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Pronouns

To many people, new pronouns and newly-visible gender identities can be confusing, intimidating, or even alarming. I’m talking about when a person asks be referred to as they. Or someone who looks like a man asks to be referred to as she. Or a feminine-looking person wants to be called a he.

 

3-Minute Video. It’s pretty good!

Super-Basic Terms

There are lots of terms and definitions out there and for me it was too much to learn it all at once. Here are some basics.

Assigned Sex – An anatomical thing, the description that a doctor assigns to a baby based on their body. Typically referred to as male, female, or intersex.

Gender – What your core spirit feels like. Whether you feel like a man or a woman or something else deep inside. Some people have two spirits, or more, and those deep inside feelings can change from day to day. Typically referred to as man/boy, woman/girl, nonbinary, or queer.

Sexual Orientation – The sex or gender you want to get cuddly with. Typically referred to as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual.

 

Old Ideals Coming Out

Most Americans, especially older Americans, have a traditional mindset that if a person looks like girl she is a girl and she likes boys. Or if a person looks like a man that means he has male anatomy and that means he should want to date women.

Not true today. Or ever, actually. And as much I might long for tidy alignment among sex, gender, and attraction, it’s not okay for me to pretend or ignore that a colorful variety of genders and orientations exist today. It’s not okay for me to assume that every person, or any person, is aligned that way.

I’ve found that it works well if I easily allow for anyone I meet, however they look, to align their stuff however they want. It’s a Quaker ideal: listen and act on the light of god within you. And it’s an American ideal: we love our rights to individual freedom and self determination. We pride ourselves as a nation of self-made people!

And did you know that using the pronoun “they” to refer to an individual is not new in the English language? Shakespeare used it that way, for instance.

 

Four Things I’ve Learned

This is not a whole big explanation of pronouns. There’s a lot to it. I’m simply trying to pass along some basics that I’ve learned only in the last few years. And I’m open to corrections, clarifications, and other views. We’re all just trying to figure this out.

 

1. Make an effort

It’s hard when someone asks you to change how you think of them. For example, “I know I’ve been your female-looking co-worker for years, but I actually identify as non-binary and prefer using they/them when referring to me.” It’s also hard when someone looks feminine but asks to be thought of and referred to as masculine, or visa versa.

These things can be really hard, actually. Gender-based cues and instincts have been hard-wired into us. Having to change this “hard wiring” can feel like an imposition. Yet “because it’s hard” is not an excuse. I have to make an effort. And you know what? It’s not actually hard-wired with actual wire. Old instincts exist in your brain cells and brain cells can change.

The effort I have to make is mostly a spiritual one; to actually really see every person as a unique individual who gets to define themselves. If that’s what I’m walking around with – that spiritual attitude — I’m not likely to accidentally show disrespect.

Yet I also have to make an effort with specific people who have asked for they/them pronouns or pronouns that don’t immediately “register with me.” Most people who want specific pronouns tell us what they want. It’s my job to keep track of that and when I am about to write to or talk to such a person, or about such a person, I am actively trying to keep in mind that when a sentence calls for a pronoun, I will say the right thing. I practice in my head.

 

2. Catch your mistakes

When I realize I have made a mistake, I look for an immediate opportunity to fix it. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen or that no one noticed, even though there may be no reaction whatsoever. At the next break in the conversation, for instance, I might say, “I realize I called you a she just now and that’s not right. Sorry about that.”

Then move on. No need to make a thing of it. Demonstrate respect by actually NOT making a thing of it. A quick look-in-the-eye genuine apology can go a long way. And look for a chance to use the correct pronoun in the future so we can all see that you are serious about wanting to get it right.

 

Here’s a super helpful guide with a glossary and Q & A.

3. Learn stuff on your own

When I first started encountering people who wanted me to call them they instead of he or she, my instinct was to ask them to explain themselves. Really, I wanted to learn from them what this was all about and why they were asking me to make such an accommodation.

Blaaak. That notion – that I wanted people to explain themselves – sends shivers now that I write it. It reminds me of “Explain yourself young lady,” or other phrases I heard as a child.

And that’s exactly what it might feel like to a person being asked to explain: demeaning. Perhaps “justify yourself,” is a good translation of how it might feel.

Curiosity is good and if you feel close enough with a they/them type person to talk about stuff like gender then ease into a conversation and be ready stop at any moment. But don’t expect someone to teach you from scratch. Learn some stuff on your own first. Use the right words. Have good questions. Show some respect. Be the ambassador who arrives in a foreign country and even though clumsy, tries to greet people in their native language.

