Do (non-transsexual) singular they users trivialize trans peoples’ struggles?

Anonymous asked:

“Hi, I’ve seen users on tumblr use pronouns other than him/her/zim/zer/singular they. I’ve seen these individuals receive a lot of backlash from members of the trans community who say by using these “made up” pronouns it trivializes their (as trans men/women) struggles. I’m sort of extremely confused by this because I was always told to respect people’s pronouns. Like I’m obviously going to refer to people by their preferred pronoun, but I was wondering what your take on this was? SorryifIoffend”

Hi Anonymous! I’m not offended at all – this is what this blog is for! Moreover, I’m so glad you asked because this is a significant and confusing issue.

Whenever the issue of ‘who has a right to use X pronoun’ comes up, my general answer is: anyone who feels more comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun (whichever) has the right to use a gender-neutral pronoun, and it’s not for anyone else to decide whether that person’s discomfort is legitimate or justifies their choice. While I’m unfamiliar with the specific incidents you reference, I think it’s unrealistic to say that a handful of people using their own made-up pronouns are significantly diminishing or trivializing or otherwise harming the (generalized) struggles of transmen and transwomen in securing safety, respect and recognition for their gender. I think that pervasive normalized transphobia, transmisogyny, cissexism, genderism, homophobia and heterosexism (phew I’m tired now) take these things away well enough on their own without needing help from genderqueer (or other) folks who make up new pronouns for themselves.

That said, there are likely isolated experiences (which may become viral stories) of this connection being explicitly and harmfully drawn: where a person’s funny-sounding pronoun was used by a phobe to bash a transmen or transwoman by delegitimizing their gender. Given how awful the world can be for trans* people, I’m sure and sad to say that every bad thing we can think of has probably happened.

So, I believe that the thoughts and feelings that motivate the critique – that making up new pronouns trivializes transmen’s and transwomen’s struggles – are important and need to be heard and taken into consideration. I believe this is particularly true for people like me who use gender-neutral pronouns but are closer to the cis (non-transsexual) end of the gender spectrum (if such a thing exists…). There is incredible variability among the experiences of trans* people such that the phrase “trans* people” is sometimes meaningless. However, there are also life-threateningly similar patterns of violence and oppression experienced by transmen and transwomen – particularly transwomen of colour.

My life project, in my dissertation research and otherwise, seems to be figuring out what it looks like to ‘hear and take into consideration’ these critiques and experiences in a way that actually affects other peoples’ lives. While I don’t know for sure what this looks like in everyday life, I think it’s always helpful to really (like, obviously) affirm other peoples’ feelings and experiences while remembering that everyone moves about in a context that is unique, including you and me. This is a tough balancing act that will probably always be just that…tough.

Hope that is helpful, and keep asking questions! 🙂


PS – Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.


  1. Yes, many of us on the binary have a hard time when someone says they don’t identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, but they will not go out of their way to change their name, their gender marker, etc. When you tell me you are a man or woman but still prefer “they” as a pronoun, it makes anyone question your seriousness to the trans cause, much less take you seriously. “They” has been the standard neuter term for centuries for anything of the third nature, that was neither of the male nature nor female nature. I can understand “xir” or “ey” (Spivak) pronouns, anything with a take on that, to stop the confusion of subject-verb tense. But when you see a million new pronouns that have no basis, from co-, to hu-, to fae-, to per-… it really is hard to remember who wants to identify as what, and with no collective consensus on any set, what are binary folk (trans or not) supposed to think, supposed to use? A classic he/she/they works best for most people, because most people don’t want a crash course in gender or queer studies. Maybe when the genderqueer community finds one or two sets of gender-neutral pronouns, men and women (trans and not) may take the community more seriously.


    1. I’d add that many people don’t want to *be* a crash course in gender or queer studies! This is probably why many people choose binary pronouns (e.g., he, her, she, him) even if they might express a non-binary gender to some degree. On this blog, I take the position that singular they is a gender-neutral pronoun that might merit becoming standardized (in English) by virtue of the fact that it already exists (in English); we agree there. I’d like to say, though, that I’m not sure what ‘the trans cause’ is in any singular sense, and/or that many people might argue that the freedom to un/gender one’s self however one wants might be a founding principle that cause. However, your points are well-taken in terms of everyday practicality and the need to educate a generally less-than-aware public on trans/gender diversity.


    2. So, you need to respect people’s pronouns. Why are you saying that your unwillingness to respect people’s pronouns means that you are then unwilling to take genderqueer and other non-binary people seriously? And, even more, why are you speaking for all binary people? Seriously, check your privilege. You have no clue what it’s like to BE nonbinary.

      ***TRIGGER WARNING: statistics on suicide, sexual assault, physical assault, police harassment of the trans community. ***

      As a general note, non-binary people are subject to higher rates of violence than the general trans population in a number of areas, according to the NCTE and NGLTF’s report “Injustice at Every Turn.” In the report, the general trans population is 41% likely to attempt suicide, and people who listed a non-binary identity are 43% likely to attempt suicide. 21% of the general trans population has experienced harassment from the police, compared to 31% of non-binary people. 25% of the general trans population reported physical assault due to anti-trans bias compared to 32% of non-binary people. 9% of the general trans population experienced sexual assault due to bias compared to 15% of non-binary people. Why are we squabbling about whether or not we should take people seriously about pronouns when a) we are all dying, and b) in certain arenas, non-binary people are experiencing MORE transphobic violence? We can’t do this alone. We need binary people to have our backs. We need you to check yourself and have our backs.

      As for the OP’s question about whether non-binary pronouns invalidate binary trans people’s identities, the reality is that this is just an example of binary prejudice. Yes, it is totally possible for non-binary people to invalidate binary trans people’s identities. But guess who’s invalidating OUR identities? Binary trans and cis people! All the time, in almost every place, people say that our genders don’t even exist. Saying we aren’t real or don’t deserve to be taken seriously is not only prejudiced and disrespectful, it is hurting and killing us.


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