Abigail Saguy and Julie Williams recently published an op-ed on the Scientific American website advocating that we begin addressing everyone with gender-neutral pronouns (“they,” “them”) rather than binary-gendered pronouns (“he,” “him” or “she,” “her”). They assert the act of gendering highlights gender when it is not relevant in social interaction.
For instance, they draw on data from audit studies showing that when a job candidate is identified as a woman, this identification puts the candidate at a stark disadvantage. They draw on psychological work which suggests that even the act of drawing attention to one’s own gender can lead to poorer performance on cognitive tests.
As a corrective, they suggest something of a “universal design” approach. They argue that using the gender-neutral third-person pronoun “they” could reduce discrimination and bias in social situations, and even reduce the cognitive load on the person being gendered. As a parallel, Saguay and Williams offer the quick adoption of “Ms.” as a model for moving rapidly past restrictive gender norms, and advocate for a similar adoption of “they/them” pronouns.
We are writing here as as a mix of queer, nonwhite, non-American, bicultural, trans people, and we share Saguy and Williams’ political bent. We firmly understand that the impacts of gender are felt unequally, in light of both our lived experience and our research in sociology, gender, technology, and linguistics. Transgender and gender-nonconforming (abbreviated below as trans/GNC) people, particularly transfeminine people of color, are disproportionately and in some ways uniquely victimized by the rigid and specific ways that Western society views, constructs and penalizes nonheteronormative and noncisnormative gender performances and identities. This unique position with regards to the structures of gender is precisely why scholars of gender have been studying and examining trans/GNC lives for decades.
However, we strongly disagree with their proposal. Fundamentally, a move toward gender-neutral pronouns ignores the important work that gendered pronouns perform in everyday life. For many trans/GNC people, gender is an important part of their identity and actively avoiding the act of gendering manifests as another form of violence—a violence that trans/GNC people have been fighting against throughout the long history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and two-spirit (LGBTQIA2S) experience.
Furthermore, this proposal is embedded in a particularly Western approach to language. Languages that don’t have gendered pronouns are still riddled with strong gendered norms. In some ways, those languages make it even more difficult to signify a confirmation of trans/GNC identity. Lastly, it’s important that in this kind of research, researchers treat trans/GNC subjects as active agents in the production of knowledge, rather than as objects of study. We worry that this research, although it claims to engage with LGBTQIA2S people, has failed to do so in a way that encounters us as people, rather than as conceptual stand-ins.
First, this proposal isn’t well-founded in prior research, nor is the proposal supported by how Saguy and Williams characterize their own data. Their qualitative research suggests that announcing pronouns signals to trans/GNC people that they “are going to be welcome in this space.” However, based on these data, Saguy and Williams suggest that the inverse should be true: that taking pronouns out of the equation altogether would avoid a gendered interaction and therefore make more situations inclusive.
This view contradicts both our own experiences and scholars’ prior research on misgendering. Misgendering—that is, addressing someone by the incorrect pronoun or honorific—is a form of microaggression. The act of misgendering denies the gendered and human legitimacy of trans people, and causes significant negative psychological effects, including reduced sense of self-worth, anxiety, depression and a feeling of hypervigilance and surveillance.
Second, this proposal takes a Western-centric view of language and ignores the fact that there are languages that already exist without gendered pronouns. Bangla, for instance, is such a language. However, this doesn’t have the effect of reducing gender inequality, nor does it reduce the cisnormative desire to categorize by gender. Bengali speakers, like English speakers, will violate conversational norms by asking extra questions to find out someone’s gender, and will rely on gendered nouns to provide information that gender-neutral pronouns will not (Bondhu or bandhobi? A male friend or female friend?).
Moreover, Bengalis still cue their gender in myriad ways other than pronouns; women are still looked down upon for having feminine signifiers. These effects don’t disappear when gendered pronouns are removed. Getting rid of gendered pronouns as a means of addressing gender inequalities would be the equivalent of treating symptoms without treating the root of the illness. Enforcing ungendered pronouns will not necessarily trigger a change in someone who is unconsciously biased against women and feminine people, but it would contribute to harm of trans/GNC people by taking away one of the more usefully subtle ways to discuss topics where gender is contextually salient.
Lastly, for authors talking about alleviating gendered discrimination and oppression, Saguy and Williams manage to get almost all of the way through their piece without mentioning trans/GNC existences. When they do, it is phrased euphemistically: “people who have experienced the pain of being denied gender recognition in the past.” This phrasing elides the fact that gendered terms of address are not meaningless—if they were, their elimination would presumably not be sought—but deeply meaningful, particularly to people who are not represented in Saguy and Williams’ narrative.
This evasion is presumably because considering trans/GNC needs, talking to trans/GNC people and taking trans/GNC experiences of gender seriously would reveal a much more complicated narrative. For instance, Saguy and Williams cite evidence that women will seek gender-anonymity in online spaces to avoid gendered judgements. However, Oliver Haimson and other scholars who work at the intersection of trans/GNC issues and technology point out how online spaces offer affordances that allow those people to explore their gender expression and identity.
Considering trans perspectives would reveal a range of concerns with these proposals, mostly centered around their practicality and tmaterial consequences. Suppose we were to take their suggestion seriously, and begin insisting on gender-neutral pronouns everywhere. What would happen then? What would it mean for those of us who have fought to have our gender recognized as women, who have fought seemingly endless amounts of administrative red tape—what transgender legal scholar Dean Spade calls administrative violence—to have that erased? And how does this proposal factor in the history of misogynistic and trans-erasing narratives in this world of scholarship—a history that has often consisted of punishing and shaming trans women for asserting femininity, with the precise argument that this is somehow reinforcing the patriarchy?
Taking away gendered pronouns is premised on the idea that simplification will lead to a flattening of gender disparity, but this work must consider the real-world conditions of the people who are the subject of multiple intersecting oppressions—of sexism, racism, transmisogyny and poverty—and begin with their concerns, rather than moving away from nuance of their lived experience.
It must begin with substantial, dramatic alterations that improve lives and factor in the concerns of trans/GNC people, particularly trans/GNC people of color, rather than changes that apply a universalizing view to what gender is and who is subject to it. We invite Saguy and Williams to revisit their data with an eye towards a liberatory politics that engages with and amplifies these voices, rather than papers them over with a bland and homogenizing universalism