Why It Makes Sense for Cis People to State Their Pronouns

Egalitarian movements won't work if we keep putting the onus on the non-conforming.
By Malcolm Harris ,

All-gender restroom at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, California.

(Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr)

However you describe them—college activists, Tumblr kids, social-justice warriors, etc.—it can be hard to make fun of the young and politically correct without saying something genuinely offensive. That's not a concern that troubles, say, Nazis, but liberals and other moderates generally try to stay on the safe side of the line, at least in public. One behavior that's easy and often acceptable to tease, however, is when people whose gender presentation is unambiguous announce their pronouns. That's the first joke that the sitcom Blackish reached for when it wanted to poke fun at campus culture, for example, allowing the character Zoey to distance herself from that type. It's a safe joke because the target isn't transgender students—it's all the pretentious cis ones grabbing attention by showing what good allies they are. No harm done.

So, years after this joke has become cliché, why do we still see Twitter accounts that belong to cis-looking guys named John that say "he/him"? If you conform to the gender binary, what's the point of drawing attention to it? From embarrassing personal experience, I can tell you that it's not as simple as it looks from the outside.

As a college freshman, I was part of a group of kids who co-founded the College Park, Maryland, chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. "New SdS" was an attempt to build a nationwide network of radical students in the model of the original 1960s organization, and one of the things we did was hold national and regional conventions where we met comrades, answered organizational questions, did trainings, had parties, and finished with an action. (We never reached the size or power of the first SDS, but our networks came in real handy years later during Occupy Wall Street.)

SdS believed in pre-figurative politics, which is a fancy way of saying, "Treat others the way you'd like the world to treat them." We were supposed to be building a better world—not just through protest and direct action, but also with kindness and self-discipline in our own interactions. Simply to exist successfully, we would have to change the way we treated each other, stay vigilant for "oppressive behavior" (the term "micro-aggression" wasn't in use at the time), modify structures (like bathroom signs), and lose some bad habits. This is no small undertaking when you're talking about a coalition of hundreds of college students.

During the conventions, we'd spend most of the day in workshops and plenaries—basically small and large groups—on different topics. The incident I'm thinking of occurred in a small workshop at a 2009 northeast regional convention in Rochester, New York, and I honestly can't remember what the topic was. What I remember was the introductory part. We went around in a circle as usual, and the facilitators asked us to say our name, our chapter, and our preferred pronoun of address. When it came my turn, I said—smirking obnoxiously, I'm sure— "I'm Malcolm from College Park, and I'm a dude."

If we think about enduring discomfort as a kind of work, then within a liberation movement it's important to distribute it fairly.

No one gasped or anything, but I could feel the rest of the room shift uncomfortably in their seats. Someone corrected me, gently but firmly, along the lines of, "Lots of people can be dudes." I nodded my head, admonished, and we kept things moving. I didn't have to provide an account of myself to a self-criticism board or anything, I just got a little check: "We can all see what you're doing, and you need to keep that out of here."

What was I doing, and why was it OK for them to embarrass me about it? Here is probably how I would have explained myself at the time (had anyone wanted to waste time on that): Gender is a social fact, and, within the context of American hetero-patriarchy, the fact that I'm a cis man is not an identification I choose, but rather a truth of my existence in the world. To genuinely participate in the exercise of pronoun declaration would be to perform otherwise—as if I could simply opt out of those privileges and the baggage that comes with them—and it would be disingenuous. I didn't want to be the kind of pretentious activist who was the butt of everyone's jokes.

I still think there's some truth in that line of thinking, but I misunderstood what the introductory exercise was about. Having to say, "Hi, I'm Malcolm, I use 'he' and 'him,'" was uncomfortable for me, but the point of us all saying our pronouns was to make the workshop comfortable for trans and gender-non-conforming participants. At a structural level, my comfort and theirs were in conflict. If the instructions had been, "Name, chapter, preferred pronoun if you have one," that would have put the onus on folks who aren't cis to identify themselves. It would have put trans participants in the position of having to guess whether or not everyone else already understood their gender correctly. Even if you're in a community where most people are eager to use preferred terms of address, phrasing it optionally forces everyone who's not gender-conforming to make a special request for accommodation. It marginalizes.

(Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr)

Faced with a situation in which my comfort as a cis person was put second, I got defensive. I took a standard practice that was about making the meeting open to other people and in a snide way I tried to use it to re-center myself and my feelings. For that, my comrades made me feel bad. Not so bad that I had to run out of the room, but bad enough that I still remember it seven years later. It's the kind of shaming that some pundits think we on the left can't afford among ourselves, the kind of behavior that makes us inaccessible to outsiders. But within SdS, we often talked about call-outs like mine in terms of accessibility. Sometimes this was literal—one way that most organizers "checked our privilege" was remembering to make sure venues had wheelchair-accessible entrances. But the larger principle was that, given the choice, we would rather emotionally inconvenience people in their privilege than in their lack thereof.

For example, our standard operating procedure on bathrooms (given two) was to have a (trans-inclusive) women's bathroom and a gender-neutral bathroom. Maybe some men feel awkward sharing their space like that, but if you have to choose someone to make uncomfortable in relation to their gender, start with men. Not because men are all bad and should be punished, but because we tend to have the least oppression to deal with in relation to our gender. If we think about enduring discomfort as a kind of work, then within a liberation movement it's important to distribute it fairly. But since that movement exists within a real society where the distribution of discomfort is extremely uneven, we have to do some compensating. That will make some people look and feel silly, and that's OK.

Left-wing politics is not a challenge to come up with the most socialist program possible that polling models say 51 percent of American voters would support tomorrow. If that's what we were trying to do, it would be easy to think it's centrally important to avoid making cis people feel uncomfortable, and to avoid sounding ridiculous to non-initiates. But that's Democrat thinking, and it's not good enough. Society must be changed to include trans and gender-non-conforming people, not once we reach the horizon, but now. To that end, left-wing-dominated spaces (of which there are a disproportionate number on college campuses, it's true) have some different behavioral expectations.

There is a long-simmering tension between trying to do good and trying to look like you're doing good, and far be it from me to suggest anyone should be immune from teasing—especially not just because they say they're working for a good cause. But being an asshole as a way to distance yourself from earnest, more easily mocked comrades doesn't make your politics genuine or serious either. Trust me, I've tried it. Working with others to change social norms won't turn anyone into an obnoxious "special snowflake"; clinging to the old norms with giggling discomfort, however, just might.

Join the Conversation