Get this: twice during my still-in-process transition, I have misgendered myself.
The first time was after a piano concert in the Cathedral where I worship. I was talking with the chief liturgist about the Mozart piece performed by the pianist, when I exclaimed “Yes it was great, Mozart is wonderful, but I am more of a Beethoven guy!” The second was in describing my childhood to a friend: “you can imagine it was rough-and-tumble, the three of us boys.” Straightforwardly, both statements were false, and I immediately recognized this. But my affective response to both incidents surprised me: I was neither embarrassed nor guilt-ridden. I thought these faux pas were actually kind of funny. Had I misgendered someone else I would have immediately apologized, been embarrassed and felt somewhat guilty. But since the slips of the tongue were directed at myself I felt I could, and should, shrug it off with a chuckle and with a minimum of reflexive dysphoria.
This casualness about gender-talk may be a function of my age — in less than a month I will be Medicare eligible, which both unnerves and amuses me. I think there are more important times and places to give my fucks away. Gender is complicated, as is our relationship to our own genders. The grammatical basis of gender is shifting, and in a good way.
Natalie Wynn, aka ContraPoints, recently stirred up a tempest in Trans-Twitter. Her Twitter account is gone, so I cannot return to the original sources, but the gist as far as I can reconstruct it, is this. Wynn confessed that in spaces among people where she “passes” well, her willingness to announce her pronouns as “she/her/hers” is not a burden, simply a courtesy. But she claimed that in “hyper-woke” spaces, and among non-binary people, it is burdensome, because she has to invoke her pronoun-preferences again and again, while non-binary people invoke theirs, in a dysphoria-inducing way. This generated a backlash of angry replies, and a defense on Wynn’s part that only made matters worse, by appearing entitled, as a binary, usually-“passing” transwoman, and under-appreciating the awkward feelings of non-binary/non-passing people on the trans-spectrum. Wynn then left Twitter completely. The event has been alternately interpreted as a worst-case example of “call-out” or “cancel” culture, or a paradigm case of “passing privilege” and its correlative arrogance on Wynn’s part.
I think both the above interpretations miss the mark in different ways, and that the truth lies in a “higher perspective” (Quasi-Hegelian that I am). Here are a few points for consideration.
“What are your pronouns?” is a relatively new and evolving part of linguistic practice, and it evolves as the understanding of what gender is (and what “gender” means) also evolves. There are many confusions shared by both anti-transgender religious ideologues and gender critical feminists, but one of the more important ones is the idea that “gender” names a natural kind with a clear, univocal sense and reference. It doesn’t, not only in light of the advance of the genetics of sex-determination and the endocrinological effects of hormones on the developing fetus, but also in light of the historicity of language. I do not want to deny that there is something “natural” about gender, any more than I want to deny gender as a “cultural” performance. (The nature/culture dichotomy is confused and confusing, but that’s a topic for another reflection). But the core of contemporary arguments about gender is less empirical than grammatical, in the sense Wittgenstein understood it: how sound linguistic practice identifies, understands, and negotiates “gender”.
The negotiation part of grammar is always already ongoing. Richard Rorty coined the phrase “cultural politics” to describe the ways in which this negotiation proceeds: using argument and rhetoric to persuade fellow language-users to discern that one vocabulary for describing and understanding things is superior to others, and to adopt it. This effort is not guided by fixed, timeless, procedural-theoretical rules: it is practical, and political, all the way down. Grammatical reform is not guided or constrained by anything outside grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense of sound linguistic praxis), since it is grammar itself that constrains and guides our talk. “Cultural politics” is not necessarily arbitrary, a power-play where reason is window-dressing, if that. But political rationality is inherently practical rather than theoretical; it is open-ended, dialogical, indeterminate, and more often than not, slow-acting. But however slow and painful the process, cultural politics does induce real, often-beneficial, substantial change in the way we talk, think, and communicate.
“What are your pronouns?” is being integrated into sound linguistic practice through cultural politics, because of the greater visibility of transgender and non-binary individuals and a changing understanding of who they are and how they matter, socially and politically. As such it is experiencing bumps, (hopefully) temporary reversals, and confusions. So, I think, a generalized “principle of charity” should be adopted while the practice of pronoun-sharing becomes sedimented as second-nature to us language-users: “Assume good-faith and good will on the part of your interlocutors unless there is ample evidence to the contrary” is a good rule-of-thumb. Sometimes when someone misgenders you there is malicious intent, and this should be called-out, but sometimes there is simply force-of-habit at work. So if an acquaintance whom I have known for a long time while presenting male lets a “he” or “him” slip out when referring to me, I would gently correct that acquaintance but also assume no ill-will, unless I am greeted with a sneer or a scowl.
