Why Pronouns are Important

Butene isomers

GreenReaper—WikiFur founder, Inkbunny owner, and Flayrah editor-in-chief—was at the centre of an online foofaraw in December after someone asked him about comments he made in 2011:

A screencap from LiveJournal that has been widely circulated
A screencap from LiveJournal that has been widely circulated

He said: I’m not going to call someone “he”/”she” if they are not physically male/female.

His point of view is uncomplicated (if unsophisticated). In short:

  • He prefers to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.

@coyoteseven I believe gender is a subjective and fluid value, and so prefer to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:12 AM – 28 Dec 2013

 

  • The correct use of words, including pronouns, is primarily an issue for the person using them.

@coyoteseven My point: the correct use of words, including pronouns, is primarily a matter for the person who must choose which to use.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:10 AM – 28 Dec 2013

 

To many people, this will seem like a small semantic issue and hardly worth thinking about. To other people, this will seem like a very big deal indeed. It’s actually both: it is a semantic issue, but an important semantic issue. And as is often the case with this sort of thing, the truth is more complex than parties on either side might suggest.

First, let’s talk about pronouns in general.

We use language to describe the world. Nouns—words like bus or apple—can represent a specific object. We hear a noun (car) and we dredge up its meaning from our memory, giving us a mental image of a car.

Pronouns are words that are a step further away from the object in question. They refer to the most likely recent noun, so in “I saw a car, it was green”, it stands for ‘the car’ and so the car is green. Pronouns only work when their meaning is clear, so in “I saw a car and a motorcycle, it was green”, it’s not clear which it is intended.

To use a more colourful metaphor, consider a Zelda inventory system. A noun is the equivalent of opening your inventory and choosing the item you wish to wield. It’s a bit cumbersome, but it’s clear what you’re getting. Alternatively, you can create one-button shortcuts to one or two commonly-used items. Here, the shortcut button is like a pronoun in the sense that it refers to whatever object was last mapped to it. If you want to grab an item not currently mapped to a pronoun-shortcut, then reach for that cumbersome noun.

Gendered pronouns—he, him, his and she, her, hers—are recognised by psycholinguists (yes, that is a real occupation) as being particularly awkward (ref). There are two main problems: firstly that people tend to associated gender stereotypes to anyone (or anything) awarded he or she; secondly, that our use of gender pronouns is in a state of flux. Gender pronouns have become political.

In the last few centuries of the English language, the male gender has been used as a default (e.g. “one giant leap for mankind”). The female gender does get applied by default to some objects, notably ships or countries, but not many. Default usage of the male pronoun started changing in the 1960s, as an outcome of the feminist movement.

Feminists noted that women, in language, tended to be treated as an exception, in terms such as ‘actress’ or ‘WPC’. The feminists felt, quite correctly, that this reinforced the general idea that being female was some sort of deviant condition, where being an actress or a WPC was a special case of a ‘normal’ actor or police constable. This is what’s known as a ‘marked term’, and it’s an indicator of inequality. (It happens towards men as well as in ‘male nurse’, homosexuals as in ‘gay marriage’, and other races as in ‘Asian driver’. In all cases the marked term implies some sort of shortcoming.)

This change is causing growing pains. Some marked terms are easy to remove (an actress is just an actor), but some are built into the terms themselves, like batsman or mankind. Language is changing to reflect the fact that women are (or should be) considered equal to men, but we’re not quite there yet. Some people defend the deprecated language and refuse to change; others overuse politically-correct jargon that isn’t in wide usage; most people are somewhere between.

A more recent, and very welcome, change in many parts of the world is an awakening to the special challenges of people who do not fit into the he/she gender binary. Many people are neither completely male nor completely female (including around 25% of furries, ref), and so the use of gendered pronouns for such people can be wrong. However English has not yet widely adopted a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun, which leaves us in a quandary. What do we do?

The answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple. The Oxford English Dictionary, a reference for the establishment if there ever was one, agrees with most LGBTQ activists that the best available (or least-worst) gender neutral pronoun should be used. (The OED also points out that the use of they/them/their instead of he/him/his or the female equivalent is a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century, and common in 19th century literature, such as Dickens.)

Gender-neutral pronouns aren’t perfect, and can be awkward. But then pronouns in general can be equally awkward, as anyone who has ever tried to write about gay sex can attest. It’s easy to get mixed up with ‘he’ and ‘he’. Consider this snippet from David Plante’s diary, Becoming a Londoner:

“As for Stephen himself, I sometimes wonder if he wants me to write in my diary events in his life that he himself would not write in his – as his telling me, with glee in the telling, that years ago he was in Switzerland and had sex with a young man in a bush, after which he gave the young man a huge Swiss note, but the young man thought this too much, so he gave Stephen change.”

 

Notice how Plante has to keep repeating ‘the young man’ so as to differentiate him from Stephen’s ‘he’. But even then, the final ‘he’ has changed to mean the young man, and so Stephen has to be named. There are five uses of ‘he’ in this sentence: four meaning Stephen and one meaning the young man. Plante has had to change his Zelda inventory shortcut midstream.

Plante has constructed his sentence to avoid awkwardness and ambiguity as much as possible. As so should we when using gender-neutral pronouns.

(Side note: there are some gender-neutral neologisms, which in my opinion are best used when they are already expected by the audience.)

In the GreenReaper example, he wasn’t juggling gender-neutral pronouns. He was misgendering transgender furries. He either referred to a transgender woman as ‘he’ because of the presence of male genitalia, or a transgender man as ‘she’.

