Why I Use Two Sets of Pronouns
As an initial caveat, I want to mention that this is my personal experience with gender and is by no means meant to encompass everyone’s experience, especially those who do not identify with exclusively one pronoun set. My pronouns are they/them and she/her. I am fundamentally against absolutism and never felt like identity is an endpoint or that we should be trying to find our “true selves” but that we have to learn to love all iterations of our lives and learn from the part we did not love. This way of thinking has certainly informed how I think about gender — not as an end point, but as a perpetual state of being and undoing and being again. That being said, always respect people’s preferred pronouns. It should be a given, but I wanted to make it clear from the outset.
Further, I think it is essential to mention that I have a supportive family and ones that never enforced gender upon me which I want to recognize is an immense privilege. Not only did they name me a gender-neutral name, they let me figure it out as a kid what felt comfortable and were generally adaptable to any and all changes. This has afforded me a lot more freedom to explore and shift, and I want to recognize that as far as the folks I have interacted with or work I have read, this is not a typical experience. There are also many ways that I fit into the mold of normativity — white and athletic for example, so I do want to call that out as well.
From the outset, I feel like identity and language are always at odds. That is to say, we utilize language as a way to communicate but it is inherently exclusionary so that it can be universally understood. Attaching our lives and experiences to one word or, in this case, set of pronouns feels reductive. I understand the impetus behind needing fewer words with a multitude of meaning so that we can communicate as humans effectively, but defining ourselves so heavily and so essentially by them is incredibly difficult. This is made further complicated in a world where “showing the world who you are” is more structured than ever before. Even though there appears to be endless possibilities online with how we portray ourselves, there is still an inherent structure to it. Thus, for me, identity is the push and pull outside of and within that structure and even though I get the point of exclusively using they/them it still in many ways feels as essentialist as conventional pronouns.
In the current discourse, they/them has felt more like an othering. While I understand the impetus around existing outside of the gender binary, it tends to be taken up as exclusionary and by that token I personally find it difficult to shed she/her from my identity. I respect folks who want to exist outside of the system but for me I see meaningful change as always happening, at least to some degree, within the system. I have toyed with the idea of using exclusively they/them but found that it was not comfortable for me. My experience of the world is a perpetual state of being, becoming and having been and I have not felt that any pronouns have ever really been reflective of that experience. They/them has been the closest thing that depicts the oscillation between gender expression as fluid and my experience but for me it doesn’t feel like it tells the whole story.
There are so many aspects of my identity that are informed by my experience of taking on the female form or having been socialized female that feel lost in a sense. I stand with my they/thems, and folks who decide to only use one pronoun set but for me, she/her feels like a part of me, too. Some days I feel like an iteration of the masculine woman and some days I feel like my perceived femaleness is inescapable. I also feel that my perceived masculinity gives me a certain cache and power that I resent because I know it is only offered to me by “masculinity”.
Gender is a social construct. It traps people into specific roles and assumptions and it is a way for capitalism to enforce certain rules, whether real or imagined, onto the population. From as far back as I can remember, I have been curious about what makes up these rules, how they get enforced and reinforced and how the general population identifies in accordance to the language given to them. As such, despite the fact that I can in many ways look outside at these structures and critique them, my life has also been inextricably defined by them. As a non-male (or non-bro as I prefer to say) I have received less pay, been undermined and been victim to unwanted sexual advanced. My body and my identity has had the social construct of femininity enforced on it and as much as I want to step outside of it and disassociate, for me it feels like I am sitting on the bench for a fight that still rages, the flames of which still effect me on a daily basis regardless of how I personally identify. For me, I wish to trouble notions of gender, not exist exclusively outside of them.
When it comes to womanhood and femininity, I do not identify with it as a whole. I do not wear dresses and I tend to not participate in the commodification of it as a consumer, though I do wear make up. That being said, I have a difficult time letting the entire visualization and codification of femininity be great and profited off of by men. That is to say, the majority of items you buy to express your sense of gender is designed by, owned by and distributed by men. I have a difficult time letting capitalism be such a fundamental player in defining us and profited by us in world where men hold so much power. So, for me, it kind of feels good to trapse into the “men’s” section and buy what I want and undermine the whole idea of masculinity.
For me, the notion of female masculinity is incredible powerful and while I wish there was more verbose language to describe what it is, to me it is the most under represented group when it comes to gender in media and beyond. I have rarely seen a show that depicts my identity, though shoutout to Work in Progress and Feel Good. Further, because we are so entrenched in capitalistic ideas of gender and being, for me it feels good to find ways to undermine them. Considering that gender is a social construct and that social ideals are largely constructed and reconstructed by media, social and otherwise, it has been incredibly refreshing on places like TikTok to hear some of this discourse going on and it has certainly worked to expand a lot of these ideas and representations of gender. The pace of change is quicker than ever before in many ways, and for me it feels more productive to exist in the seemingly contradictory nature of using both she/her and they/them.
I would be remiss to not mention that my experience is not only shaped by the cishetero world but I have also experienced quite a bit of gender policing and gatekeeping within my own community. This has made me skeptical of the notion that being queer is inherently unproblematic or transformative in relation to normative society. I recognize this as my bias but I have seen rampant classism, sexism and racism within queer communities — especially because they tend to built around queer social gathering and parties who are mostly run by well-off folks who have the financial capacity to dedicate time to these things. Thus, when I was coming of age as a queer person and they/them became more widely used, it tended to be utilized by richer and more privileged queers and while I recognize this is not the case now, it has shaped by views of using exclusively they/them pronouns. It is great to see more working class or non-arts queers using they/them more often but there was something very exclusionary about it in the beginning that did not sit right with me. Again, I recognize this is my bias but I do think there is a lot of unchecked privilege within the community and classism is still something queer folks haven’t generally grappled with well.
Ultimately, the contradiction of identity and language makes it difficult for me to attach myself full to any pronouns. Since they are used to refer to you as a person, it can feel incredibly complicated for some and confirming for others. My argument here is to use multiple pronouns when it feels good and when we want to honour multiple sides of ourselves. At the end of the day, using our names is usually the best bet and feels validating for more. If you are unsure of one’s pronouns just ask and they/them is usually a good starting point to not assume. I found myself in this weird position where people just assumed I used only they/they without chatting with me about it but these are conversations we should be having with each other no matter what we look like or how we present.