If You Think My Pronouns Are Optional, We Can't Keep Being Friends

"Year after year, I’ve accepted half-hearted apologies and nebulous reassurance from folks who claim to have a deep investment in my happiness."
"For a while, I flinched when I was misgendered but said nothing," the author writes. "Recently, though, I’ve begun pushing back: 'You’ll have to do better' is my new refrain."
"For a while, I flinched when I was misgendered but said nothing," the author writes. "Recently, though, I’ve begun pushing back: 'You’ll have to do better' is my new refrain."
Travis Geter

Lately, I’ve been embroiled in what feels like constant conversations about pronouns. The wrong ones. The right ones. The preferred ones. Hint: That third category is defunct.

As a nonbinary trans person who uses they/them/theirs pronouns as my terms of address, I suppose I should be celebrating this influx of discourse on the proper usage of pronouns. Truthfully, I’m exhausted.

In the six years since I have “come out,” I’ve witnessed the concept of pronoun inclusivity shift from fundamentally Martian to hotly contested.

On the macro level, pronouns have become a cultural battlefield, an email-signature garnish, a token signifier of righteousness for organizations who want to rebrand themselves as politically savvy and inclusive. Personally, within several of my closest relationships, the fact that I require ungendered pronouns when referring to me in the third person has become the source of deep strain and disappointment.

I have lived a relatively transient life, undertaking several cross-country moves, and my friends and family hail from and are currently situated within a diverse range of locales ― large cities, suburban landscapes and small rural towns ― with varying political orientations. I have always felt fortunate to have found love and support in so many different places.

But I feel duped by some of the positive reactions from my friends and loved ones when I initially came out as transmasc/nonbinary. In retrospect, that was the easy part. I was the only one changing.

In the years since, I have come to find that I am in constant competition with my past. For a while, I flinched when I was misgendered but said nothing. Then, I began giving gentle reminders, followed by long-winded overtures of understanding. I felt guilty and embarrassed, and made sure to emphasize that effort was all that mattered to me.

Recently, though, I’ve begun pushing back: “You’ll have to do better” is my new refrain.

”It’s not that easy,” folks say. “I’ve known you for so long. I can’t just shift overnight.”

I am bitterly resentful of my resilient former self. Like a ghost, the memory of prior me looms overhead, my family and friends gazing upward longingly, seemingly desperate for a reprieve from my militant current iteration — the me who demands to be termed accurately.

“‘They’ is plural,” some argue. “It’s ‘incorrect’ English.” Or “What about the facts of human biology?” Or “Shouldn’t you also be concerned with my comfort?”

“The world doesn’t revolve around you,” they assert. And yet, they insist: “I mean no disrespect. I love you. I accept you. I’m trying. I need more time.“

I struggle to articulate what it feels like to be misgendered. There are dozens of relevant metaphors. A million tiny paper cuts, I decide upon. Individually, they sting. En masse, they can overwhelm the nervous system. Become infected.

However, it isn’t for lack of care, I’m reassured.

I recently shared a story with a close family member of having been misgendered by a friend’s partner. My friend had defended me, and a falling-out between the couple had ensued. I was genuinely crestfallen when my relative responded with, “You realize that you ruined their relationship, right?” I bit my lip and looked away, opting to change the subject.

While the interaction was hurtful, it also underscored to me that these interactions do not simply constitute slips of the mind or squabbles regarding semantics. What is central to these moments is an interrogation of personhood, not pronouns.

Sure, my friends and family might espouse progressive political ideologies; they might even intellectually support the idea of my authenticity. But in practice, they fail to see that these are the critical moments in which my identities are ultimately affirmed or nullified.

As I think more critically about these conversations, I feel regret about the moments wherein I have avoided asking the hard questions that cut clear through the façade of language: Do you believe I have the right to demand respect regarding my trans identity? Is defending me, my personhood, worth losing a relationship? Do you care about me, beyond the ways in which my presence enhances your life?

“I struggle to articulate what it feels like to be misgendered. There are dozens of relevant metaphors. A million tiny paper cuts, I decide upon. Individually, they sting. En masse, they can overwhelm the nervous system.”

The resulting friction from these interactions has had negative consequences in my relationships. I feel myself withdrawing from people I love — avoiding interactions that might lead to misgendering and shrinking in conversations that once felt safe and enjoyable.

Inversely, I’ve been told that spending time with me feels more cumbersome now. I sense the unease that some of my most cherished counterparts feel regarding the necessary intentionality that goes into rewiring their perceptions of me.

In addition to longstanding relationships, new connections are often marked with a similar tension regarding my pronouns. Recently, a friend recounted a conversation she had with a friend of hers in anticipation of our upcoming first meeting.

Though I don’t recall ever explicitly articulating a maximum quota on misgenderings per new acquaintance, she forewarned her friend with surprising accuracy, “You have about 2 or 3 hangouts with Kels where they will be fairly understanding of that mistake. Beyond that, they’re pretty unlikely to pursue a friendship with you.”

Aghast, the friend responded, “Wait, you mean to tell me that if we’ve spent time together on five separate occasions, gotten along otherwise, and I misgender them, they won’t want to see me again?”

“Correct,” my friend replied.

“That’s ridiculous,” her friend countered. “If that’s true, Kels is going to live one lonely life.”

I took a moment to contemplate her prediction.

Without a doubt, the idea of dwindled community triggers the fear of loneliness within me. So much so that year after year, I’ve accepted half-hearted apologies and nebulous reassurance from folks who claim to have a deep investment in my happiness but have been unwilling to work toward improvement in understanding my identities and experience.

It wasn’t until recently that I even allowed the idea of severance to pervade my mind. I am a person who needs people. This current emotional arrangement, however — the perpetual promise of future change — no longer feels tenable.

So to you, the newly emergent grammar evangelists, nascent physiologists, and free speech activists in my life, I say this: I will no longer fight you on your truth. You do, in fact, have the right to reject my pleas for change. Your requests for unmonitored, unfettered time and space to prepare for ambiguous future growth will be honored. I, however, will be increasingly absent.

The idea of having to lose some of the people closest to me, the folks who have helped to shape me into the person I am, is devastating. However, I consider having access to me, my time and my company to be a gift, not a given, for anyone in my sphere. I’m clear on my inherent worth as a person, despite all of the ways in which society at large devalues me.

To be frank, this process of change requires concerted effort. To be franker, I think that trans and nonbinary people are worth the effort.

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