But this principle of charity also places constraints my behavior and attitudes in another way, whether I am cis or Trans or non-binary, etc. It may be important for others to initiate the “What are your pronouns?” language-game in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Here are three scenarios:
1) One could be a cis-person who reflexively feels awkward in such circumstances, because it is new and strange, and still disconcerting even as one is “working on it” to accept gender-variance.
2) One could be a trans-woman/man who feels out-of-place and singled-out, hence dysphoric, in a language-game where non-binary or genderqueer people are announcing that their pronouns are “they/them.”
3) Or one could be non-binary (or for that matter trans) and feel dysphoric when other trans or non-binary individuals opt for she/her or he/him
What follows when, adopting the principle of charity, you assume no ill-will absent evidence to the contrary?
Case 2) above seems to catch the situation of ContraPoints/Natalie Wynn. I do not doubt that this scenario might be dysphoria-inducing to a binary trans-person. But I also think that there are other considerations one has to make besides dysphoria avoidance. It is obviously important for the non-binary/non-passing people playing the pronouns-language-game that they be recognized as such. Given that the principle of charity holds as a default, they do not intend to disparage or “erase” binary trans-people if that’s what one is. One’s dysphoria might be genuinely felt, but the non-binary people do not intend any disrespect or “erasure”, hence your felt dysphoria lacks a sound rationale because it is not based in an insult. One needs to recognize that, and acknowledge the need to temper your own reactions accordingly. Which is, I grant, a tall order, but one worth undertaking. Remember: cultural politics is a slow-acting medicine.
Case 3), however, might well apply to some of Wynn’s critics. If someone identifies as both trans and binary, then, well, believe them. Their identity is rooted in a perception of what they are, or what they desire to be. Given the principle of charity, assume their sincerity, and unless they sneer at non-binary/genderqueer individuals as somehow illegitimate and “not really on the trans-spectrum”, assume that they are not erasing or putting-down your own gender; grant them the benefit of the doubt, and give them a modicum of time. If the light finally being shone on the complexity of gender illuminates anything, it shows that there are many variations on the gender-theme, none of which deconstructs or delegitimizes any other.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that, of all the dilemmas introduced by the cultural politics of pronouns, the most common, and most significant of them is expressed by 1) above. Cultural pronoun politics affects cis persons most directly and powerfully. There is, no doubt, a lot of transphobic bigotry going around in that population, which deserves to be named and identified and criticized. But a lot of the awkwardness and misgendering and incomprehension is due to the slow-yet-steady pace of change effected by cultural politics. My own experience, which may or may not be characteristic, has been mixed. Some long-time friends, family, and acquaintances have had no problem accepting, and even understanding, my transition, and have no serious troubles, pronoun-centered or otherwise. Others accept, but are having some difficulty, which I understand and about which we negotiate, in good faith.
While awkwardness on the part of cis people is to be expected, it is not to be indulged. The best way for cis people to break out of the rut of awkwardness and discomfort is to see that the recognition of trans-people is a salutary exercise of cultural politics just barely underway, and to reform one’s grammatical habits accordingly, which is less an exercise of decisive will than patient self-training.
“Self-training” — habituation, getting-into-the-practice — is a key part of cultural politics, perhaps the key part. Changing the contours of sound linguistic practice is only partly a matter of persuading practitioners to change their beliefs: more importantly it is a matter of changing action and conduct, by changing, through cultural politics, the habits that constitute our social lives. One can expect trouble in any such effort, so one should be prepared to overcome the troubles, charitably, patiently and without malice.
But also with resolve. Patience and charity have their limits, and after a while “trouble” needs to be confronted head-on. Today there are troubles beyond and behind the pronouns, which those on the trans-spectrum can ill afford to ignore, political troubles that transcend cultural politics and extend into the very life of a democracy at risk in a world outside the Twitter-verse. Lots of us — LGBTQ people, black people, women, working people, poor people, immigrants, refugees, etc. — are in the crosshairs of a mad hybrid of corporate plutocracy and fascism. Let’s focus on that, too.