He defends the correctness of his language, saying that he is very picky about such things.

@the_macbean As someone whose mother was an English teacher, I am very picking about the correct use of language.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 3:07 AM – 28 Dec 2013

 

But here, he is unambiguously wrong, and I hope his mother would tell him so as well. The OED is perfectly clear, saying under gender that:

  • pronouns refer to gender; and
  • gender is defined as “the state of being male or female (with reference to social or cultural differences rather than biological ones)”.
Pic of my Paperback OED 6th ed. courtesy Señor Blurrycam, who was visiting that day

When GreenReaper says he “prefer[s] to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics”, he is using pronouns incorrectly.

@coyoteseven I believe gender is a subjective and fluid value, and so prefer to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:12 AM – 28 Dec 2013

 

Knowing GR’s commitment to British English—he continues to ‘spell colour with a u’ despite having moved to the United States some years ago—I hope the authority of the OED will prove irresistible.

But that’s really just semantics. The major issue here is the importance of pronouns and gendering to trans people.

Trans people are subject to massive prejudice. To be transgender is to be familiar with the fear of violence.

When people wilfully misuse gender pronouns, it’s a reminder of that threat, similar to the way that a gay person may feel threatened by someone using the term ‘faggot’. This is why people are shocked when GreenReaper says things like “Ultimately, your wish to feel safe does not trump my wish to feel honest.”

Another widely-circulated LJ screencap

This is the point things become a bit more complicated. GreenReaper deserves a lot more understanding for his point of view. He is not, as it turns out, cisgender himself:

@the_macbean The irony is that if anything I identify as female gender-wise. But I am physically male, so have no problem being called “he”.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 3:13 AM – 28 Dec 2013

 

GR is genderqueer. He believes that ‘he’ is probably the most appropriate pronoun for him because his biological sex is male, and he is applying that semantic rule to other people.  From his perspective, he is being asked to make allowances for people, where people are refusing to countenance such allowances for him.

He is, and I hope he forgives me for saying this, showing his age (WikiFur has him 31 years old). Things are changing for the better for trans people, however only really among younger people (ref). GR isn’t old in the grand scheme of things, but he grew up in a world that was significantly less sensitive towards the non-cisgender. For example, in some circles it’s becoming common for people to ask each other which pronoun they prefer:

Courtesy pi-ratical.tumblr.com. Click image for link to source.
Courtesy pi-ratical.tumblr.com. Click image for link to source.

GR is aware of this drive, but doesn’t think this it is a positive development. I’m guessing that his opinion would be different, and would be respectful of people’s preferences, if he had grown up in an more visibly-trans world, where such behaviour was encouraged.

If GreenReaper is transphobic, then he may be a self-hating transphobe, a phenomenon which can occur when people learn to adapt to an environment where they feel they can’t be themselves. If that is the case, then he deserves understanding and no small amount of love.

I’m more inclined to say that he is not transphobic, or at least not wilfully transphobic, and is simply acting in a way which is consistent with his own experiences. We all do this to an extent; it’s never easy to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes. GreenReaper is failing to respect transgender people, but this may be no more than a simple lack of empathy or imagination.

GR is a friend of [adjective][species], and had helped helping Makyo with a panel at Further Confusion earlier this year. It’s my hope that he will find a more moderate point of view in the future.


I shared this article with three people before publication: GreenReaper, Thesis White (who wrote on gender recently for [a][s] and prefers gender-neutral pronouns), and a transgender friend of mine. Here is how they responded:

GreenReaper says:

Gendered pronouns convey implicit assertions about a third party. I believe sex is a superior basis for such assertions – it is more objective, stable, and verifiable than the social construct we now call gender, resulting in more consistent usage. Two parties may disagree over a person’s masculine nature; they are far less likely to disagree as to whether they are male.

 

Yet whether we base pronouns on sex or gender is immaterial. The core issue is that pronouns are not a personal choice, to be “respected” – they are chosen by others, as expressions of their beliefs about us.

 

I’m glad to use neutral pronouns, as the OED suggests – but some insist I use those which are contrary to my evaluation of their person. *That* is what I have a phobia of: making a false statement of belief which, in the context of my other statements, may deceive others.

 

No-one may rightly compel a falsehood. Yet this is what my fiercest critics want; they would be equally unsatisfied if I based my usage on my impression of a person’s gender, because I might disagree with their self-evaluation.

 

This article’s suppositions about my psychological state are well-meaning, but incorrect. I do not hate myself, nor trans people – merely the idea that, as a journalist and an individual, I might not be free to speak my mind.

 

Thesis says:

GreenReaper equates sex with gender, and assumed sex with pronouns, but as a Queer theorist, I would argue that sex and gender are indeed not the same, and pronouns themselves most importantly refer gender regardless of body. While he may feel one way about his own identity, his transphobia comes in the form of denying others their identity. His own identity seems reminiscent of early 1900’s gay men that crossed dressed, but did not identify as women; transness has come a long way since that stage. Ultimately, his mistake comes from not respecting people’s word about who they are.

 

My transgender friend says:

My reaction to GR at the time was to immediately delete my Inkbunny account and stop using Flayrah and Wikifur. Referring to a trans person with the wrong pronouns is deeply upsetting and continuing to do so knowing that upset is… sociopathic? He’s hurting people because of some messed-up logic. It’s either a lack of empathy and understanding, or it’s transphobia. His own issues with gender make me think he’s more broken than bigoted.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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52 thoughts on “Why Pronouns are Important

  1. Greenreaper, my problem is this:
    “I believe sex is a superior basis for such assertions – it is more objective, stable, and verifiable than the social construct we now call gender, resulting in more consistent usage.”

