My Trouble With Pronouns

In the summer of 2015, my brother announced to my family that he had never truly identified with the female body he had been living with for 32 years, and wished to continue the rest of his life as a man. In his email to the family, he wrote two things that still stand out to me:

“I really wish I knew another word for supported!”

“This doesn’t change who I am…I will always think I’m the funniest person I’ve ever met.”

And the responses:

My other brother: “Well, I always wanted a brother.”

Myself: “FYI, even if you think otherwise, I’m the funniest person you’ve ever met.”

My mother: “Synonyms for supported: sustained, approved, sanctioned, okayed, endorsed, confirmed. Pick one and please rewrite this letter.”

His decision wasn’t particularly shocking news. In nursery school, his closest friends were the other boys on the playground. When my mother enlisted him in Girl Scouts, she had to seek out brown pants when he refused to wear the official Brownies uniform skirt. At playtime, he always preferred Michael Jared to his given, feminine name, and could never understand why, unlike his male friends, he wasn’t allowed to run bare-chested outside. In middle school he kept his long hair either underneath a backwards baseball cap or pulled into a tight bun. Oversized Rangers jerseys and flannel shirts were wardrobe staples, and occasions that called for dresses incited long arguments. Still, his realization and declaration that he is transgender has required adjustment for my entire family.

I’ve always had a great memory for names. In conversations about bit parts in movies or TV shows, the neurons in my temporal lobe activate at a pace I’m convinced is much faster than the average person, sending synaptic charges to my lips, and the ease with which Irrfan Khan or Rosemarie DeWitt rolls off my tongue is one of my proudest talents.  Imagine my frustration, then, that the one name that gets caught in my larynx, the one that requires conscious effort to recall and consideration before uttering aloud, is my brother’s.

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Even with five years between us, I wanted to be just like my brother. In elementary school I, too, could be found sporting a backwards baseball hat and an oversized flannel shirt. I’d bask in the attention I got from his friends when he’d let me hang around, and cackle at their inside jokes as if I wasn’t on the outside. He liked to draw, and so I did, too. Our parents sent us to the same all-girls summer camp, and the summer after he aged out and I was there on my own, I was despondent for weeks. I emulated so many of his behaviors, adopted so many of his hobbies, and it seemed the typical kid-sister thing to do. After all, we were “the girls.”

During his freshman year of college, he came out as bisexual. He had spoken to my parents and my other brother on the phone, and later, in an Instant Message, asked me if I wanted to talk. In eighth grade and slightly uncomfortable, I told him I loved him, didn’t find it necessary to discuss it further, and declined. I thought of this moment after reading the email he sent telling us he was trans and called immediately. While still a little uncomfortable, I didn’t want to show any sign of avoidance or disapproval. “So, when do we pick a new name?” I asked. “Just tell me when you’ve decided so I can start using it.” I didn’t realize it would be so hard.

Just as difficult as adjusting to my brother’s name has been adopting the proper pronouns. For twenty-seven years of my life, I had a brother and a sister. Now I have two brothers. (Following a brunch outing with my siblings and my grandparents shortly after my brother began using his new name, my grandmother pulled me aside and teased, “So, who’s your favorite brother?”)

To this day, I stutter when trying to distinguish between the two to those who don’t know them. Do I say “my middle brother and my older brother?” “My older brother and my eldest brother?” I could use their names, but I get tangled in the unwieldiness of the extra words and the presumption that people should know them by name. Pronoun soup boils over in my mind: he, she, his, hers, himself, herself, hir, ze, zie, xe, s/he, yours, mine, ours. How strange that so many of the words we use to refer to one another, to identify ourselves, require a declaration of gender at all.

I have both a love of words and an awareness of how the ones I use are a direct reflection of my own personality and identity. I can recall, not too long ago, when the word queer became more closely associated with an identity than its original meaning, strange or bizarre. Not completely aware of the significance of the change in connotation, I felt a loss for no longer being able to use it in my own lexicon. I’ve since picked up other phrases, like gee whizand—one I believe I’ve borrowed from my brother—fair enough.  

When it comes to my brother, as writer, perfectionist, and—I like to think—a compassionate person, I want to always get the words right. Of course, he’s not the first transgender person to change how he was addressed. It seems the ever-increasing prevalence of gender incongruence and stories of transgender people was changing the way we think about gender—in politics, in pop culture, in our homes. And more and more, it seemed to me, it was changing the way we speak.

