting rid of gender as an important identifier, they create more gender markers, which still keeps our identities tied to our genitalia. This makes it difficult to present ourselves in whatever way we feel comfortable while staying inside the realm of what is socially acceptable. Even when inside this realm, people are still demeaned, but at least to most of the population, perceived as someone who is shallow because she is obviously a woman is better than some genderless weirdo.

Untying our identity from our genitalia, does not mean that we have to wear clothes and participate in activities that are only acceptable for both sexes. It means that these clothes and activities should have no genitalia tied to them—a dress should not only be able to be worn by people who call themselves female. People should feel free to express themselves however they please and should not need to come up with a description of their relationship to their genitalia to justify that expression. Many people take this as an opportunity to undermine the identities of hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine people—especially transgender people. Some claim that by conforming to these gendered stereotypes, they perpetuate gender roles social-justice warriors so desperately wish to eradicate. While people should not move thoughtlessly through life, neither cisgender nor transgender individuals are to blame for the perpetuation of gender role stereotypes. Most people do not recognize that the habits they have formed are due to socialization rather than necessity, or if they have, they do not think that breaking these habits is worth the ridicule they may receive. Other than the discomfort of dealing with dysphoria from their own body, a big reason transgender people want to transition so badly is because otherwise they will constantly be pushed into the wrong category. Transgender men and women often feel the need to present themselves in very feminine or very masculine because we feel the need to prove that we really are the men and women we are.

The strictness with which some places are segregated by gender can make life difficult for anyone who wishes to stray outside of typical gender expression. People are chunked into one of two groups based on the way they look, and anyone who does not fit into one or the other at least considerably well is singled out for ridicule. People should be able to present themselves in whatever way they choose without having to out themselves. Our current relationship to gender is such that in order to present ourselves in a particular way, we feel the need to change even more about ourselves to fit better into a certain prescribed category. This would not be an issue if the preferences for gender expression people held did not have a biological sex tied to them.

Language plays an enormous role in the unnecessary gendering of concepts and people. Knowing the sex of a person should not be a necessity to speak to or about them, but it has become one due to pronouns being created to classify people based on just one part of their identity. Even with a baby—an individual too young to understand how their body will determine the stereotypes they are already being pushed into and too young to understand the difference between the meanings of the sounds "he" and "she"—people are determined to make clear the correct pronouns, with headbands or tiny sports jerseys. There is no need to differentiate between the sexes in the first moments of seeing a person, and there are plenty of languages that have no pronouns to differentiate ("Gender Neutrality"). People who use genderless pronouns in English, though, are often laughed at, despite changes in our language use being one of the simplest and most effective ways to attempt to eliminate the biases caused by gender (Fazendin). Being cognizant of how I refer to other people keeps me thinking about why I label everyone one way or another, so I try to use gender-neutral pronouns when speaking about someone when their sex is unimportant to the story I am telling.

I understand the discomfort that comes with ostracization, so I understand that the only people who will ask to be referred to by different pronouns will only be those who feel uncomfortable in their own skin when they are misgendered by others. I still urge everyone to do their best to be aware of the assumptions they make about others and how they impact their own perception of everyone around them. Not only would referring to people with gender-neutral pronouns help to make the divide between males and females smaller, it would also benefit transgender people. The words we choose to describe ourselves with are usually those that convey an importance in the way we move through the world. I may have brown hair, but I do not wish for my identity to revolve around it. Since the concept of concrete gender roles is being frowned upon more and more, it does not make sense to constantly refer to people in these categories. In a perfect world, in which there were a standard singular pronoun, non-passing transgender people would not need to come out to every person to avoid the constant reminder of their dysphoria—I would not have to blurt out my transgender identity in the middle of a library packed with students in order to feel as though I do not need to rip off my ears when having a conversation because it reminds me of the body I was born into. People would more easily be able to express themselves in whatever way they please without having to explain it. Although changing laws to ban the segregation of sexes would be great for at least softening the uneven line drawn between males and females, our language is something that we each have control over, and so we have the responsibility to be conscientious of the words we choose and their ethical implications.