 

4. Embrace the opportunity

Rather than look at someone with they/them pronouns as a burden, I can make a choice to see it as an opportunity. What an easy way to show someone instant respect! All I have to do is pay attention to what someone wants to be called and do what they ask. They will notice. Using the right pronoun is an easy way to build instant mutual rapport.

I can have a bad attitude about gender-neutral pronouns or I can embrace them like I embraced computers, cellphones, and zoom. Actually, I should embrace gender-neutral people way more than those things. Those are machines. Gender-neutral people are people!

As in may of these articles, I need to check my privilege. My sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all aligned in very traditional ways. I don’t get questioned. I don’t get asked about my pronouns very often. But I broadcast them anyway as a show of support for others, and to show you that I COULD be a they/them but happen to be a he/him; no better or worse than a they/them or a her/she, just all of us sharing our pronouns.

As a practical matter, I have a lot to gain by making an effort on pronouns and little to lose.

10 thoughts on “Pronouns

  1. Hi Everyone!
    Just a shout out of appreciation to you who have made such thoughtful comments.
    I’ve just been too busy with clients this week to respond to every one but I have read every one and I’m better for it.
    I have learned some new things and have felt your gratitude.
    You’re welcome.
    Thank you for engaging in this conversation.

  2. In both sexes, there is a bell curve of those who feel more masculine and those who feel more feminine in their mind, the vast majority being an average of what is well-established biological differences in the sexes. This isn’t based on anyone’s whim. It’s observational science that is extremely well-documented and tested true for more than 40 yrs of recorded history, and useful in analyzing the sexes at any point in our past history. Humanity hasn’t evolved at all. Our genome is slowly wearing out, but we remain essentially human.

    The best marriage counseling I have found is Marriage Dynamics. In it, they rightly avoid stereotypes of male/female when it applies to activities. In bringing peace to the male-female marriage, making survival of the species and protection of children most enjoyable and productive, the unique individual man and woman have to be free to make their own unique partnership.

    This program first teaches couples how to discuss communication problems without blaming each other or thinking the worst about the partner’s internal motivations. The problem is the problem, not your partner. Fear usually is the root of poor communication, and must be confronted.

    Then homework: a long list of tasks necessary to run a household. Both rate each task on a scale of +3 (love doing) to -3 (hate doing). The tasks of daily living, including work and budgeting, can be used to express love to your spouse, or if neglected, eventually destroy the relationship, and have a devastating effect on children, and really, everyone around you.

    You can front-load your “To Do” lists for success. Make a new list for each partner. Each partner puts the tasks they thoroughly enjoy doing on their job list. If there are jobs that one partner rates ‘0’ for don’t care, and the other partner hates that job, then the indifferent partner takes the job. In this way, their partner feels a sense of relief at being shielded from a task that really brings them down. It’s a simple way to boost the feeling of being loved without deliberately burdening your partner to perform beyond their own personal capacity unrewarded. Lists can be revisited if tastes or circumstances change. It’s YOUR LIST. Nobody else on the planet has the right to tell you to do it differently to “fit in”.

    Instead of women always cooking or doing the dishes/laundry/dusting, each couple is FREE TO MAKE THEIR OWN JOYFUL PARTNERSHIP. If it means she uses the lawnmower or the chainsaw, and she has the muscles to do it safely, then whose right is it to say she’s not behaving exactly as she is uniquely gifted to behave? A man can’t cook, said nobody to Gordon Ramsey ever!

    Men DO have psychologically different mental patterns than women. Men are goal-oriented. Women are relationship-oriented. Gordon is competitive (goal oriented) in his cooking, as he was in football. While any woman will tell you food is love! But remember, that’s on a bell curve. And people on the fringes are just as valid as humans as those who fall into the larger “stereotype”. And the human brain is not fully developed until about age 27. It takes until 24-25 for a kid to gain the ability to anticipate the consequences of their decisions before they act! This is why so many inmates in jails are under age 27. When they finally get past the hormonal agony of childhood, they finally settle down and can pick the obvious better option.

    While nature predominates, nurture can leave deep scars. Who your under-developed toddler brain accepts as the most positive role model in your life is NOT necessarily correct for your physical biology. I appreciate that people in the LGBT community are actually really honest about their childhoods. They are usually artistic and sensitive because of the pain they’ve been through. Whether they share stories of frank sexual abuse (Hedwig And The Angry Inch), the mental abuse at the hands of dysfunctional parents suffered by all the characters in Rebel Without a Cause (or Dr. Shirley in Green Book), or haven’t yet realized that when grandma dresses her little grandson in girl’s clothes it’s mental abuse no matter how well-intended or couched in warm fuzzy interactions (Halston), they do share the roots of the confusion they’re feeling. It’s not healthy or caring to leave them in a state of rejection, feeling unaccepted, and not knowing where they should fit in. It’s not loving or caring to keep them trapped in the painful twisted patterns they fell into before they became adults.