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In August of 2013, one day after being sentenced to prison for leaking government files, Chelsea Manning announced that she was transitioning from male to female. In an announcement via her lawyer on Today, Manning explicitly requested that the media use feminine pronouns when reporting her story. Yet because Manning’s trial and sentencing were publicized while she was living as a man, and because there was very little precedent for someone already well known transitioning in public, many outlets stumbled. In their coverage of Manning’s announcement, the New York Times led with, in part, “Bradley Manning said Thursday that he is female.” An Associated Pressspokesperson stated on behalf of the outlet that they would continue to use, and recommend the use of, masculine pronouns until Manning’s physical characteristics changed.

The choice to ignore Manning’s request is an interesting one considering that in July of that same year, Washington, D.C. Council passed a bill removing surgery as a requirement for changing gender on one’s birth certificate. With a letter from a health care professional, Manning could legally become female, but the press, rather than defy grammar rules, still seemed to need physical proof. 

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Given the recent spike in trans visibility, it’s important to note that experiencing discord between assigned sex and social gender is certainly not a new phenomenon. As historian Susan Stryker notes in Transgender History, psychiatrist Albert Moll described conträre Geschlechstempfindug, or contrary sexual feeling in 1891. In 1910, Magnus Hirschfeld, a pioneer of gender and sexuality studies and the founding president of the World League for Sexual Studies, coined the term transvestite to describe people who enjoy wearing clothing of the opposite sex. In 1913, psychologist Havelock Ellis introduced Sexo-Aesthetic Inversion to refer to the desire to look like the other sex.

Self-described fairy-boy Earl Lind (who also went by the name Jennie June), wrote two autobiographical books between 1918 and 1922 about his life as what he called an androgyne. Lind was a member of the New York social club The Cercle Hermaphroditos, formed in 1895 and, according to Stryker, perhaps “the first known organization in the United States to concern itself with what we might now call transgender social justice issues.”  (The Hermaphroditos also had a particular interest in words; they affectionately renamed Columbia Hall, a bar, brothel, and their unofficial headquarters, as Paresis Hall—a reference to the madness-inducing late stages of syphilis.)

Yet while the psychological and social aspects of what we now call Gender Dysphoria have been documented for over a century, we have yet to settle on a language with which to discuss it.

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Kit Rachlin is a New York City-based clinical psychologist and gender specialist who works with transgender people, their partners, and families. She is also a member of the board of directors of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which sets the standards of care of transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming people for health care providers across all fields of medicine. Rachlin, who has been practicing for over 25 years, is unfazed by the changes in language that are gaining traction, or at least being advocated for, today.

“It didn’t just shift,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s shifting all the time. It’s a continuous flow. Whatever language we’re speaking now, it will be different in a year or two, and whatever language we use on this call will not be accepted around the world at the same time.”

She’s absolutely right. In an effort to better understand what my brother was going through, my parents sought resources and stories of family members of trans adults. I recently asked them if I could take a look at some of the books and articles they found most helpful, and they obliged, handing over a small stack of books, a print out of my brother’s announcement email, and the 2016 New York Times article “A Deeper Understanding of Gender,” photocopied from the print version, with “thought you might be interested” (a note from my grandparents) scrawled at the top.

Several things struck me about this menagerie of guidance material. I found it silly that my parents spent time printing out an email that I already had or that they could have easily forwarded to me, and it occurred to me that my grandparents had likely literally clipped that newspaper article and sent it through the mail. I point these things out not to poke fun at my elders, but to illustrate some of the many small but significant generational differences in how we communicate. I can, with near certainty, attribute the fact that, unlike my parents, I did not need a glossary to familiarize myself with the basic definition of transgender and the phrases beneath its umbrella to the media I consume and how easily it is available to me.

What struck me most, however, was the title of one of the books and its use of the word transgendered, a term now considered outdated and offensive.

In 1996, the public conversation about the transgender experience was so in its infancy that even the most comprehensive collection of stories on the subject published at that time reads like an artifact. Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones is a compilation of first person essays, primarily written by trans people and people with transgender family members or significant others. The copy I have is the second, expanded edition, published in 2003. Along with pencil drawings of butterflies and inspirational quotes from Elie Wiesel and Martin Luther King, Jr., essays are peppered with phrases like transgenderism and transgenderist—both of which are considered offensive or inappropriate, likely even by the people who wrote them.

