Should we present our pronouns?

In January 2020, I gave a talk at a US university. It started the way I was told all their seminars started, with each of us in turn giving our pronouns. At a London meeting for an art exhibition, I was helping with, a year or so earlier, another participant suggested we do the same. Before we started discussing the art and the artists, we each said the pronoun we wanted to go by.

Pronoun sharing at meetings and classes has gone mainstream. Pronouns increasingly appear in automatic email signatures, on Zoom calls, and pinned to clothing as companies like M&S and Asda offer pronoun badges to staff who want them. For some, this reflects the desirable normalisation of a new gender landscape. For others, it is an imposition. Many who express criticism of pronoun displays do so for conservative reasons – opposed to the reconfiguring of gender into a plural, flexible identification. But ambivalence or disengagement with the practice also comes from progressive and feminist others.

In this post, I focus on routine pronoun presentations in mixed public environments (rather than queer or trans ones). I argue that when it comes to displaying whether we are “they”, “her”, or “him”, there is no single right answer. Progressive arguments face in different directions. In other words, pronoun-presenting is a dilemmatic issue, without a foundational norm telling us what progressive practice entails. Refusing to say that pronouns should or shouldn’t be displayed may seem to some a cop-out. But recognising the presence of dilemmatic issues on the left is important – not just for this issue of pronouns but for the many contexts where progressive arguments don’t all fall on the same side. Dilemmatic issues call for a judgment or assessment within a specific context. What they also expose is that a view on what is the right thing to do can evolve and change.

I want to start by briefly setting out some of the arguments made for displaying pronouns. As these are well known I will keep them brief.

Reasons given for a shared practice of pronoun display

I

If pronouns aren’t made explicit, some people will be misgendered. This falls unevenly. People with unexpected gender presentations, or those who identify as neither women nor men, are likely to be misgendered most. Thus, the hurt or discomfort falls heaviest on people whose gender is least protected and secure. Sara Ahmed describes how, “Those who appear to confound the senses, to create confusion (are you a boy or a girl, who are you, what are you?) are those who fail to reproduce a history.” We might think of this history as both personal and societal.

II

Presenting one’s pronouns should be done by everyone not just those liable to be misgendered. Otherwise, some people’s gender will be treated as novel or remarkable, while other people’s genders remain taken-for-granted and normalised. The discomfort some (non-trans) people feel on displaying their gender is a discomfort associated with naming something that has been able to remain unmarked. This is an unwarranted privilege held by those with conventional binary gender identities.

III

Providing pronouns on an email signature or Zoom name can be an act of solidarity by those who don’t typically experience misidentification. It ensures it is not just those whose pronouns are challenged or incorrectly ascribed who must do the announcing work.

IV

Widespread display and sharing of pronouns puts all pronoun use in doubt. Identifying pronouns at every seminar or meeting, or in the modifiable form of the virtual signature, allows people to identify several pronouns that they are happy with, for instance “him and they”, or “her and they”. It also makes constant amendment possible – a gender praxis that disrupts notions of gender as stable and fixed. Sonny Nordmarken writes, “Asking about a person’s pronouns indicates a queer understanding of gender (as unstable, nonbinary, changeable, complex, and open-ended), deemphasizes gender identities, and recognizes multiple different pronoun identifications or none.”

V

Sharing enacts the claim that we cannot know the right pronoun for someone else unless we are told. Everyone’s pronouns become uncertain, since they cannot be inferred from appearance, voice, body etc. This severs gender from sexed embodiment. More radically, it hollows gender out. Gender loses its oppressive standardised meanings, since what is conveyed is unclear, personal, and constantly being remade. 

VI

Displaying pronouns is a present-day strategy not a way of prefiguring the future. It’s an action with a purpose – to raise consciousness and reset people’s assumptions about each other and how they should behave. Once these shifts have been accomplished, pronoun display may become unnecessary.

For many people, these arguments in favour of presenting one’s pronouns trump any alternatives. And yet, there are valid progressive reasons for hesitating. These hesitating-reasons don’t justify an organisation stopping or discouraging people from displaying their pronouns but are, I think, reasonable reasons why individuals may choose not to do so.

What does pronoun display presuppose and do?

