Pronouns 101: they/them
December 3, 2018 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm sometimes in meetings where people will go around the room and introduce themselves and say what pronouns they use, e.g. "I'm Chris and I prefer she/her," or "I'm Jo and I use they/them" or "I'm Brook and I use he/him/they/them."

I think of myself as "she/her," but I'm fine being "they/them" if it's more convenient or it's what the speaker naturally uses. Is it appropriate for me to say "I use she/her/they/them" or should I stick with "she/her"?

I don't want to look like I'm calling myself nonbinary or agender, since that's sometimes relevant for the discussion, but I also don't want to imply I would mind if I were called "they."
posted by The corpse in the library to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard people use "she/they" for this purpose and used to introduce myself that way myself. Like "My pronouns are she/they, she and they" or "she or they is fine."
posted by coffeeand at 9:10 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

The pronoun introduction is a pretty new thing all told, so a lot of these social bumps haven't been ironed out and I predict that you will receive widely varying advice.

For me, as a person who is mostly a woman but is not always, I say she/they and mean it fully, and if I hear another person do the same I assume they are also somewhere along the scale of not-cis. But I also assume that in any conversation that begins with pronoun introductions, the singular they is accepted as applicable to all involved unless in very specific scenarios (like perhaps a group therapy situation where someone really needs to hear the specific pronouns used in conversation in a positive way.)

If you are meeting to discuss copy editing or something like company language policy or publishing standards of some sort, something like "she/her; I'm a big fan of singular they" might go over well. It's all about context.
posted by Mizu at 9:29 AM on December 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

TBH, I feel sort of weird when cis people say things like "she/her or they" or "any pronoun is fine" or sort of...imply that they leave the pronoun choice up to the speaker. I feel like it undercuts non-binary people or people whose pronouns are not cisnormative. It suggests that pronoun use isn't that important, that the speaker is the decider and that "they/them" isn't nonbinary so much as "oh whatever".

Also, I've never heard a cis man do this, only cis women, and I feel like it stems from the way that women are socialized not to articulate firm preferences. If you use she/her pronouns, you use she/her pronouns. The speaker doesn't get to decide.

This is slightly complicated by the fact that we use "they" as a neutral term intended to cover people whose pronouns we don't know and groups containing many genders, and we sometimes fall into using it as a sort of informal singular even when we do know people's pronouns, as in odinsdream's example.

Basically, I think that if you're being asked for your pronouns, you should give the ones you actually use, and the speaker should do their best to use your pronouns, not the ones to which they default. If the speaker has some kind of "I call every single person regardless of gender identity 'they' for Reasons" thing going on, they need to articulate that.
posted by Frowner at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2018 [69 favorites]

If you don't want people to think you're nonbinary you should probably stick with a formation like "she or they is fine" rather than "my pronouns are [X]." But like, you also don't owe anybody a complete account of your reasons for using certain pronouns or being ok with certain pronouns either.
posted by coffeeand at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a wonderful example of privilege. Correct pronoun usage is a daily struggle for many people. I don't think anyone except the most right-wing anti-trans/non-binary people would mind being called "they," and leaving it up to the speaker to decide what to call you undermines the work that non-binary and trans folks are doing to fight for their right to be called what they feel they are. If someone asks for your preference, they are asking a question about your identity. Often being an ally means recognizing the importance of things like identity even if they aren't specifically impactful to you on a daily basis.
posted by ancient star at 9:41 AM on December 3, 2018 [19 favorites]

If someone says something like "she or they," I'm going to assume that they're not cis in some way and will be keeping an eye open for cues as to how they'd like to be treated, genderwise, beyond pronouns. If you are cis, I don't think evoking that reaction would be particularly useful to you.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on December 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

Pronoun declaration is about how speaker identifies, not about how the listener refers to people. So, if you don't refer to yourself as "they", there is no reason to identify yourself that way.
posted by Automocar at 9:50 AM on December 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yeah, my operating assumption is that most people who use gendered pronouns are OK with being described as "they/them" by a speaker who is going for inclusiveness or doesn't know the identity of the person they're talking about or is just plain trying to take the easiest pronoun without thinking too hard about it. Since "OK with they/them" is a good operating default, it's best to tell people the thing that's informative, which is that "she/her" are your standard pronouns and the ones which you're most accustomed to.
posted by jackbishop at 9:52 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Related: if you notice someone constantly using they/them to avoid referring to trans people with their stated gendered pronouns, tell them to knock that shit off please, we notice and it's not okay.