I’ve tried, not entirely successfully, to explain to my parents the difference between transgender and a transgenderby comparing it to Jewish and a Jew. Transgender is an adjective, an umbrella term used to refer to those who identify with a gender other than the one typically associated with the sex they are assigned at birth. Using the word as a noun reduces a trans person to nothing more than an object, the same way calling someone a Jew makes them seem less than human. Terms like transgenderism and transgenderist are also reductive, and have stronger connotations with conditions than they do actual people.  

In 2002, the New York City Commission on Human Rights passed the Transgender Rights Bill, adding Gender Identity to the classes protected against discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that the commission added “Gender Identity/Gender Expression: Legal Enforcement Guidance,” an outline of legal definitions of gender discrimination. Employers must now use an individual’s preferred name or pronoun(s), allow individuals to utilize single-sex facilities and programs consistent with their gender, and cannot impose different grooming standards or uniforms based on sex or gender. In addition to these guidelines, the commission released a list of legal definitions for the terms Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Gender, Gender Non-Conforming, Intersex, Sex, Transgender, and Cisgender.

Cisgender is a relatively new term, used to describe people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Its popularity has risen as an answer to more troublesome terms like nontransgender or normal. As opposed to trans, or the other side of, the prefix cis denotes on the same side of. While the term has been helpful in reframing the way gender is communicated, it’s one that I have difficulty intellectualizing when, at least colloquially, I am on my brother’s side.  

The continuous growth of vocabulary is not restricted to spoken language. In a discussion at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in April, author Jennifer Finney Boylan noted that the American Sign Language sign for transgenderwas much different just ten years ago. Then, one would simply make the sign for sex while turning the signing hand to face inward. Today, the word is signified by making the sign for flower (pinching the fingers and thumb together) over one’s heart, opening the fingers while sweeping the hand outward, then closing them again; the flower blooms to the world before returning peacefully inward. Maybe a slightly dramatic gesture, there is something both simple and nuanced about the way the term is codified.

Gender non-conformingnon-binary gender identity, and genderqueer are just a few of the newer terms used to describe people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity.  The desire of these people to be referred to with the plural pronouns they and them has been particularly confounding to the style guide writers for the popular press, who hesitate to break the rules of grammar by using a plural pronoun to identify a single person.

Glossaries like the one released by the Commission on Human Rights, GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, even the AP’s Style Guide, are subject to our growing understanding of gender and gender identity. “We’ll be using words that will be offensive to one person and affirming to another,” says Rachlin. “Always.”

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“Pronouns are one of the relatively stable parts of language,” says Dr. Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. “They don’t change that fast, but they do change.” In the 1500s, many European languages developed a distinction in second person pronouns between the familiar and the polite. In hierarchal societies, this made for a more proper way to address nobility and other members of higher social rank. These pronouns are called honorifics, as in they are used in honor or out of respect of the people to whom they refer. In English, this was marked by the emergence of the familiar thou/thee/thine in addition to the more formal you/your/yours. While some European languages still use more than one second person pronoun—Spanish, for example, has  and ustedthoufell out of use in English in the 17th century. “Now we’re just polite to everybody,” says Guy.

Aside from social mores, honorific pronouns were historically necessary to distinguish singular and plural subjects, as they affected the conjugation of the verbs used with them. For example, the plural thou art is distinct from the singular you are (the closest example of this that exists today would be the very informal y’all of the American south). The distinction between third person singular and plural pronouns, however, also distinguishes the cases of the verbs used with them. So, while subject/verb agreement is not an issue when the subject is the second person (you runyou all runy’all run), a plural third person pronoun will have a different verb case than a singular third person pronoun (he runsthey run). This complicates the call for a gender-neutral, third person pronoun.

Because language is a tool of interpersonal communication, the use or disuse of words is driven largely by social motivation. Yet however strong the motivation, use must be widespread in order for a change to take hold. The New York Times didn’t add the honorific Ms. to its style guide until 1986—well after the explosion of the second-wave feminism of the 1960s. After the word Negro replaced colored in the 1920s, it took roughly another 40 to 50 years for black to become standard. Semantic shift requires a fair amount of usage—and advocacy. Invented words may be used and shared within a particular community, but only once they become familiar to a larger population can they pass into general usage.

