Pronouns are not a suggestion

Thinking Outside the Binary

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The first time my roommate used they pronouns when referring to me, we were playing a game of Clue. I don’t even know if they noticed, but I wanted to stop playing the game and hug them because they were one of the first of my friends to address me in this way since I came out as nonbinary. 

The feeling I get when friends use they/them pronouns to refer to me is indescribable — a mix of happiness, anxiety, gratitude and shyness.

These emotions may seem odd, but they largely result from the fact that not all of my friends have been accommodating after they learned my gender and pronouns. You’d assume that because they’re my friends, they’d be more willing to learn and respect my pronouns than, say, strangers in a classroom who may or may not listen to me when I share them.

Instead, I’ve found that after sharing my pronouns with even my closest friends, I could be ignored just as much as I am in the classroom. 

It began when I simply listed my pronouns in my Instagram bio. I couldn’t gather my friends and introduce myself by saying, “Hello, my name is Elaina. My pronouns are she/they.” And I hadn’t even come out as nonbinary yet. Still, I wanted to test the waters, curious to see who would ignore it and who would notice.

I found, though, that only one or two of my friends began to refer to me as they/them. While disappointed, I didn’t feel I could justify being upset. Yes, I’d shared my pronouns, but I hadn’t come out to anyone besides the two friends who did actually refer to me using they/them pronouns. So maybe coming out was the next step — maybe coming out would encourage more of my friends to make the switch.

Writing my first column was the first time I came out as nonbinary. It was also the first time many of those closest to me learned my gender — or lack thereof. Again, I noticed that some of my friends began to use they/them pronouns, but others continued to strictly use she/her when referring to me and have even referred to me as a woman. 

Honestly, it’s frustrating, especially when I made an effort to write a column about my journey with gender and, on top of that, worked up the courage to share a link with them so they could read it.

Still, I wonder if I am allowed to be upset. I’m not the only one transitioning; they are, too. It wasn’t too long ago that I let it slide when people would refer to me as a woman. Going from constantly referring to someone as “she” and suddenly being asked to refer to them as “they” is bound to cause slip-ups.

A transgender person’s journey also isn’t always so cut and dry. Some may be comfortable with simply changing their pronouns, while others want to change a lot about themselves. I’ve considered name changes, pronoun changes, even appearance changes multiple times throughout my own journey. 

But it’s also true that trans people constantly have to tiptoe around cisgender people, obscuring their identities to avoid shattering a cisgender person’s fragile worldview. Should transgender people feel the need to keep certain changes to themselves, sacrificing their comfort so others don’t have to struggle in the transition with them?

I often hear the excuse, “I’m sorry, it’s hard for me to get used to using they/them pronouns” or “I’m just so used to using ‘she’ to refer to you. You understand, don’t you?” There is a certain point where I do not understand, where you’re asking a trans person to let you continue using only one set of pronouns for your convenience and at their expense.

I can understand the struggle of getting used to it, but I can’t empathize with the refusal to change.

In past columns, I’ve mentioned that I’m comfortable with my femininity, and that is why I’m comfortable with she/her pronouns. But still, she/her pronouns can be indicative of a female gender. I don’t like when friends refer to me with purely feminine pronouns; it feels as though they’re doing so because they believe I am a woman, erasing a part of my identity.

At the end of the day, I am still nonbinary. I still consider myself a genderless being. I know I occupy space within a gendered world, but I’m not going to make it easier for those who are comfortable with being gendered to deal with my ungendered existence.

My roommate using my pronouns without me having to confront them meant a lot to me. I am nonconfrontational by nature, so I don’t confront any of my other friends when they misgender me or use the wrong pronouns. But that is why I choose to write about it, hoping they take my words seriously.

To those of my friends who have tried to use she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably when referring to me: Thank you, it truly means the world to me. To others, I hope this column has made it clear my pronouns are more than a suggestion.

Elaina Guerrero writes the Wednesday column on the confines of the gender binary. Contact them at [email protected]