    Sex isn’t verifiable. As in, YOU don’t get to verify it. Are you going to ask someone to pull down their pants or lift up their skirt so you can check what pronoun to use?
    Why not simply use the pronoun that they obviously express with choices in hairstyle, clothing and makeup? Those things you CAN verify.

    1. I cannot easily verify your age, either; yet it can be useful to know, and it can in principle be verified. Moreover, your hairstyle, clothing and makeup may change from day to day, while your sex is unlikely to do so – it is stable in a way that expressed gender often is not.

      Consider one practical problem: We have over 10,000 articles about people at WikiFur. We want these articles to be accurate, as far as possible. If you base pronouns on a person’s gender identity, then at any moment an article may need to be rewritten throughout to account for a change in that identity. If you base them on third-party observations of gender, they’re subject to differing opinions as to what is masculine/feminine (see my reply to pyrostinger).

      If you base them on a person’s sex, they will likely only need to be changed once, if a person undergoes sexual reassignment surgery. Even better: avoid the use of “he” or “she” in the first place, and no changes are required. Again, I am fine with this; I think we’d be better off using pronouns which didn’t say anything about sex or gender.

      People often feel their gender identity is an important characteristic which should be mentioned, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be embedded in every reference to them, especially if it implies to others that the speaker agrees with that person’s self-evaluation. This usage is a bug in language which should be removed.

      1. We have over 10,000 articles about people at WikiFur. We want these articles to be accurate, as far as possible. If you base pronouns on a person’s gender identity, then at any moment an article may need to be rewritten throughout to account for a change in that identity.

        You mean, the way many Wikipedia articles have to be updated constantly to account for new developments, such as an actor earning a new award? Since when is that a problem?

        No offense, but at this point you’re just being stubborn. :)

        1. It’s the difference between having to change all the pronouns throughout an article vs. one fact in one section, which may or may not even be a part of the article depending on how relevant the subject’s gender identity is to their participation in furry fandom (and whether they want it to be public knowledge).

          There is also the question of [i]when[/i] to edit. One article I have in mind went through numerous revisions as editors tried to follow along with their interpretation of changes in the subject’s expressed gender over the years. In the end we removed all references to gender, switching to neutral pronouns and simply noting a change of name when it occurred; the article was better for it.

      2. GreenReaper, I think wrt WikiFur you’re discussing a non-issue; pronouns there just aren’t edited that frequently. Frankly, a person’s location is changed more often than personal pronouns. Should we just err on the side of caution and put “planet Earth” on all articles about people, too?

        1. The fact that people move without updating the WikiFur article about them is a real issue, to be sure. If it changes frequently or if there are various potential locations I would recommend simply removing it. In general, it is better not to make an assertion than to make an assertion which may be incorrect.

          1. Arrrrrre you going to address the fact that an article being edited to reflect a change is pronouns is a non-issue?

          2. I . . . can’t reply, apparently. Looks like [a][s] limits the reply depth!

            I respectfully disagree with you; the issue above did exist, and it was resolved by removing gender from the article. I agree that it’s not a big issue in terms of edit count, nor is it central to my objection to the use of self-identified gender for pronouns, which is why I did not raise it in my main response.

  2. …I think what the rub here is that GR seems to believe that gender is something others give to you. And I can’t quite follow that logic.

    1. “Gender” is a shorthand for a variety of traits that we each observe in a person. We say a person is “masculine” or “feminine” just as we might call them “fiscally conservative” or “socially liberal” – it is one facet of our evaluation of their personality. Gender is only special in that it is often expressed through the use of a particular pronouns when referring to that person in the English language.

      Each person has their own opinion of a person’s gender. In many cases, an observer’s opinion may be the same as that person’s gender identity (what gender they think they embody); but this is not necessarily the case, especially if they are from social groups with differing concepts of masculinity and femininity (e.g. “men don’t cry” vs. “real men can cry”). If they differ, the pronouns used by the observer may differ as well, because when the observer says “he” or “she”, they are actually saying “I believe this person acts in a masculine/feminine manner” (and not “this person believes they are masculine/feminine”).

      Both people may be right in that they are honestly expressing their opinion about a person’s gender – they simply have a different understanding of what is embodied by masculinity or femininity, or the level to which a particular person embodies those traits.

      The fact that a person may be justifiably called both “he” and “she” by different people based on their own experiences is one of the reasons gender is inferior to sex as a basis for pronoun use.

  3. I have no problem using whatever pronoun another person wants, but I am confused/bothered by the following:

    “-pronouns refer to gender; and
    -gender is defined as ‘the state of being male or female (with reference to social or cultural differences rather than biological ones)’.”

    If I am reading that correctly, it seems as if it is arguing that if I use “he” or “she” I have to accept socially generated gender stereotypes. I do not accept the traditional gender roles/stereotypes and I do not think male should have to behave certain ways, and females other ways, but it seems from what you are saying is that I cannot disregard the traditional roles because gender term male (or female) is defined by society?

    I don’t know if I explained that properly because I am frankly confused about it. I would say I have probably been thinking in terms of biological sex and thinking that just because I am biologically one sex, does not mean I need to accept the traditional gender roles, yet I still feel that the pronoun that matches my biological sex is appropriate for me–again I am not saying that I would force that logic on someone else just that for me it feels natural to use the pronoun of my biological sex, but to not feel the need to be bound by gender roles and stereotypes.

