Friday, September 21, 2012

The pronoun problem

Pronouns are little tiny words that, really, carry a much larger weight than seems appropriate for their size. Pronouns mean a lot. In English, we use different pronouns to refer to men and women. Not all languages have gender-specific pronouns (and some languages go overboard with gender and decide that chairs are female and love is male.) But here in English, when we say "he" or "she" we are frequently piling all of our assumptions about gender onto that small word. We look at someone and decide which pronoun to use for them. And if they tell us that we got it wrong . . .

I myself have been struggling with the pronoun problem. I am trying to fit my definitions of gender into one tiny word. It's a pain. But I can't live with the tiny word I was assigned at birth. So I have to change it. I am trying to decide between "he" and "ze." They each have their pros and cons.


  • It rejects the gender binary. The truth is that society has been rejecting the gender binary for a while now. We no longer believe that men and women have nothing in common, that women do emotions and men do rocket science and neither gender is capable of doing the other gender's thing.
  • Personally, I wish that we didn't have gendered pronouns at all.
  • If I go around calling myself "he," people will make certain assumptions about me. And not all of those assumptions are accurate.
  • Nobody that I know uses it. Even the trans people around here have a hard time using it. Where is it commonly used? (I just hope it's not associated with hipsters.)
  • It's distracting. For example, I recently asked someone to write a reference for me. They talked about how cool I was, and then I went in and added some details about my skills. I had to decide which pronoun to refer to myself with, and if I had used "ze," the reader wouldn't have been focusing on how wonderful and talented I am. They'd be wondering "Ze? Is that a typo? What?" So I had to use "he."


  • In this moment of writing I realize that "he" connects me to all the trans men in history. The ones who felt pride in their masculinity. The ones who were mislabeled as "passing women." The ones who didn't call themselves "he" but who knew that they were not female. The ones who lived as men and died as men and left a surprise for the undertaker. Maybe some of them wished for a third pronoun. But I don't want to get too far away from them. For me, when it gets right down to it, remembering our past is more important than creating something new.
  • "He" might actually be more transgressive than "ze." I'll discuss this more below. Does "he" mean conformity to traditional gender stereotypes, or does it mean redefining the word "he"?
  • As mentioned above, it's a word that people already know.
  • Well, does it represent conformity to traditional gender stereotypes? What if I can't redefine the word? Because that really is crucial.
  • When I first came out as trans, I was calling myself androgynous. And I still . . . think of myself as an effeminate man. Which doesn't mean I can't call myself "he"! But there is something more accurate about a pronoun that's neither entirely feminine nor entirely masculine. It expresses a certain truth.
Obviously, whichever pronoun I choose will not convey all of my ruminations on the topic of gender identity. So they both suck. But I have to have a pronoun, and I'm coming down on the side of "he."

The last straw was when I got an email from a relative.  I had told her in a phone conversation that I was starting to ask people to call me "he." So she stewed over that for a couple weeks and then emailed me saying that there was no way she could ever call me "he," she just couldn't do it, she was very disturbed by the idea. Then she asked me which pronoun she should be using, and (rather oddly) finished up by saying "I want to do whatever makes you comfortable," which apparently in this case means, "I want to do anything except call you 'he'."

I replied saying that either "ze" or "he" was fine, and she said that she would try to call me "ze." But after thinking about it, I began to wish that I had insisted on "he." This person has a lot of trouble accepting my gender identity, and it kind of sounds like "ze" makes it easier for her to dismiss it, or ignore it. If "ze" doesn't bother her then "ze" is not doing its job. I don't know what "ze" means to her. In fact I don't even know what "he" or "she" mean to her. But there is a problem.

In short, as I said above, maybe "he" is more transgressive. Maybe trying to change the meaning of the terms we use is more revolutionary than coming up with new terms. It's like the gay marriage thing - some people don't want same-sex couples to be able to use the term "marriage," but they claim to be content with a "civil union" that provides all the benefits of marriage without co-opting the word itself.

So what is the meaning of the word "he"? That's a big question which I choose not to tackle at the end of this blog post. But one thing I know is that when we try to define masculinity, we tend to list things that don't actually have any relationship to male genitals. It does, in fact, take more than a penis to be a man. I don't believe that any man defines himself solely in terms of his genitals. (Well, maybe some of them do.) Maybe there are men out there who believe that their family jewels provide them with courage, stamina, intelligence and dignity. But that would mean they have to doubt the existence of those positive qualities in people who don't have penises. And that, of course, would be a problem.

Trans people are constantly redefining the meaning of the words"he" and "she," male and female. I believe this, even though many trans people insist that they don't want to redefine anything. As long as we live in a culture that refuses to recognize our existence, we have to make our own definitions of gender and transgender. That doesn't mean our definitions will be accepted. Maybe it's foolish of me to think I can redefine "he."

But then I remember those who went before me. Their proclamations of gender identity were rarely written down - and few of them would have used the term "gender identity" anyway. I don't expect my ideas will get preserved for history either. It doesn't matter. They were here and we are here. A word is only an ornament, an ephemeral thing. A life is what matters. And somehow we remember . . . even with no cultural acceptance and very little history to guide us. They were here and we are here.


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome! It still feels like a work in progress - I haven't got this stuff all figured out yet.