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It's Just Words

Published: Nov 20 2018

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I have written before about language. This time I would like to bring up the use of pronouns and why they matter so much to trans people. I also believe that they matter to most cis people but they don't acknowledge it, whether intentionally or not. I have expanded upon situations that are similar to pronouns in a way that all people can understand.


Many people who argue that pronouns are unimportant claim to follow biological decrees. If that were true it would fall apart fairly quickly when they are questioned what that means. It's the same elementary biology argument they give when claiming that transgender people are not really what they say they are. Nobody is feeling up everyone they meet and then giving them a karyotype test before picking which pronouns to use. The only logical conclusion is that they are ignorant of biology and how it has nothing to do with language. There are no biologists studying pronouns. Rather people make best guesses (based off several criteria) and correct themselves when they categorized wrong.


The next argument people fall on is that words mean things and that they are immutable. Much like the misinformed biology argument it doesn't hold up and is an elementary understanding of how language works. Usually this argument isn't used for the her/him pronouns but for the nonbinary ones. People think that because they are 'newer', or 'less common' they are not valid. They may also point to past use to justify that current use is incorrect. This argument is extremely common when people argue that sex is equal to gender. That topic is another conversation entirely.

Language evolves. There are many words that mean something different now because they are used that way. One example would be the word "gay", which still does originally mean "joyous", but most people would assume you mean homosexual first. The simplest examples I won't say here but think of any slur, many didn't used to be slurs but common use has changed the meaning. 

Irregardless (notice how this is really a word now), new words come and go, meanings change over time. The words we use only need to convey the right meaning and are not prescriptive in everyday usage. For a very plain example of what this means imagine you go to a friends house. They have a new piece of furniture that seats two people. They want you to sit on it to show how comfortable it is. Only they call it a couch instead of a loveseat. Would you be confused as to what they meant? Another scenario would be describing a trans woman to the host of a restaurant when they arrived earlier than you. If you use the incorrect pronouns it should be very obvious why the host is going to be confused why they have nobody waiting for you. Society at large works using descriptive language this way.

Respect and Safety

The last section is what is claimed to be harder to understand for most cis people. They don't understand why it's offensive and sometimes dangerous when you (intentionally/consistently) misgender someone. It's just a word, right?

Some people are so against trans people they will harm them physically. I don't think that is an outrageous claim. It is quite obvious to anybody who has glanced at the news in any time frame that there are a lot of prejudiced people that don't care to abide by the rules of society. This happens to other LGBT people as well. When you call someone the wrong pronoun you are potentially alerting anybody who can hear that you may be talking to a trans person. I am not saying that you should police your language because it might be an issue though. It is a concern that trans people, as well as other LGBT people in the past and present, have to deal with though. It's no different than loudly exclaiming that you won the lottery and what your address is. It can be done and most people won't care but you put yourself at a higher risk by doing it. I am not saying it "should" be this way but it "is" right now.

The other part is about respect, or at least basic decency. Intentionally using the wrong pronouns, or name, for someone is a sign that you don't respect them. You are saying they aren't valid right to their face. People who are doing it intentionally are generally easy to see in context. People may slip up occasionally but this isn't the same as intentional misgendering. Most cis people claim they couldn't understand how it's invalidating or why it's a big deal. 

The most common example I use is a married woman. Would you demand that you call her "Ms X" instead of "Mrs Y" after she changed her name from marriage? What about if she didn't complete the legal name change yet but is in the stages of doing that? Would you demand to see the documents and until then use her maiden name? What if instead of her name you constantly try to romance her? You know she is married and she has told you of her commitment to one partner but you persist in treating her as a single woman. Why would she not be upset with you for disrespecting her? That is a little over the top but it's a hypothetical and they are supposed to test boundaries.

What if instead it's a woman who acquired her PhD? Would you understand why she would be upset that you (the general public and/or private employer) recognize all the males in the hospital as Dr but always refer to the woman as Ms instead? Now imagine that it's just a single woman at the hospital. All the other staff is recognized with the proper title but she is not, despite equal qualification. Would you say it's not really an issue because they are still letting her work in the profession? Why should she not be upset when she is their equal, in regard to that title?

The last is the most common that most people have experience with. Let's say I introduce you to my friend. I introduce him as "Tom". Would you ask him if his name is really "Thomas"? If he says that no, it is "Tom". Do you demand that he prove it? If he says that it is short for "Thomas" do you explain to him that you will not call him "Tom" but "Thomas" because that is what it is really. Casually people do this all the time with nicknames. What if instead of "Tom" I introduce you to him as "DJ". When you ask if that is a real name he says that it's not but I explain that he is generally known as that to all people since he was young. The only people who use his legal name are for legal purposes (taxes, payroll, banking). Would you understand if he didn't like you when you decided you were going to ignore all that and call him "Tom"? The example is contrived but the concept is common enough.


All of these are my thoughts. There are plenty of others that have written about this topic. They probably are more coherent and well-read than I am. People adapt to other's all the time but resist when a trans person is the other. Trans people aren't trying to force you to have a specific opinion but to show the same common courtesy that you afford others. Honestly if you made it this far you probably already agreed with most of this or had these thoughts. Maybe you didn't though and now you have more info. I don't expect that any of the inflammatory people made it this far though. This article wouldn't have been for them. It's for the people around them that have to interact with them. They won't listen to a random trans woman on the internet but maybe they will listen to their friend, colleague, or family member when they bring up some of the points/perspectives that I did.

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