    1. Hi Keito, thanks for the comment. You’ve touched on something that flummoxed me a little a well.

      That’s the OED definition and I agree that it’s a bit nebulous. I quoted it because of the key part of the definition—that gender isn’t based on one’s biological sex. I don’t know if the OED definition is so soft because of space constraints in the paperback edition, or because the English definition at publication (2005) was in flux, or whether it’s a just a difficult word to define specifically. In any event I’m happy to read “social difference” as broad enough to include personal identity, with no requirement to refer to traditional gender roles.

      Like you, I’m cisgendered, and so the differences between gender and sex, and pronoun usage, were never personal considerations. It’s only really through the furry community that I’ve been exposed to the challenges faced by people who don’t fit quite so easily on the gender binary. Among my friends I count people who are genderqueer, intersex, and transgender. I’ve learned a lot.

      1. The full OED definition is interesting – the use as a biological term is further up than in the shorter/concise version. I suspect that the social/non-biological use is deemed more important for modern use hence why it was edited that way.

        (Personally I think it’s just impolite to refer to somebody by a pronoun they don’t identify with, and persisting will have the same outcome as doing anything else similarly impolite.)

        gender, n.
        1. Grammar. […]

        2. a. A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common; (as a mass noun) these regarded collectively; kind, sort. Obs.
        b. That which has been engendered

        3. a. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; = sex n.1 1. Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.
        Originally extended from the grammatical use at sense 1 (sometimes humorously), as also in Anglo-Norman and Old French. In the 20th cent., as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse (see sex n.1 4b), gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females. It is now often merged with or coloured by sense 3b.
        b. Psychol. and Sociol. (orig. U.S.). The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way.
        c. Electronics. The property of a connector being male or female.

  4. “Ultimately, your wish to feel safe does not trump my wish to feel honest.”

    It is not just a wish to feel safe, it is a wish to BE safe. Merely having one’s transgender status publicly known puts one at risk of violence & discrimination (even moreso than say, a homosexual being outed publicly as such.) One’s right to be safe absolutely trumps another’s obstinate decision to base pronouns exclusively on primary sex characteristics.

    GreenReaper (GR) could just as easily use pronouns in consonance with gender identity but refuses to because gender is, according to GR, subjective & fluid. Unlike sex which is apparently stable (despite that also being subject to change due to medical operations, by GR’s own admission.) The difference between the rates of change for both just seem negligible to me in the face of denying (or at least refusing to acknowledge) someone’s identity.

    As a light-hearted simile, consider names in the furry fandom. Furry monikers change with higher frequency than their owners’ “real life” names. By GreenReaper’s logic, I should be eschewing people’s monikers because they are subjective and fluid. The reason I don’t is A) obvious safety reasons B) that is not who they have identified themselves to me as.

    1. For various reasons, furries have agreed to a consensual reality, in which many normal rules are suspended and you can pick your own name and pretend to be whatever you want. This works fine right up to the point where you, say, hire an artist using a fictional name, they disappear, and you have no idea how to get your money back. This is one case in which you would have done better to insist on a RL name. But overall, it’s great, because the purpose of furry fandom is enjoyment of a fantasy world where animals are people, and a focus on objective reality would just get in the way.

      Most real-world businesses – e.g. furry conventions – require that you eschew arbitrary monikers. Either you must register a fictitious name with authorities, or you must use your RL name or change it through an official process. That’s because it actually matters to them who you are. But this is getting rather far off the topic.

      The issue of harm is an important qualifier (some would say the only justifiable restraint) to free speech. I don’t blame you for feeling concerned, but refusing to actively conceal a person’s trans status is far from an incitement to a criminal act – and in most of the Western world, violence against trans people is as illegal as it is against anyone, if not more so (and rightly so). Potential hate crimes are singled out for special news reporting, which indicates that they are not generally accepted.

      As for discrimination . . . well, let’s take one example, employment, and assume that discrimination has no merit (i.e. trans workers are equally productive). Companies that discriminate will be be less effective than those which do not, and over time will be replaced by them. In fact, it’s such a bad idea that many U.S. cities and states have forbidden it. It’s just bad for business. Most big companies learnt this lesson about minorities long ago.

      1. I guess it’s not really clear from your statement above what your policy is towards the affectations of that “consensual reality” on Wikifur, say — I don’t ask this rhetorically as it’s been awhile since I contributed anything and I’m sure it has evolved since then. Or for you personally — do you think of people in terms of mutable characteristics like the species or name of their avatar, or only by (relatively) static identifiers? As you highlight both the acceptance of this behaviour and its downsides.

        Perhaps one issue is that, with somewhere between a quarter and a third of furries saying they fall outside a strict gender binary — this is a relatively constant figure for as long as I or [a][s] has been tracking it — it appears that this is also a characteristic for which many, many members of the fandom have agreed to “suspend the rules.” I think you’re well within your rights to say “no, I’m not going to call you Klisoura, I’m going to call you Alex,” but I’m curious as to whether or not you do.

        I can also appreciate that you’ve been put on the spot for what is, incidentally, an exceptionally common opinion, which is to be honest a little unfair ;) So please understand I’m not trying to lead here, just curious.