    Adults who abuse children work really hard to avoid getting caught. “It’s our little secret” is insidious. Threats against a child’s loved ones? ugh. Rapists use abortion to hide their crimes. A child doesn’t have the vocabulary, or the mental capability to recognize the problem of selfish manipulation. They are too simple yet to see past the grooming their attackers use.

    And toddlers as young as 1-2 yrs, if witness to a fight between parents, no matter how brief or unrepeated, can reject a same sex parent as their role model for life, LONG BEFORE they have the vocabulary or the mental capacity to understand what was happening. It’s called Same-sex Disassociation. If they tend towards extroversion, they may despise and reject a milquetoast parent of their own sex as their role model. If introverted, they may see the doormat in a bad marriage as the kinder, more-preferable role model regardless of the differences in their sex.

    It’s totally understandable. They’re just trying to cope and do the right thing, the best thing they can see, trapped in arrested development . And this is why confused people get very defensive and needy when the coping strategies they clung to as children begin to show inadequacies as they become adults. They weren’t given the steps to maturity and healthy self-image. And nobody likes to be held accountable for something they weren’t first trained to do correctly!

    Healing is best accomplished with healthy friendships. These don’t happen because we demand they happen. They can’t be bought with money and government programs and paid employees. They have to happen over long periods of time and with a lot of unearned kindness given in faith that, no matter the failed attempts, each really DOES want to be supportive and amiable. Each really CAN forgive, move on, and become the friend that they also want in return.

    Babyboomers of both sexes who found the prevalent sex roles of the 1940’s-50’s to be boring and eventually a straight jacket on their creativity were happy to jump on the sexual revolution bandwagon introduced by communist operatives hired into academia. Communist playbooks still exist. “Two steps forward, One step back” has been the cadence for a generation. Evil people intent on global domination, exactly as in Germany before WWII, introduced sexual revolutions that demoralized the nations and manipulated the population to commit genocide in Germany.

    LGBT+ are not our enemies. It is the insidious hidden villians who seek to bring the entire world under totalitarian control that need to be exposed. It is the seemingly small healthy loving family group who looks after each other and protects each other that flies in the face of these bullies. My family is my family, and by extension, my town, my state, and the people of my nation. Real Americans LOVE each other. They tell the truth to each other even when it’s hard. They protect each other from marauding attackers. They don’t sit by and let women and children become sex slaves. The victims must be given the tools to heal, not perpetuate their pain by Stockholm Syndrome! Not encouraging them to repeat the same behaviors that are the source of their pain! Loving families have proper boundaries. They use their strengths, talents and wealth to improve their nation willingly, not because they are forced to by govt confiscation.

    After the need to eat, human sexuality is the strongest physical instinct. If we train our bodies to be self-controlled, we are free to make rational decisions. If our enemies can tear us away from healthy well-considered love marriages, by making promiscuity seem totally free of consequences, by assaulting us as children before we have any clue what and who we are, and then plunge us into meaningless tawdry selfish mechanical sex, devoid of wholistic love for the other above ourselves, devoid of future hopes and joys, and fraught with crippling diseases most of which can cause sterility and are incurable, then our nation is done.

    I believe we are free to make better choices. I have faith in love. I think we can rise up and overcome the pain and miscommunications. I think forgiveness is there for everyone. I believe in the one true Creator God who will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their sons, and the sons to their fathers in love and acceptance. I also believe we can and will grow up in our understanding and maturity, and put the real bullies and criminals in jail if they don’t repent. That is where beliefs rightly affect human law in a republic, by consent of the governed.

    Sorry for writing so much. Your page invites thoughtful consideration!

  3. Craig, thank you for the work that you do. I completely agree that on an individual basis, we should respect people and call them whatever they wish to be called. I would like to gently push back a bit on how the ideas you set forth (that gender is whether you feel like a man or a woman) play out at scale in wider society, however, especially when implemented in law and policy. You state that you have little to lose in making an effort on pronouns, and mention “checking your privilege.” One thing I’ve found is that male privilege can sometimes be a blind-spot in thinking through what females may have to lose by embracing the beliefs you describe. I hope you don’t mind some friendly feedback and another way of looking at this.