The advocacy for gender neutral pronouns in the English language exists, and it has for some time. Professor of English and Linguistics at University of Illinois Dennis Barron recently released a compilation of published uses of and calls for the use of gender neutral, third person pronouns. The list begins in 1792 and has over 100 entries through 1930 alone. Barron had to stop at 1992, at which point the volume become unmanageable. However, with help from submissions he’s received since publishing the list, the number of historical examples continues to grow.

When it comes to people with gender non-conforming or gender non-binary identities, I tell Dr. Guy I am able to intellectualize the use of a plural pronoun in reference to a single person because, on some level, their identity isn’t singular. As such, I can justify the grammatical impropriety. He dismisses me out of hand.

“Grammatical correctness is an artificial construct,” he tells me. “It’s basically a way of the people with social importance and power to impose their usages on somebody else.” There will always be a variety in language, whether it’s a regional dialect or specific social phrasing. For linguists, grammaticality is defined by usage. “Standard English is sort of upper-middle-class white English, and typically associated with places in the country that are more powerful. So the concern is not, ‘am I being grammatically correct,’ but rather ‘do people find it acceptable, intelligible, and use it, or not?’ If not, then it’s ungrammatical.”

The earliest definition of gender was simply the type or class of a noun. While many Indo-European languages used gendered nouns, many some have more than the masculine, feminine, and neuter used in English. Czech, Polish, and Slovak have four gender classes. Chechen uses six. Swahili has eighteen. Some languages have no gender classes (“This conversation would be much easier in Hungarian,” Guy says). Use of these genders continues to change, and in all of these languages, the gender assignment is both arbitrary and unrelated to assigned sex.

When thinking in these terms, I suppose increased visibility of transgender people and advocacy hasn’t really changed the English language—at least, no more than the social structure of 18th century English speakers had. Yet widespread availability of the internet allows that advocacy to grow louder and to reach farther. Familiarization with new, invented, and preferred words has made the possibility of semantic shift exponentially faster.

Language, like gender, is—and always has been—fluid and evolving.

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As Guy has noted, pronominal changes in the English language have been prompted by etiquette, politeness, and social cues. Consider the word pronoun: there’s pro, meaning for, and noun meaning name or identified object. Pronoun: standing in for a name. It doesn’t take a linguist or even a psychologist to note that our names, what we call each other, have a profound impact on our identities. So it stands to reason that our pronouns, the words we use in place of our names, are also influential in how we communicate who we are.

After they transition, many trans people refer to their birth or given name as their dead name. My brother, I am relieved to learn, is not one of them. He tells me that while thinking of that name makes him cringe, it was a significant part of his identity for most of his life and to call it dead feels disingenuous. I agree. After all, his personality has not changed any more than mine has—or anyone’s would—in the time since he began his transition; we just call him something different. Though, I confess, sometimes it does feel a bit like a ghost name, popping out of my mouth and spooking us all.

Don’t we all have our own ghost names—nicknames and pet names that conjure earlier versions of ourselves? One could easily locate my friends and family members on the timeline of my life based on what they call me. And I, too, cringe at the thought of some of those earlier versions of myself, or blush when family members refer to me as Boo Boo to perfect strangers. But I can’t deny that they are all me.

The very concept of assigning someone a name at birth can be somewhat bizarre, designating a name to someone without first allowing them to develop opinions or an identity of their own. No one chooses their own name at birth, but many change them in adulthood—it’s something so common that it seems almost silly to draw attention to it. Yet when you add gender to the mix, people still can’t seem to grasp the change. “It’s very helpful to have a very gendered name,” says Rachlin. “When people around you are trying to make this transition, sometimes you need this radical reminder.”

There are many things to consider when choosing a name, especially when changing it from one already familiar to others. Understandably, trans people often try out several before making a decision. Some use social media to test out online identities. Others try a new name among a small group of friends before they’re comfortable using it around co-workers. It was important to my brother to choose a name that was popular among other men his age in order to maintain a sense of belonging with his peers. And because names are so strongly tied to identity, he avoided names of people he knew and, as such, avoided the identities already associated with them.