I

The requirement to present one’s pronouns can suggest gender is important. But is this a claim about the present or the future – about what is or what should be?  Deliberate misgendering can be abusive and humiliating; its accidental occurrence typically reflects dominant social values – the misgendering of androgynous-looking lesbians, the assumption (less often face-to-face) that a couple who present themselves as Ms and Dr will be heterosexual with a professional male. But the need to challenge normative expectations about gender doesn’t mean crafting a future in which gender remains an important aspect of personhood.

II

Gender institutionalises power, through the unequal norms, roles, relations, wealth, and labour associated with women and men, trans and non-trans, feminine and masculine, normative and other genders. Gender is political – and being he/ him, they/ them, or she/ her are not equivalents.  They are not different patterns of the same kind of cloth. As a colleague remarked when asked, “badges or email signatures to me seem to flatten the complexity of gender in a way that, ironically. does not make me feel particularly recognised.”

Expecting people to identify publicly with a gender pronoun, and treating different gender pronouns as equally valid, can suggest gender’s political character is simply a matter of who is included and recognised. But correct identification according to a gender pronoun category does not necessarily lead to respect, equality, or fairness. It simply means being recognised as a particular kind of person or thing. Focusing on pronoun accuracy can misleadingly imply that if we are ‘correctly’ categorised, other social justice benefits will follow.

III

Displaying our pronouns can suggest that gender is a positive attachment. If we feel alienated by our gender, an emerging assumption is that another gender may be the right one. But from a different feminist perspective, knowing ourselves to be she/her (whether as trans or non-trans women) comes from being socially situated, addressed, and treated as women within mainstream society – and not in a good way.

Grassroots communities may use gender descriptors in oppositional, ironic, creative ways but this does not erase (indeed it takes place in relation to) the social subjectivities that dominant relations create and hold in place (or at least attempt to). For many feminists, she/ her (or any other gender pronouns) are not what we choose to be.

If the call to publicly present our pronouns presumes a positive identification with them, how can we simultaneously identify the relationship as a critical one – disidentifying not only with the social category in which we are placed (with all its costs and privileges) but also with the system in which this categorising takes place?

IV

Displaying pronouns isn’t just about self-presentation, it is also about what we expect others to do having shared our pronouns with them. This has become a site of push-back from some sex-based feminists, using free speech arguments to claim a right not to be compelled to express beliefs (about others’ sex) that they do not hold. I don’t agree with this. Deliberately referring to someone with contrary pronouns seems excluding, insulting, and nativist. It speaks to a “we were here first” politics, as the territory of gender categories gets claimed. Elsewhere, I have suggested that speech in the presence of others becomes shared public property. In the case of injurious speech, this gives others the right – indeed, we might add, the responsibility – to manage how and where such speech circulates, and what becomes of it, which may include its swift disposal. But this is where someone identifies their pronouns.

A different position arises when others are required (or invited) to use the right pronouns by ‘correctly’ reading how someone appears – to know they must say “she” when the person comes to work or college in make-up, high heels, and skirt; “he” when dressed otherwise. Here, feminist concerns about being compelled to enter another’s gender-schema, reinforcing masculine and feminine as distinct registers of appearance, and aligning gender with appearance, seem fair ones. But this applies to the appearance of people who identify as non-trans also; a refusal to read someone’s gender from how they appear cannot legitimately be restricted to those who transition.

V

Regardless of the gender category, pronouns contribute to our subjectification. People may reject state-imposed forms – the he/ him, she/ her we are expected to go by. Yet, in contrast to Althusser’s famous interpellatory instance, where we turn around at the police officer’s “hey you”, here we offer ourselves up as third person subjects to be butterfly-pinned by others. This can have different consequences including to ‘out’ people by marking the presence of trans people – we are all displaying our pronouns because trans people are part of our ‘we’ (a move that may fetishise rather than normalise); and obliges people to reveal their gender identification publicly. (In this post, I intentionally focus on pronoun presentation/ display rather than pronoun “sharing” because sharing suggests information is given and held by a specifically designated person or group rather than offered to whoever comes by – as an automatic email signature or a pronoun badge does.)

VI

Declaring pronouns on badges and email signatures is also a short step, some may feel, to public display of all our social locations – including our sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability, and class. I’m reminded of a pinned badge in the mid-80s, which read, “how dare you presume I’m Christian?”.

The question was not intended to generate a new convention of ethno-religious identity-sharing but to oppose the over-inclusive embrace and normative supposition of hegemonic Christianity.