        1. It’s a matter of context. Within an online roleplaying environment, for example, it’s pretty much a given that we’re not talking reality. Somewhere like here, I’d be fine with using whatever name you were comfortable with. If we were performing a serious business transaction I’d probably want to use your real name in documents, and I would refer to you formally if others were involved, unless we were all good furry friends and there was no chance of confusion. But using a name does not directly assert sex or gender (although some hint strongly at it), so they don’t suffer from the same issue as pronouns.

          When we talk about people on WikiFur it is typically in the context of real life; while a person’s fursona is sometimes described in an in-universe way, we put such articles in [[Category:Wolf characters]] and not [[Category:Wolves]]. I could see a therian wiki making the opposite choice because in that case there is an honest belief that people are wolves in some meaningful if not always tangible way.

          As for thinking about fellow furs – sure, if I know someone mostly from interacting with them as Ringtail, the playful raccoon, that’s who I think of, not so much their player. But there is a player, and sometimes it is appropriate to talk about them, especially when in the company of non-furs.

  5. I am going to stick up for the green one. I remember this spat some time ago and find it very ridiculous. Mr. Green Reaper only crime is top uses proper English. When is using proper English a crime except if one thinks the world revolves them themselves.
    There a bigger problem that beyond furry, it is Post modernism who one attempts to redefine gender by deconstructing language but worst the some in the Transgender who express severe form of narcissism. This narcissism, not to get into too many details, a product of bad parenting an our education system for example nobody losers, telling them your special. Now we add transgender ,who one feels they alone can redefine gender and the rest of the world has to pander to the transgender less the turns to the polities of personal destruction starting with an Ad Hominem laced [insert made up word]-phobic.

    1. I am going to stick up for the green one. I remember this spat some time ago and find it very ridiculous. Mr. Green Reaper only crime is top uses proper English. When is using proper English a crime except if one thinks the world revolves them themselves.
      There a bigger problem that beyond furry, it is Post modernism who one attempts to redefine sexuality by deconstructing language but worst the some in the Homosexual who express severe form of narcissism. This narcissism, not to get into too many details, a product of bad parenting an our education system for example nobody losers, telling them your special. Now we add homosexual ,who one feels they alone can redefine sexuality and the rest of the world has to pander to the homosexual less the turns to the polities of personal destruction starting with an Ad Hominem laced [insert made up word]-phobic.

  6. Knowing their RL name would not cause me to refuse to use their chosen name unless it was a legal requirement that was beyond my control.

    Giving one’s RL name to convention staff is a private and legal obligation. Convention staff, from what I have seen, generally refer to attendees by their chosen names unless in private. Convention attendees generally refer to each other by their chosen names.

    “refusing to actively conceal a person’s trans status is far from an incitement to a criminal act”
    Privacy is a constitutional right. Related:
    https://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights_hiv-aids/court-rules-tragic-police-outing-gay-teen-violated-constitutional-rights-aclu-s

    Hate crimes are singled out by the media because they feature uncommon elements that will define them against non-hate crime reports and stir up controversy, which generate higher interest, increasing the media outlet’s patronage and in turn their profits also.

    Trans workers ARE equally productive, as far as I know. Guess which group has consistently higher unemployment & lower salaries than the national average?
    http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/a-broken-bargain-for-transgender-workers.pdf

    Thank you for taking the time to respond.

    1. I would also use a person’s chosen/fan name, except in certain context (e.g. “outside” ones involving non-furs, business or crime). Names are different to pronouns; I do not feel I am making a factual statement about the person when using one. Of course, the person you’re talking to needs to know who you’re talking about.

      It’s reasonable for a court to protect against active violations of a person’s privacy by legal authorities, especially given the specific circumstances of the case. I think it’d be far harder to justify compelling a private citizen to speak contrary to their opinion. (This is the basis for the concept of warrant canaries, where people commit to saying on a regular basis that they have not been served a secret order by the NSA; if they stop, you may assume that they have).

  7. As a side note, someone being genderqueer has no bearing regarding being transphobic or not, because being trans or genderqueer are two vastly different things. Being genderqueer or “transgendered a bit too afte all”, has became a trump card for a handful of people, like it allows them to act stupidly toward transfolks because we’re somehow the same or something. (and it goes the other way too)
    Ex from real life, around here: a male academic living as a het guy, with no signs from the way he talks about himself, dress, looks, behave, his politics etc that anyone would guess he is anything other than a regular sexist and transphobic het non-trans dude. But who, when called on it, says, unironically, “oh, I fell like I am a lesbian in a male body, not a man” and so…all is right I guess?

    1. Hi Mast. This is an important point, and I’m glad that you took the time to cover it in your comment. This was something I struggled with when I was writing the article – I was trying to be succinct but I also wanted to properly portray the full range of gender identities, or at least the ones relevant to my point.

      In the article, I implied that trans people and genderqueer people can be lumped together on two occasions (I think); once where I suggested that gendered pronouns might apply to the 25% or so of furries who are not cisgender, and again where I conflate GR’s genderqueer status with his transphobic language. In both cases I’ve tried hard to word my sentences to be factually correct as well as to give the relevant information, but it’s certainly fair to say that I give the impression that being trans and being genderqueer are similar things.

      Thanks for catching it, and I’m sure it’ll be appreciated by people reading through these comments. And I hope you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt and forgive me for not getting it completely correct – writing about queer and gender issues is a semantic minefield at times.

  8. Actually this whole political controversy can be summed up easily, at least in my opinion. The issue has little to do with pronouns, and everything to do with a very bad, but deeply rooted assumption about “gender.” The assumption is that gender is binary. That is, that there are only two choices and regardless of how you determine it, each individual has to be one or the other.