Some trans people opt for the name their parents would have given them had they been born the gender they now identify as their own. My brother chose this option, though later learned he had been mistaken and chosen the name my parents had planned on giving me had I been born male. Nevertheless, it feels appropriate: it’s not they name my parents would have given their first son, but it is the name they would have given their next son.

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Rebecca Tuvel faced significant backlash last month when her paper, “In Defense of Transracialism,” was published in the philosophy journal Hypatia. In it Tuvel explores, quite admirably, the possibility of a transracial identity. To illustrate her arguments, she draws on the psychology of transgender identities and gender dysphoria. Over 500 feminist scholars and philosophy professors signed an open letter to Hypatia admonishing the article and publication. While the letter offers a number of flimsily constructed and reactionary arguments for the removal of the piece, the one that is most reflective of the nuances of naming in the transgender community—or any community, for that matter—is the very first point, which claims that Tuvel “engages in deadnaming a trans woman.”

The woman in question is Caitlyn Jenner, who very publicly transitioned from male to female in the summer of 2015, and the deadnaming in question refers to a single parenthetical in which Tuvel refers to Jenner’s birth name, Bruce. It is no secret that, in countless public interviews, on her reality TV series, and in her recently published memoir, Jenner frequently refers to herself pre-transition as Bruce and uses masculine pronouns. In a subsequent public statement from Tuvel, she notes that she has since requested that the reference be removed: “I understand that it is not for outsiders to do and that such a practice can perpetuate harm against transgender individuals.”

There are certainly situations in which revealing a person’s given name can be dangerous or harmful, but I don’t think it’s so simple, and find it hard to imagine that Jenner would take any issue with the reference. In this case, the outrage over referring to Jenner’s birth name is almost as ridiculous as earlier refusals to use Chelsea Manning’s chosen name. We have no problem deadnaming Bob Dylan when we mention Robert Zimmerman, and face no backlash revealing that Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn Johnson. No one accuses Michael Keaton of being deceptive when learning he changed his surname from Douglas to avoid being mistaken for the already famous Michael Douglas (he chose Keaton as an homage to Diane, who herself changed her name from Hall).

A friend of mine tells a story about her brother-in-law who, at 30, sat his adult siblings down and told them he would like to start going by a new name. He had gotten a job at the same company as his father, with whom he shared a first name. Not wanting to be mistaken for his father, and perhaps to assert a newfound independence, he would henceforth use his middle name. His siblings, finding it difficult to suddenly change how they addressed him, asked if he would mind if they continued to use his given name. He agreed, and they’ve never made the switch.

As the media adjusts its style guides and new standards are established about the appropriate way to address trans people, gender nonconforming people, anyone, it’s advisable to remember what is most important: honoring that person’s preference.

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I admit that I, like the Associated Press, thought it would become much easier to use my brother’s name once he started presenting as male. What I didn’t account for was that, when you spend a lot of time with someone, whether they are transitioning or not, physical changes are often so minuscule they’re impossible to distinguish on a day-to-day basis. I also didn’t account for the fact that, despite a changing jawline and a change in vocal register, I still just see my sibling.

There’s a cognitive behavioral process to shifting language, Rachlin tells me. “It’s a cognitive psychology technique to stop the thought and correct the thought whenever it comes up. And every time you use the wrong name, you correct it—in your thoughts in particular. You need to rehearse a lot, by yourself, and not just depend on getting it right when you’re with that person.”

Using my brother’s name is certainly more natural to me now, but I still slip up. It’s like getting rid of the hiccups: you hold your breath as long as you can, until the sensation subsides. More time passes between each spasm until they dissipate altogether. Finally, you exhale slowly, allowing your breath to resume its natural rhythms. Yet just as you relax again, seemingly out of nowhere: another hiccup. My brother is understanding, and I usually correct myself right away, but of course it takes time. 

There is a recurring conversation among my family that often comes up over dinner together. In the midst of an unrelated story, someone will interrupt the speaker to say, “You know what you always say?” Then we continue to point out each other’s bon mots and favorite phrases. Sometimes they’re the same from the previous time we had this conversation, sometimes new ones arise. Mine, at the moment, is fair enough. One that never changes and has universal use by every family member is be kind. A lesson passed down from my father’s father and imbued on my siblings by my parents, it’s become an unofficial family credo. When in doubt, be kind.

As a general rule when identifying someone—by name or by pronoun—that seems fair enough.