This is a bit ranty, and I’m not sure if there’s going to be much direction to it or a “point”, but it’s going to be full of words. Talk of misgendering and such ahead.
I stumbled onto a rather unpleasant blog post written about a suit filed by a gender-neutral employee in regard to having coworkers repeatedly go against their wishes by referring to them with feminine pronouns and pet names like “miss” and “little lady”. Actually, the link I provided (the original source material) is the only un-biased, not-super-condescending thing I could find before having to abandon that mission. I won’t be linking to any of the hateful sites because no one needs that triggery shit.
A former catering worker who identifies as neither female or male is suing Bon Appetit Management Co. for $518,000, claiming co-workers referred to the employee as a female though repeatedly being asked to stop.
Valeria Jones alleges in a lawsuit that co-workers repeatedly called Jones “miss,” “lady” and “little lady” despite explanations that Jones “was not a female or a male and that the term was unwelcome.”
Workers also directly said Jones looked like a woman and made female celebrity comparisons, the suit states.
I don’t even know where to start with this. Setting aside for a moment that this has anything to do with gender, everything about this qualifies as harassment. The coworkers were asked to stop referring to Jones with feminine terms (terms which I think we can safely deem “hurtful” since it caused emotional distress) and they didn’t. The company didn’t do anything because there aren’t provisions for trans* recognition in the workplace. The coworkers go on to tease this person. Making comparisons to Ellen (“female celebrity”) is a) very, very old and b) extremely rude when you’re talking to someone who clearly doesn’t want to be grouped in with women.
There is so much condescension surrounding this issue that binary-minded people don’t seem to even register that we’re talking about harassment here, regardless of the gender of the recipient. It seems pretty simple to me: If someone asks you not to call them something, you don’t do it, regardless of how harmless it may seem to you.
Since the existence of non-binaries is a totally new thing for most people, I can see how ignorance runs rampant. Many of the sites that have talked about this story seem to think Jones wants everyone to use some “made-up” word to refer to them. I don’t know why, but this freaks people the hell out. (Unfortunately, the small vocabulary of invented neutral pronouns hasn’t made it to the general populace yet.)
I kinda-sorta understand discomfort with trying to adopt alien vocabulary–it’s part of the reason I haven’t personally chosen to use any of the invented gender-neutral terms like “ve”, etc. But, English-speakers use a neutral pronoun all the time with “they/them/their”. It’s used so casually that we don’t even notice it happening.
This whole thing is really thorny for non-binary people because you have people telling you that your gender isn’t even real because there are only two gender options. You have people freaking out about using “made-up words”, then you get others who won’t use “they/them/their” because “It’s plural”.
Segue into the lovely conversation I had with someone on Facebook*. (You’ll spoil the surprise** at the end of the post if you read the full convo right now, btw.) My comments are paraphrased/edited down, M’s are copy/pasted as-is:
Native English speakers: I guarantee that you use a gender-neutral pronoun (NOT "it") at least once a week. Pay attention & get back to me.
— Luxander Pond (@Elly_Banana) February 17, 2014
M: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/ Though it’s such a foreign concept to intentionally adopt made up words into my vocabulary, I’m willing to try.
Lux: What I’m pointing out is that people often assume that gender-neutral terminology requires use of newly-coined terms. I’m actually just turning a mirror on the fact that people use “they/them/their” without thinking about it. I prefer they/them/their to the new terms because people already use those easily and naturally in everyday speech.
M: But then the question presents itself, how to refer to someone in a personal pronoun. Without these new terms all we are left with is “one” and “it” and I doubt you’ll like either one of those. Him or her shouldn’t be insulting, I refer to you as her because your my friend’s wife, not because I only percieve you as a woman.
Lux: We use “they” to refer to hypothetical people we don’t know, like the drivers of other cars. It’s somewhat of a transition to start using it to refer to someone personally, but I also found that pretty easy to do when one of my friends requested gender-neutral terms be used to talk about them.
