Each week, I answer one of your burning questions on the blog. This week Garrison asks:
I have a question about pronouns. I am an LGBTQ ally. This is an important issue for me though everything on my stat sheet says oppressor (cis, male, straight white). A couple months ago there was an incident that has been bothering me ever since.
A queer friend of mine I’ve known for years posted something on Facebook regarding their preferred pronoun, they. I commented that I thought that maybe a reason people have trouble wrapping their brains around it is because it’s difficult to consistently remember to use a plural pronoun to refer to a single person. I also said I was surprised that queer people hadn’t come up with their own ideas for pronouns considering that we make up new words every day. They and their friends jumped all over me. They eventually apologized and so did I.
While I recognize that I hurt them by questioning their choices, I don’t think it helps their cause when they scold an ally who’s just trying to understand. Any advice for me going forward? How do I have these conversations without coming across as a jerk?
Where to begin?
First, I’ll say that it’s good you recognize the hurt in questioning their pronoun. There is a reason your friends jumped on your comment.
Folks who are outside the binary spend a lot of time being supremely exhausted with the emotional labor that they endure.
Robot Hugs says it best here.
We are finally at a point in time when people can begin to allow their internal feelings of gender be recognized by their external pronouns. As more and more people realize they have the freedom to choose something OTHER than what was assigned to them at birth, and even something outside the binary, we will have to learn to adopt a more flexible language.
There is actually a long history of gender-neutral pronouns and using the singular “they” (if Chaucer and Shakespeare did it, why can’t we?). Plus, radical queer communities have been using zie/ze and the like for decades – the problem was mainstream media wasn’t paying attention, so it’s easy to say this conversation about pronouns is new. It is, in fact, really really old.
My first question to you, Garrison, is why you felt the need to respond to someone’s pronoun announcement with anything other than support and gratitude?
Did that genuinely seem like the right time to engage in a critical discussion around why privileged oppressors may struggle with a pronoun choice?
Without seeing the actual conversation, what this looks like is someone with privilege trying to take up space in a conversation that is not for you.
So, let’s take a look at what it means to be an ally.
The Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting happened a little over a week ago, and so articles on what it means to be an ally are everywhere. I especially love this one by Milo Todd on Everyday Feminism. The lessons apply to a much broader discussion.
Specifically, this section:
5. Don’t Talk Over Us.
No. You have to wait your turn. Your feelings are valid and we appreciate your sadness and anger, but you need to talk about your feelings with fellow allies for right now.
Being an ally means holding space for experiences you may not understand and simply listening. Listening is where so many of us fail – whether we are trying to be allies for the queer community or for POC or for women.
Of course, your perspective is valuable, and difficult conversations are how we move things toward a greater understanding.
But if you really value the relationships you have with your queer friends, and if you are dedicated to being a true ally, you have to be mindful about when, where, and how you have these conversations.
Another great piece on gender and the ways cis folks try to center themselves is here. I really loved:
When cis people encounter challenges to their conception of a binary gender, they often react with defensiveness, forcing trans people to do the emotional labor of comforting the cis person in addition to educating them and explaining basic concepts about gender or divulging personal experience to satiate cis curiosity and confusion. This derails conversations about trans experiences with oppression and devolves them into assuages of cis guilt and potential violence. The too-familiar “I’m sorry I misgendered you, singular ‘they’ is hard for me”, centers cis difficulty in remembering a new name or pronoun over the discomfort and disrespect toward the trans person they misgendered. This is an attempt to redirect social resources (time, attention, emotional labor), prioritizing cisness over transness.
The bottom line is we are all learning, we all fuck up, and we all have work to do.
All of us are trapped in a sexist, hetero-centric, patriarchal, white supremacist system, so untangling all of the ways we are all wrapped up in oppression takes a lot of work and a lot of failing.
I fail often in my journey to be a better ally to POC. I say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and all I can do is apologize and promise to do better.
Instead of putting the burden on POC to explain to me how I messed up, I need to turn to trusted allies and find my answers that way. Just as you, Garrison, have done by writing to me.
I have a few more thoughts about your last question, because it’s an important one.
So how CAN you have important conversations without being a jerk who adds to the silencing and oppression of marginalized folks? (This goes for straight allies of queer folks, white allies of POC, cis men of cis & trans women, etc.)
- Ask when it would be a good time to have a conversation. This acknowledges that these conversations can be tough and overwhelming and exhausting, so your friend/loved one has a chance to actually tell you when they have the spoons for a discussion.
*Example, “I’d love to talk about pronouns and how we’re using them these days. You up for that sometime?”
- Listen. Then, listen some more. Then, pause, wait, and listen.
- Ask meaningful questions that come from a place of wanting to build bridges. Don’t use questions as a passive-aggressive way to let your opinion be known or because you want to feel seen.
- Apologize when you fuck up and get specific about what you did wrong and how you’ll do better next time.
- Ask your friends to hold you accountable. No, seriously. Ask for accountability. If they say, “Whoa. That wasn’t cool.” or “You’re talking over us again.” You get to practice putting your money where your mouth is.
- Give yourself permission to feel frustrated or confused or angry. It can be really scary when you start seeing just how massive the problems are and just how wrong you’ve gotten it in the past. We’ve all been there. Grieving is OK.
- Use the 24 hour rule if you’re REALLY feeling passionate about something. If you see a thread on Facebook and something in you is absolutely DYING to jump in, type out your thoughts and set them aside for a day. Too many really horrible things get said on social media, and once you do something that hurts a friend or loved on, you can’t take that back. The conversation will still be relevant 24 hours later, and you’ll be a lot clearer on your motivation and your perspective by then.
We all have thoughts and feelings about so many of the big issues that are swirling around us right now.
It is all too easy to let the safety of the screen protect us from seeing the damage our words can have – it’s one thing to question someone’s pronoun on Facebook. It’s another to look them in the eye, in person, and see the impact your words have on someone you care about.
So, I invite all of us to do better. Whether you’re talking to your partner about your relationship or wanting to have a critical discussion about the intersections of race and queerness, take a moment to look inside of yourself and ask WHY you want to have that conversation.
Is it because you feel your perspective is important and you want to feel heard? Or, is it because you want to reach across the divide and find a way to share yourself with another person in a meaningful way? If you want to have the conversation from a loving place, perhaps ask yourself if it should even be a public discussion?
Being an ally is not easy. That’s why we are still so very far from equality… privileged folks get scared off by all of the work that needs to be done.
But it’s so important and I love that readers of the blog and listeners of the show are the kind of people who want to see the world be a more inclusive, safer place.
I appreciate you asking these questions, Garrison. You’re practicing and I admire that. I hope you take all of this and circle back to your friends…see how you might approach that pronoun conversation a little differently. You might be surprised at how much deeper your relationship with your friends can be when they see you actively wanting to heal the damage that was done.
Go forth and be good allies!
What do you think, dear reader? How are you practicing (and failing) at being a better ally? Comment below with your favorite tips and techniques for navigating pronoun discussions and queer spaces.
Have your own question about sex, relationships, kink, or your body? Send it my way (there’s an anonymous option) and I may answer your inquiry on the podcast or in the weekly advice column, Wednesday Words.