    If human society would outgrow this primitive notion, then most of the politics would go away. Language would evolve new ways of dealing with the change, and everyone would be much less prickly about it.

    I am genetically and physically male. I was born that way. There was a time when I felt unhappy about it, and even pondered changing it, but it didn’t take me too long to realize that society was wrong, not me. I gleefully reject socially-base gender assumptions and do what pleases me. This can be difficult until you get used to it. However, in the long term, it is very satisfying and far less stressful than trying to pound one’s body, mind, and language into a rigid mold built in some Neanderthal era millennia ago.

    Squabbling over pronouns does nothing to relieve the stresses that are sometimes called “gender dysphoria.” It only makes them worse. Acceptance, tolerance, and more welcoming attitudes for individual expression, regardless of gender-role stereotypes, is what we all need to learn.

    1. Hi Tivo, thanks for the comment and thanks for your story. It’s rather touching to hear how you found such a positive, natural way to express your own gender identity.

      A large part of the problem stems, in my opinion, from our language itself. It reinforces the idea that the ‘normal’ states of gender are either he or she, and so implies that each of us should shoehorn into one or the other. It also means that people who don’t have a cis/binary gender identity are largely invisible, because they are presumed to fit neatly into the language unless they insist otherwise.

      I think that the world is getting better at this sort of thing, although I imagine that you are in a better position to judge. I am certainly encouraged by increased visibility of trans people and trans issues, the slow introduction of gender-neutral pronouns, and I’ve been heartened to see friends of mine start to assert their gender identity more openly.

  9. As a result of considerable energy put into the study of linguistics over the years, I do understand (or think I do) the connection between language and these attitudes. Unfortunately, my studies also revealed the way these connections work. Attempts to force social or attitudinal changes by deliberate alteration of language are doomed to failure. In fact, they can backfire, leading to greater resistance to change.

    I’ll note here that I’m perfectly willing to use the pronouns preferred by any individual, or to avoid labeling them at all by careful use of gender-neutrals. But what is really needed is a more serious pressure for direct social change. Some of that is coming about on its own, as you point out, but we would all do better to reinforce it rather than waste energy squabbling over language. The language will evolve on its own, and does so quickly when society adapts first.

    My point, though, is that psychological or social gender is merely a construct. Even physiological gender is more ambiguous than most people believe, but the social construct is what causes the major difficulties. That’s where the notions of gender-defined roles, behavior, dress, speech, so forth come from. And that’s where we can most quickly break down the hard walls that have been created between two false polarities that are really a continuum of possibilities.

    In the end, I place the blame on humanity’s obsession with physical sex, which in turn insists that gender-prescribed behaviors are essential to the stability of culture. This is an utterly false belief, and one that can be broken down more easily than the more conservative traditions of language.

    In the last half-century, what I have observed in Western societies is an exponential loosening of these bonds. The ability of women and men both to move into careers and pursuits that were once “reserved” to a single sex is increasing rapidly. Women who choose not to marry or not to have children are less often viewed askance. Men who do not marry are not so often laughed at behind their backs or insulted to their faces. Even modes of dress have changed tremendously.

    I’m not saying that a man can get away with wearing high heels or a ball gown to work, but frankly, I don’t think anyone should be wearing those antiquated things other than on a stage now. That kind of “fashion” is impractical and stupid, and was created to exaggerate the constructed distinction between overly-polarized genders. We are still suffering from distorted perceptions that actually lead to the idea that a male who wants to wear gender ambiguous clothing or engage in “traditional” female activities such as cooking, sewing, or should have to undergo painful and costly gender reassignment surgery, or that a woman who wishes not to suffer the stereotypical segregations applied by unenlightened morons should ahve to do the same. That is irrational.

    As a teen I was bullied and tortured constantly by peers because my primary interests were ranked as “female.” At that time, even serious participation in music or visual art were treated as “wrong” for a male here. I was supposed to be interested only in mechanics, alcohol, and aggressive sports, none of which I have ever cared about. I was fortunate enough to have parents who were supportive and encouraged me to make my own choices regardless of the pressures from peers and school administrators. My brothers eventually stopped pressuring me at least, and I learned to ignore the cat calls.

    Pronoun abuse is pretty insignificant when compared to physical bullying or schools that try to stand in the way of personal choice and force kids into pre-defined gender roles. We would do far better to direct all possible energies against the things that do the real damage. Language adapts to realities, it does not actually shape them, though it can seem to reinforce them. Politically correct language is a cold comfort indeed when compared to the actual physical pain and suffering inflicted by ignorance and intolerance.

    One of the elements of furry subculture that I have found particularly welcoming is the greatly reduced emphasis on gender-specific behaviors or appearances. Frankly, the continued exaggerated focus on physical sexuality is sometimes oppressive and insulting, but at least I have not felt that anyone questions my own rejection of gender stereotyping. Gay or straight, male or female, it’s mostly irrelevant and more likely to produce a shrug than even a raised eyebrow.

    In the end, we each have to live our own lives. No one else can do it for us, and no one else should make our decisions. The one rule that needs to be understood can be expressed either in the well known “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or perhaps better in the old pagan statement: “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.”

    1. See, I don’t understand why activities one likes such as cooking or sewing should have to be linked to gender. When I was growing up it was pretty clear that whether you were male or female was irrelevant to whether you liked to cook or do wood working and that one should not let old-fashioned stereotypes prevent one from enjoying activities one likes. The schools at that time taught cooking and sewing to boys and girls. Likewise they taught woodworking and drafting to both boys and girls.