To clarify: I’m not insulted by gendered pronouns. It’s more a matter of hurt feelings. I’ve tried to make myself “okay” with “being a woman” and being referred to as such, but I don’t really have a choice about the fact that it makes me feel bad. It took a lot of courage to change stuff online to reflect who I feel I am, and to ask people to switch pronouns. In reality, I almost never ask people to switch, even people I trust, even though it hurts me (out of my control) to be called woman-related terms.
M: No like, I’m not gonna ask: “Hey Chris how’s they/them/their?” I can say: “How’s Lux? Or how’s the wife?” But the English vernacular doesn’t allow for a nongenderized version of him/her. I can use they/them/their when it applies in proper form. But from now on ill ask Chris: “How is they?” See what I mean? Not as simple as it seems, there is no personal nongenderized pronoun.
Lux: How are they. It’s fine to use the plural verb since the context implies that you’re referring to a singular.
M’s first comment proved my point that people’s initial conclusion is to think of the invented pronouns and not the ones we use every day. Then, they made the assumption that I’m insulted by the use of feminine pronouns and immediately told me that I shouldn’t feel insulted because they don’t mean what I think they mean.
Then we see a little more of the imagined issues with using “them” to specifically refer to a singular person, such as switching verb conjugation, which is completely unnecessary. Another commenter pointed out that we juggle singular/plural verb use every day with the word “you”.
Why do people seem to think it’s okay to trample all over people’s gender-related preferences? It seems like every trans* person will deal with someone deliberately misgendering them at least once in the name of “you shouldn’t be offended, it’s not like I’m using slurs or anything”. There are cis people in our lives who seem to feel entitled to choose our labels for us. (And, of course, there are larger structures in place which enable people in power to ignore the requests of people in comparatively disadvantaged positions more generally.)
I do want to call attention to something I mentioned in my Facebook comments: I actually don’t ask people to switch pronouns in my AFK interactions. Online, all of my bios are written with gender terminology and my genderqueerity is one of my primary identifiers in internet interactions; I just sort of expect people to pick up on it and use those terms without my having to say anything. I will occasionally correct people misgendering me online, but usually only because they managed to upset me.
I pretty much never ask people I have face-to-face interactions with to use proper pronouns for me. Even if it hurts my feelings to be misgendered all the time, even though some people misgender me out of ignorance and others out of spite, even though it’s simply incorrect to refer to me with feminine terminology, I don’t ask people to switch.
Why? Because my gender is an important part of who I am and it’s hard to explain and easy to misunderstand. It’s a very vulnerable, raw thing that I’m not interested in submitting to potential injury by lack of understanding or malice. I’m not interested in risking having an integral part of me rejected and/or scoffed at, so only certain people even get to know that I’m genderqueer in my AFK life.
Plus–and this is actually kind of sad–I’m concerned about being imposing by asking people to switch pronouns. I understand that if you’ve never switched pronouns, you have to reprogram your brain to think of gender as a plastic thing in the first place and then train yourself to use the proper ones. You have to retrain the way you think about the person whose pronouns have changed. All those difficulties are tripled when the person requests gender-neutral terminology. I recognize those difficulties, and they weigh in heavily when I’m deciding whether to inform someone of the proper terms to use.
If there are any lessons to be learned here, let it start with: Don’t assume you know what other people are thinking. It’s condescending and rude. Telling someone that they shouldn’t be insulted implies that you have some insight into what they’re thinking and that you know better than they do what does or should upset them.
Further, if you are aware of a trans* person’s pronoun preferences, use them. If you don’t know and you really need to know for some reason, ask them privately. If you have any amount of respect or care for them as human beings, you will do what you can to minimize their marginalization and suffering, and affirm their gender. It’s really just basic recognition of an integral part of their identities that almost every other human being gets to have validated. (Or not integral, in the case of some agender and other people.)
*My tweets forward to Facebook. This format was easiest since I didn’t want to take a screencap from Facebook. I’m lazy, sue me.
**The surprise is that I used absolutely zero gendered pronouns in this post. Did it in any way detract from the information provided that you didn’t know M is a cis man?