I think this is why I don't ever say "they/them" is fine when I use "she/her" -- it implies that "they/them" is a neutral, not-a-big-deal thing, but it can be a big deal when used toward a binary trans person.
posted by lazuli at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Frowner's got it.

In addition, though, my experience is that people who look like cis women and say their pronouns are "she/they" get called "she" 100% of the time.* So not only is it kind of weird to be doing this, it's having no detectable effect on anyone else's behavior.

If you actually wanted to experiment with going by "they," you'd need to say something more definite, like "I'm going to try using 'they' today." If you want to go by "she" but signal that you're friendly and accommodating and an ally to nonbinary people, say "I use she/her pronouns," and then be friendly and accommodating in other ways and do other ally stuff.

*Excluding the situations in which literally everyone gets called "they," regardless of their preference — like being way off in the distance and nobody can tell who you are.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:42 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Avoiding undercutting other people is just what I was going for — I appreciate how you put it so clearly, Frowner. I’ll go with “she or her.”
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:55 AM on December 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

A lot of people who use gendered pronouns are very not okay with them/they. Ultimately, though, you don’t really need to say anything about that eventuality if you generally use she/her.

When I tell people my pronouns it very much is about how they addrsss me, and not about my identity, which is none of their business and certainly not something I feel compelled to share with the class. But that’s just me.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:57 AM on December 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

(More specifically, a lot of trans or gender-non-conforming people find it hurtful or dysphoric when they say “use she” or “use he” and they get called “they.” It can be a form of misgendering that bothers people who aren’t transphobic or terrible. I still don’t think you need to assertively be okay with it for you, but wanted to clear up that a lot of people aren’t okay with “they”.)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:04 AM on December 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

I prefer they, but it isn't something I really stand up for. It's complicated and extremely personal even though I present mostly cis female and haven't really been ready to do the work involved with being out consistently about it. And because most people do call me she, it isn't something I take offense too, but I really really do preference they/them. When used I feel aknowelged, respected and welcome.

Of course, in regards to signaling that simply as an ally, then it undercuts when I'm actually saying no, while I won't be upset if you call me she I prefer they. (I wasnt aware this was going on though until this thread!)
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:58 AM on December 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

my experience is that people who look like cis women and say their pronouns are "she/they" get called "she" 100% of the time.* So not only is it kind of weird to be doing this, it's having no detectable effect on anyone else's behavior.

Can confirm this is very very common, though when people give "she/they" or "he/they" as their preference, I tend to default to "they" unless/until they indicate a wish for me to do otherwise, because my own baby-stepping-towards-pronouns definitely has included a long and frustrating phase of not feeling confident enough to ask for and claim "they," and I have kinda needed the help of having others affirm it.
posted by halation at 12:02 PM on December 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

I, an agender person, do actually know a (confirmed) cis man who tells people to use whichever pronouns they like for him, and it's awful and I hate him for it. It comes off as a complete abuse of privilege to flaunt the option of not caring like that when I'm agonizing over lying versus outing myself and/or saying I don't use pronouns and kind-of-sort-of associating myself with him as someone who didn't choose a specific thing. So. Please just say "she/her". I'd agree that I would assume/trust that someone saying "she or they" or "he or they" had more-complex-than-binary gender stuff going on that they were trying to communicate. If you're cis, go ahead and own that.
posted by teremala at 12:04 PM on December 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

I am nonbinary, my pronouns are she/her or they/them, and I would 100% assume you were nonbinary if you introduced yourself with those pronouns. Your mileage may vary, but be aware that many if not most people will interpret it that way!
posted by capricorn at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

