The LGBT community has made major strides in the last 10 years in terms of legal rights and social acceptance. Even the transgender community, the most often neglected letter of the acronym, has seen some major wins lately. People seem to finally start being able to wrap their head around the idea of a transsexual person-so long as they still up hold the dichotomy of male/female. But what happens when someone doesn’t fit in that box?
If you’re confused as to what I’m talking about, don’t worry. Many people who aren’t completely versed on the trans community think of it as only people who feel as though they are born into a wrongly-sexed body for their gender identity (Quick refresher: gender and sex are two different things!). However, there are many other variations of gender and sex.
Intersexuality exists, for example. This is when children are born not XX or XY, occurring fairly often - about 1 in every 2,000 babies are born intersex. This makes it much more obvious that our way of seeing gender and sex as the same thing, and as only male and female, does not work.
Besides chromosomal/sex “abnormalities," there are alternative gender identities. One of these identities is known as Genderqueer- not identifying as either male or female regardless of your genitals, chromosomes, or physical appearance.
So what’s the big deal? Well, gender is so embedded in our language that it can be very complicated for a genderqueer person (and especially their friends, family, and acquaintances) to know how to navigate that. Think about how many times you use “he” “she” “him” “her” “his” or “hers” in an hour. Try to have a conversation without using gendered pronouns. It’s tricky! But does that mean you should disrespect someone’s choice, if they choose not to identify as either a “he” or a “she”? No.
Unfortunately, there are some people (with large readerships) who think they shouldn’t have to try to make genderqueer people feel comfortable. xoJane writer s.e. smith created the prounoun “ou” to replace he, she, or any other gendered term when referring to ou’s self. In response to an article ou wrote questioning whether western yoga was an appropriation of eastern culture, Gawker writer Harrison Nolan mocked smith’s stance. I’m not sure what my feelings are on the yoga subject at hand, but Nolan took the insensitivity too far.
In the article, Nolan refered to smith as “she”- not ou’s preferred gender pronoun. Okay, so maybe he didn’t know, you say. Two xoJane employees emailed Nolan saying that s.e. smith did not go by “she” and instead preferred “ou,” asking him to change it. Nolan posted these messages on the article, responding with a sarcastic “Okay." He then went through the article and crossed out “she”, replacing it with ou. Yeah, he “changed” it, but made sure to leave the “she” up there, in order to imply, “I’m doing this, but not because I want to…and its stupid.”
Most of the comments on the article continue to refer to s.e. smith as a “she” and call ou “pretentious” for the spelling/lowercase nature of “her name.” Continuing the insensitivity after it was specifically and fairly politely requested that smith be referred to as ou, and also, who cares if the letters are uppercase or lowercase. How often do people rag on e.e. cummings?
Many other criticisms included: “You can’t make up words!!!!!11!” Really? This is the internet/21st century people. Words get made up all the time.
In response to this, an article went up on Slate questioning the need for preferred gender pronouns (PGP). The author, J. Bryan Lowder , writes,
“At its best, the PGP movement has the potential to inject a much-needed dose of human respect into daily conversation; as a moderately masculine gay man who tries to be a trans ally, I'm particularly interested in affirming the many people who do not experience themselves as traditionally male or female. However, as a social creature, I also must acknowledge that the implementation of PGPs is often off-putting and probably counterproductive, as it clearly was in the Gawker case.”
Hmm, the only off-putting thing to me in this case was the way Nolan responded.
Though Lowder raises some good points, such as it is much easier to use gender neutral pronouns with family and friends (people who know you, etc.), I still think there is not total merit to the idea that PGPs are “counterproductive.” Yes, I often assume the gender identity of a person just by looking at them and I’m guessing most people do too. In a perfect world, we would ask their gender pronoun around the time we ask their name, or even better, not use gendered terms at all.
At this point, while gender is so inscribed in our culture, that isn’t practical to expect. However, if you meet someone and they correct you on their PGP or let you know they are trans, genderqueer, or any other non-normative gender identity, DON’T BE RUDE ABOUT IT! Seriously, you have to go out of your way to be as rude as Nolan.
The problem goes further when you think about whose responsibility it is to raise issues of PGP. Do you think it’s fair to place the burden of PGP correction on the genderqueer individual? Would you find it annoying if someone asked you to correct their PGP? How do you feel about making up a new pronoun for oneself?
(And a bonus: smith's reaction in this badass response article makes me feel so much better about the whole thing.)