Are there any good reasons to share our gender position but not our positioning in other social relations of inequality? Gender is explicitly and routinely signalled in speech in ways other social relations are not – although there are interesting examples of gender-pronoun refusal being institutionalised, such as the Stockholm pre-school which started calling all children ‘hen’ or ‘friends’ (or by their name) as part of a broad move to resist gender stereotyping.  Yet, while other social relations in Britain today are not relied upon in routine speech acts, they are signalled in other ways: for instance, holiday greetings, such as “Happy Easter”, that mark the assumed universality of dominant cultures.

We could go on finding similarities and differences. The trouble with this approach is that it treats social categories as abstract rather than historically situated phenomena. A better approach, I think, is to focus on the context – to understand how the social politics and histories of the present give meaning to what is done – causing the politics surrounding social relations to diverge despite apparent abstract similarities – displaying gender pronouns, then, is not the same thing right now as displaying one’s ethnic identity. 

Should we move to “they”/ “them“?

Pronoun diversity may prefigure, at least for some, what gender should become – a multicultural range of expressive identifications that exist non-hierarchically and non-relationally, where what it is to be he/ him, for instance, does not take its meaning from she/ her in any significant way – where differences between him, her, and they are more like the differences between rowing and badminton, or stamp and toy car collecting, than between working-class and bourgeoisie.

For now, however, in conditions where pronouns signal statuses that are relational and very far from equal, a better option may be to use “they” for everyone. Feminists previously fought for “Ms”, arguing women’s marital status should not be a basis for differential honorifics between women, and for “chair” rather than “chairman or chairwoman”, countering sceptics’ claims that an inanimate sitting-object could not conduct a meeting. Use of “they” would suggest that, in most contexts, people’s gender should be irrelevant to what is being said (about them). Taking up “they” also counters its marginalisation since making pronouns public (through turn-taking speech, badge wearing, or signature) makes minority gender identities more visible and potentially vulnerable. Of course, calling everyone “they” may risk obscuring male status and power. But while some men may object (and feel dimished by) being part of the “they”, their differential power does not depend on making he/ him pronouns visible.

But in the meantime… dealing with a dilemmatic politics

Progressive reasons exist for displaying one’s pronouns and for not doing so. This is important to recognise. There are many political issues where progressive social justice arguments congregate on one side (and, of course, we will disagree about which these are), but there are other occasions where progressive arguments disperse. Deciding what to do then requires deliberative work as people take on a situational responsibility, something I explore more fully in relation to bathhouse care ethics. This is a dilemmatic politics, oriented to complexity, attentiveness, feeling one’s way, and uncertainty – a rule (however seemingly progressive) shouldn’t simply be applied or followed.

Pronoun display today is a political intervention – often it is a speech act about self-identification, plurality, and the severing of gender from sexed embodiment, one that brings the norms operating in alternative gender communities into the mainstream.

Yet, it can also be something else. The association of pronoun non-display with sex-based feminist arguments – that sex is binary and unchanging – may lead some to display their pronouns while agreeing, more abstractly, with many of the reasons for not doing so. Choices and actions, like these, are rooted in historical moments where the politics of what is done depends on chains of actions, beliefs, and social ties rather than being borne by an action, such as pronoun display, in isolation.

For others, even as they may want to distance themselves from sex-based feminism, the regressive meanings and attributes of gender carried by public acts of self-description (including of pronoun display) remain too strong. Holding back from pronoun presentations here can also be viewed as a political intervention. At its best (and it isn’t always that), such non-performance tacitly underscores gender’s endurance as a hierarchical structure that relies on difference and the performance of difference.

Hierarchy and power, identity and pleasure – a critical feminist and gender politics benefits from the dialogue between different accounts, and this is a dialogue or conversation that actions can contribute to. Pronoun display, while it remains a micropolitical practice of variation, is one place where this dialogue can happen with its overlapping (but different) notions of what is being said when gender is said.  

Thanks to friends and colleagues who shared thoughts with me on earlier versions of this text, and to Ben Kanter for the main image.

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3 thoughts on “Should we present our pronouns?

  1. I work in the trades so I don’t deal with this but I feel this could also mention how “asking everyone to do this” has the effect of demanding that people “out” themselves

  2. I refuse to identify myself or others using sexual orientation, racial arguments, or idiosyncratic arguments. Each of us exists first and for all as a person, and that is what makes us share humanity and humanness. Reality is different than Alice in Wonderland.

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