For me, communicating pronoun preference is also a flag regarding other gendered language beyond pronouns. If I'm in one of those rare spaces where I can express a preference for "they," I'd really rather not be addressed by one of the common boy/girl, man/woman, husband/wife, bro/sis idioms either. In fact, I find those idioms more painful in general.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm genderqueer and I use she/they for several reasons. One, I don't have strong dysphoria around pronouns because I don't have a strong sense of gender, so for me they are an abstract and removed reflection of strangers' surface-level assumptions about me. Frankly, I can't be bothered to invest energy in that. "She" works (and minimizes my daily friction) but it's not the whole picture. Two, I want to normalize "they" as a default pronoun, because I'd rather remove gender from English altogether! I think it's good for cis people to join in on that. I want them to have to question their gender. Three, the gender feels I do have are fluid, and among friends I accept any pronouns including he and ze. I like that the vibes I'm giving off attract different pronouns. However I don't expect the average co-worker to understand that kind of intimate, give-and-take energy.

If a person gives a singular set of pronouns, always use that. Trans and nonbinary people are regularly "they'd" when cis people feel unsure or malicious, and that's hurtful.

If someone gives two sets, use the gender-neutral one. Normalize it!

If a seemingly-cis man says "I don't care," very sincerely ask "Cool! Can I call you she?" and see how they respond. Maybe they're not as set in their gender as you think! Or, they'll stop saying that.
posted by fritillary at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2018 [10 favorites]

Just one they/them nonbinary person weighing in anecdotally: chill cis women presenting they/them pronouns as an optional choice that doesn't matter much to them hasn't really done much for me as far as normalizing my pronouns goes, and I think it might actually lead people to think I'm a chill cis woman and that my pronouns are flexible. I am not, and they are not.

The thing that actually helps me is when other people draw a hard line about respecting pronouns, so i don't feel like i'm being a pain in the ass when I ask for people to remember to gender me correctly. Other trans people in a group helps a lot, and so do cis allies demonstrating how to use my pronouns correctly.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:08 PM on December 3, 2018 [13 favorites]

fwiw, I'm a non-binary person who is pretty well forced to present as female and go by she/her pronouns due to where I live, and if I could go by they/them I would jump at the chance, and it would further find it kind of not-great if a cis lady was trying to go by she/they. it just feels similar to the inward sigh I make every time I get misgendered out here.
posted by dogheart at 3:11 PM on December 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this is still a minefield. I have a kid (actually in their late 30s and a Responsible Adult with a mortgage, but still my kid to me) who recently had the experience of being in a situation where people were asked their preferred pronouns, and my kid was forced to be the only one who said "they/them." And it made them feel really socially awkward, annoyed, and pressured.

And for that matter I hate having to say my preferred pronouns too because it's none of anyone's business. And I've felt that way for decades.
posted by Peach at 5:50 PM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

The tricky part here is that the line between chill cis lady and simmering bundle of stifled nonbinary rage can be difficult to ascertain. If you feel like using multiple pronouns, you may wish to check in with yourself every so often about which side of the line you're on that day.
posted by yarntheory at 6:42 PM on December 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

I’m also nonbinary, and if I just say “they/them,” most people end up falling back to “he/him” for me, which hurts. So I’ll usually tell people “they/she,” and it’s still basically only other trans people who ever use “they/them” for me, but at least “she/her” doesn’t hurt in the same way, and I feel pretty privileged to have that be a compromise I can be okay with making.

All this to say, I’m with fritillary: a world where people—even especially non-trans people—are putting more thought into how they’d like to be addressed, and where other people are paying closer attention to that, is a world I want to live in. From the Dean Spade essay that dizziest posted:
In an ideal world, after having heard you state your name and pronoun in the go-round, people would assume nothing other than that is what you want to go by. It would not mean they know what kind of identity, body, behavior, or politics you have.
So no, I wouldn’t assume you were nonbinary if you introduced yourself with “she/they,” but I would take you at your word and assume you had at least some expectation of being called either “she” or “they,” and like halation, I’d probably default to “they” for that interaction.

And if part of your reaction to hearing that is to think that actually, it might be kind of nice, then permission granted to introduce yourself exactly that way. But if you already know you’d definitely rather be called “she,” then instead of spending extra effort to make yourself less comfortable, it would be better to take Juliet Banana’s advice and focus on enforcing respect for other people’s pronouns.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 12:01 PM on December 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

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