      It sounds to me as if you are saying this type of behavior is gender queer, but I see it simply as not feeling as if one needs to fit gender stereotypes–it doesn’t mean that one isn’t male or female, just that one should not be restricted in ones behavior by ones gender.

      (This is not to say that I am arguing for a purely binary system, but rather that I think the issue of gender roles is a different issue from both whether someone fits into fe/male binary or not and also whether someone’s physical sex fits their identity or not.)

      1. Well, I’m not in fact saying that I think such behavior is gender based, but rather that American culture in the 60s and 70s did in fact treat it as such. In fact, when I was in junior high (mid-60s) the schools in Michigan *required* male students to take shop and females to take home ec. You were not allowed to *deviate* from that requirement. When I won ribbons for cooking at the state fair, it got into the newspaper and as a result I was taunted and even physically abused by me peers.

        These things are loosening up in the US, at least in some parts of the country, but it was pretty horrendous back then. I do believe that in many cases, the notion that one needs to physically undergo gender reassignment in order to be allowed to behave in ways that are socially linked to the opposite gender grows from these demands made by rigid social attitudes. Changing those attitudes eases the stress and would allow many (perhaps not all, but certainly many) individuals to live fulfilling lives without feeling that they were “trapped” in the “wrong” gender.

        1. *nods* I was in junior high in the late seventies and high school in the 80s in the suburbs of Chicago. At that time and place, there was a great deal of effort spent in trying to get rid of the old gender restrictions.

        2. Hiya, I identify male. My body didn’t get the memo, and it decided not to pick up that extra Y, and we’re stuck with a bunch of X’s.

          It’s not that I think I need to be male to enjoy things such as fixing cars, or martial arts, or violent video games, but when I see the image of myself in my head, when I think of myself, and then see the mental picture of ‘me’ I see a male.

          I am 100% comfortable with my more ‘feminine’ hobbies. I enjoy the manly art of knitting with a voracity that is hard to explain. I adore cute little pictures of kittens and puppies and baby hyena, and will happily squee when I learn that my favorite vampire novels are being made into movies/TV shows. I do not behave in a way that would make anyone believe “Wow, this is the manliest man who ever manned in man-town.” because my gender is not about my behavior, or my interests, but how I perceive myself. My dysmorphia is based on internal self image, not how society believes I should behave based on the idea of masculine of feminine. I’m actually a very feminine guy. And I feel I have nothing to prove by pretending I like Nascar, or monster trucks simply because that’s a stereotype. I live my life to be me to my fullest. I’d just like the image in my head to match the one in the mirror. And even when that happens, I’ll still enjoy knitting while watching violent vampire movies. <3

          1. Thanks for the reply. It certainly makes it more clear to me. Personally I think the whole gender roles things should be dumped, and it is helpful to see that the traditional gender roles are irrelevant to how you see yourself.

            For myself, I don’t feel male or female, but some of what I read suggests that the fact that I do not feel any incongruity means I am cis, but frankly I have no sense of what it feels like to feel like one gender or the other. In terms of your statement about how you visualize yourself, I do visualize myself as I physically am, so I guess that does make me cis

  10. I think that there are issues with people having total freedom to choose the gender which others will identify them as. One’s gender is a primary characteristic like race, ethnicity and religious affiliation and while people are always free to self-identify however they wish, a white person claiming to be black, a arab claiming to be jewish or an athiest claiming to be catholic would all be met with a fair degree of scorn. All of those affiliations either cannot be changed or can only be changed after a process. I am sure some would like to live in a world without gender identity, but the truth is what chromosomes a person has is not up for debate. If someone makes an effort to identify with one gender or another I will be more than happy to meet that person half way, but if you look like a guy with guy parts and a guy appearance then I reserve the right to refer to you as such. To force people to do otherwise is forcing them into Real Life Role Play and even in the fandom that is not generically acceptable.

    1. Hi Sturmovik, thanks for the comment. It reads to me like you’re confusing gender with biological sex, or perhaps you’re asserting that gender and biological sex are the same thing. Maybe you could clarify?

    2. Including religious affiliation in your list seems very odd. One can in fact very quickly go from being a Catholic to not being a Catholic. Also one can be both Jewish and Arabic; Judaism is a religion whereas “Arabic” is an ethnicity of super-ethnicity.

      1. While I agree that religion by itself is an unstable qualifier, being a Jew is more complex than that. Judaism is a religion, but there is also the concept of a Jewish people. One may – according to some viewpoints – be a non-religious Jew. Conversely, a non-Jew following the tenets of the religion is typically not considered a Jew without conversion, which some branches have historically not offered. In comparison, some definitions of “Arab” merely require you to speak Arabic in a country where it is the predominant language, although there’s a large degree of culture there as well.

        Incidentally, the Hebrew version of this issue appears to extend far beyond pronouns; but perhaps someone with better knowledge could comment.

  11. I’m just going to leave this here…

    This is a reply I put forth to GreenReaper that he decided never to respond to. This is from another community, where some of his words were just as viciously hideous as anything you may have seen in a more public sphere.

    Pasted in its entirety:

    Alright. Now that I’m comfortably at home, and do not have a migraine, let’s talk.

    So, you’re apparently having a very difficult time with sex and gender.

    You do know what gender is, right? Let’s start with a definition. This is the very first one I plucked off of google:

    the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).

