Search
  • transadvicecolumn

Should cis folks use gender neutral pronouns?

Q: Hi, I am cis and have been tempted to use gender neutral pronouns because I'm a little cantankerous about whether my gender is relevant AT ALL (in writing to my lawmakers, for example). OTOH, I recognize that using they/them, for queer folks, is a very important statement of identity, so I refrain, because it seems like some kind of appropriation. NOW I am seeing cis colleagues use she/they (or he/they) and actually say they do so because they "support the use of gender neutral" pronouns. This strikes me as misguided - again, this is not an act of neutrality for queer people. What is your take on these questions?


S: Quick and dirty answer (to this and all questions about "can I use X pronouns"): Anyone of any gender can use any pronouns for themself whenever.


Broader answer: Pronouns do not equal gender. Appropriation simply isn't an applicable concept here; no identity group has possession of any particular pronoun set. Nonbinary people can use he or she pronouns, men and women can use they or anything else, some people don't want pronouns used for them at all. Your statement about they/them being "a very important statement of identity" for queer folks isn't really accurate; it may very well be the case for some individuals, but it's definitely not a universal truth. And they/them isn't any more a statement of identity than any other pronoun set. Pronouns are what you want other people to call you, and your reasons for wanting that are nobody else's business. Not using someone's pronouns when you've been told them is offensive regardless of who the person is or what the pronouns are.


Now, as to the specifics of this question...well, I'm going to borrow a framing that K has used on some other posts. Sure, you can use they/them pronouns for yourself if you like; it's not wrong or bad, though you may get some people assuming you're not cis (because a lot of people still do assume that pronouns equal gender). But it may or may not be the most effective way to accomplish what you're going for. To reiterate what I just said above: Pronouns are no more and no less than how you want other people to refer to you. This means that you should not tell people to use ones for you that aren't actually what you want to be called (or that you're experimenting with--it's completely fine to try out pronouns for yourself to see how they feel even if you don't end up sticking with them). So if you want to use they/them pronouns for yourself--sure, I don't care, that's fine. But if you're doing it to prove a point and that's not actually how you want people to refer to you, maybe try something else.


I will suggest that you can avoid using gendered language for yourself in something like an email to a lawmaker. If your actual goal is to remove other people's awareness and assumptions about your gender from the equation...well, our society is so hung up on gender that you probably can't actually do that, but you can try. I'd do things like using gender-neutral nouns (person instead of man or woman, etc.), initializing your first name, and using they/them in context (there's a difference between using they/them as a generic pronoun in a sentence and stating "My pronouns are they/them").


To your last point, again, people can do whatever and I'm certainly not going to question the pronouns somebody provides for themself. In general, though, I personally don't particularly like the practice of adding "they" to one's pronouns purely to "show support" because I don't think it actually does that. Like some of your letter, it shows a misunderstanding of what pronouns are for, and I suspect that a lot of the people who do this don't actually want to be called they/them (and since there's an issue with people defaulting to the first pronouns listed, which this practice arguably perpetuates, it might never come up). Like a lot of the things that people seem to seize onto as a mark of "allyship" that they can do instead of actual work, this one is not terribly useful.



K: As stated above, your pronouns are not your gender, there are no gender prerequisites to use certain pronouns, and your pronouns should be what you want people to use when they refer to you instead of an opportunity to inform others you want to be seen as a trans ally. I see absolutely no issue with referring to yourself with gender neutral language in communication with lawmakers because you hope to avoid assumptions about your identity changing how the message is received. You don't owe lawmakers details about your personal life or identity. That being said, that's a very different situation from what you're describing about your coworkers' reasons for adding they/them pronouns to their own.

I have two responses to that situation:

It is indeed misguided to change or add on pronouns to show support or attempt to normalize something for other people. It isn't an efficient or effective way to show allyship or make changes. People who are uncomfortable using they/them pronouns are going to just not use those pronouns and use the she/her or he/him option that the person also uses (this is actually a huge issue for people who genuinely do use they/she or they/he, if the option exists to avoid they/them, most people will take it). So, you're not really normalizing anything except maybe the practice that its perfectly acceptable to ignore one set of pronouns for people who use multiple sets, since you probably don't care at all if nobody uses they/them for you.

The other possibility here is that these people might not actually be cis. I know a few people who identified as cis and confused feelings of gender euphoria when someone used they/them pronouns for them with trans ally feelings, myself included. A few years before I realized I was non-binary, I was read as pretty androgynous and people often defaulted or self-corrected to they/them pronouns for me if they didn't know me. I would get a warm fuzzy feeling that I interpreted as "wow, it must be nice for trans people that this cafe doesn't assume people's genders!" and then later it was like, "oh wait, turns out I was the trans person this was nice for." Alternatively, they might already be aware they are not cis and the reason they provided ("I support the use of gender neutral pronouns") allows them share the pronouns they feel most comfortable with without explaining their gender or outing themselves to their coworkers. While pronouns do not equal gender, as S. stated, people do tend to assume people using they/them pronouns are non-binary. Because of this, it is hard to tell people you use they/them pronouns without outing yourself.


So my final answer is basically, go ahead and use gender neutral language to refer to yourself to lawmakers. If you're considering using gender neutral language to refer to yourself outside of that type of a situation, I encourage you to reflect on why that is of interest to you, what you hope it will accomplish, and how you actually feel about your own gender. Your pronouns shouldn't be some sort of political statement or show of support for others, they should be how you want to be referred to.



72 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Q: Does the idea of “passing” narrow the view of gender identity and expression and further force it into a limiting binary? K: The short answer here is just: eh, not quite Here's a slightly longer a

Q: When I was 12 years old I came out as bisexual and everything went fine. My parents aren't the most progressive people in the world but they truly want me to be happy and I am lucky for that. The