    The idea that there is a way to “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man” is in many ways regressive and harkens back to stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. When we broadcast this message to young girls and boys, that there is a way to be a girl or a boy, with their attendant stereotypes, are we not reinforcing these stereotypes? While on first glance “gender neutral” pronouns may seem like a rejection of rigid gender norms (“I don’t identify as a woman”), they paradoxically reinforce the idea that there is a correct way to be a woman, and if you don’t conform to that, then you are not a woman. Other than stereotypes, what does it mean to “feel like a woman?”

    This of course is also taken further in society by extending “feeling like a woman” to actually “being a woman.” We are told that trans women are women, for example, and that a woman is someone who feels like a woman. As I am sure you are aware, there are legal controversies around the erosion of single sex spaces such as prisons, shelters and female sports. And it is primarily females that end up being harmed by the proliferation of this ideology. There have been cases of opportunistic sexual assaults by rapists claiming to be trans women and being placed in female prisons, for example. There have been cases of women being forced in court to refer to their rapists by “she/her pronouns.” You may also be aware of growing concerns around female sports titles, records and scholarships going to trans-identified males who have an unfair advantage due to male puberty. As you can see, a point of male privilege here is that none of this is affecting male safety, scholarships or spaces, so it’s easier to say that you have little to lose.

    We certainly all want to be nice and respectful. But a true look at these issues must really grapple with the many unintended consequences of encoding into law and policy beliefs that, while superficially benign and inclusive, can be harmful to women.

    Respectfully,
    Rodion

  4. Thanks Craig.

    I am probably in the minority but I think its worth noting that there can be disagreement on what is important. I think you may have been a bit disparaging of a generation to over simplify that older Americans think that if someone looks like a girl then that person is a girls and likes boys, etc. I respectfully disagree and would like you to consider what is perceived as a liberal concept but is actually a conservative concept: it just doesn’t bother me or concern me or frankly cross my mind very much about what someone calls themselves or does in their life. This is a very old conservative Mainer mindset – I don’t know my neighbors that well – they keep to themselves and that’s just fine by me if that’s what they choose. Its not that I like them or don’t like them – its their choice as to how to lead their lives. Leave well enough alone.

    What is bothersome now is that old Mainer indifference is now somehow considered hostile or anti-something. And while I think you are trying to do some good here, the apparent attempt to re-educate people on what things mean is somewhat intrusive to the basic conservative-now-liberal concept of live and let live.

    The religious extremists who founded the country came here to be left alone to live their lives as they chose. Isn’t that really the same thing as someone who wants to be called they or have another preference? Just let me live my life? The old Mainer indifference appears to be somehow mixed into transphobia or whatever anti group is being discussed. In summary, I’d be willing to bet A) most people don’t care what other people call themselves and B) most people who choose an alternative pronoun, identity, path through life – are quite good with that indifference. I think it is the marginal insistence that everyone gets the pronouns right or somehow embrace something – and if I don’t – that makes me anti-something. Indifferent is not anti.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Peace.

    Luke

  5. This is beautifully explained and beautifully put. Just what I needed to hear. Thanks for your insight and humanity. — A friend on the coast of Maine

  6. Craig, I like your curious and open attitude on pronouns and want to be more like you! However, I encountered a work colleague who uses no pronouns and found it really hard to talk to or about this person without using pronouns! I do respect this person, but also felt that the person making this request (which seemed more like a demand) was not respecting the difficulty this can create for others. Going further, I think some of the pushback from the right comes from the fact that asking that new and different pronouns be used, this is asking/demanding people to change in ways that may be difficult and embarrassing for them. I think there needs to be respect on both sides of the pronoun equation.

  7. Good morning Criag! Of course I enjoyed today’s email–a subject dear to our hearts, as you know. It is always good to read and hear more on this important topic of embracing “who each one of us is”. Thank you for the affirmation and further sharing, as a loving parent!

  8. I spent much of my life wondering why I was such a tomboy. When I heard of the concept gender fluid and the chance to identify as they/them it was so validating. What I find even harder to change is people’s use of my birth certificate name, Julia, which I don’t identify with. They say things like Julia is such a pretty name. Maybe it is. But I don’t identify with Julia. And I want this to be respected.

  9. Craig, I look forward to your weekly email. And, most appreciative that it is weekly. Each week’s newsletter provides an opportunity to “check in”. I have a morning spiritual practice and on Tuesdays, your “pearls” are a part of that. We are truly one and remembering to look at issues through a spiritual lens offers yet another way to embrace all. Thank you, Linda

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