    Now, I don’t agree with this definition, because I believe in a gender spectrum. Effeminate men, and masculine woman, who still self-identify as male/female respectively but also includes those who do not have a gender, to those who identify as both at the same time, but I do agree with the bit in the parentheses, that it’s less biological, and more social.

    In fact, let’s talk about bodies. That’s right, corpses. Have you ever noticed how it is reported that a person’s body was found? Not a person. Their body. Their carcass. Their cadaver. Their earthly remains. That’s because we’ve come to find that when the person is no longer in their body, it becomes an it. An object.

    When we go looking for, say, Matt, because he’s gone missing. We’re looking for him. We’re looking to bring him home. When someone says “Matt’s been found.” you naturally assume that he is still living. However, when you find Matt’s body, well… Poor Matt. When a rescue attempt becomes a recovery, you’re no longer looking for Matt, but his body. You will then recover it, sans Matt, for the family.

    In fact, there’s a fantastic part in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when her mother dies. Her friend, Giles, comes over, and she’s trying to tell him that the paramedics have already said it’s too late, and that the medical examiner is on the way. She stammers through “No, it’s too late, she’s…” and when Giles is on his knees, trying to rouse her, she shouts “We’re not supposed to move the body!” It’s at that moment she realizes her mother is well and truly gone. She is no longer a ‘she’. She’s become an ‘it’. She’s become ‘The body’. That’s actually what the whole episode is titled “The Body.” Check season five if you want to see it.

    So, when you address me as an ‘it’ or a ‘them’ or any other pronoun other than ‘he’ you are talking about my body. You are not addressing me as a person, with thoughts, experiences, emotions, feelings, or anything such as that. You’re speaking directly to the meat covered skeleton made of stardust that *I* the person am currently piloting. You’re telling me that *I* as a person am so insignificant in comparison to this bag of flesh that you refuse to speak to me as a human being, but you’d rather speak to my carcass. I may as well be dead.

    And THAT, Larry, is why I am insulted. I am not a carcass (Despite playing one), nor am I, Westly, simply a bag of flesh and bone, made up of stardust and elements, as neat as that may sound. I am a person. With thoughts, memories, and interesting anecdotes, swirling with creativity, a through lust for vampire novels, and a slew of emotions.

    So, once again, I respectfully request you use the pronoun ‘he’ to address me. Socially, I am male. My medical records have me listed as such, and they use my correct name to address me as well. You would do well to do the same, otherwise you’ll lead to much anger and confusion, not only from me, but from my friends, anyone who is not transphobic, as your discomfort with addressing me correctly is proving you to be.

    ———————

    I don’t expect GreenReaper to answer. But there’s my thoughts.

  12. It’s odd how intersex hasn’t really been brought up. I think that to test the assertion that it is possible to address people with a pronoun, one must look to the most difficult person of all – a true hermaphrodite. Let’s for the moment assume that a transgendered person can be pronoun sexed through their genitalia even if they have radically altered their chemistry with hormone treatments and perhaps even wear padding and/or restrictive garments to alter their apparent body shape. That is intentional and so they still have a ‘natural’ or more accurately ‘original’ primary biological sex which has not yet been altered. Also, we can set aside those who are intersex entirely by chromosome – at least for now – and chemically because they are effectively a natural form of someone who has been affected by hormone treatments.

    So, still keeping it simple, let’s go for the 1 in a million person who is physically intersex with the outside physical characteristics of both in equal amounts. Setting aside that such people are almost always arbitrarily assigned at birth, what do we call them? They only way to have a sex pronoun there is to ask the person what they want.

    This is a very rare case, but it’s an exception that provides a case in which the individual MUST choose a sex and that sex be respected. Unless one sex has priority over another. Or do we then look at their chromosomes? What if lightning has struck twice and they also have XXY? It’s possible, so it must be considered.

    It is unlikely, but rules must be applicable in all cases or they aren’t rules.

    1. What do you call an intersex person?

      Well, you politely ask how they would like to be referred, and go from there. It’s not much different from how you would address anyone else, really.

      You’re forgetting sex doesn’t equal gender. They may have a very strong feminine or masculine identity, or it may flow and shift, just like anyone else.

    2. The problem is your assumption: that a binary sex must be asserted. Call an intersex person ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’, and you avoid any assertion about their sex, except perhaps an implication that it cannot be determined (which is entirely true).

      1. Perhaps I misunderstood your position. I thought that the idea was to refer to people by using their primary sexual characteristic as a baseline for continued use of binary pronouns. I suppose my question then ought not to be ‘what do you do with the 50/50 exception?’ but instead ‘How far one way or the other must a person’s primary characteristic go before you refuse to grant them the binary pronoun of their choice?’

        1. If you base your pronoun usage on sex, and you cannot determine whether a person meets your definition for ‘he’ or ‘she’, I’d suggest avoiding both words. The subject’s own beliefs are immaterial. Either you believe a person is male, or female – or you do not know, in which case you should not communicate a belief.

          If you base your pronoun usage on gender, either you believe a person has masculine or feminine characteristics, or you cannot decide. Again, the subject’s gender identity is immaterial; using it would be expressing their belief, not yours. (If they have similar views, and act in accordance with them, you’re likely to use the one they expect.)

          In either case, your pronoun usage should be consistent with those you use for other people; but those used by others may differ because they hold a different opinion. For example, one person recently called me “she”; that’s not the pronoun I’d use for a person like myself, but it’s correct for them to use if they base pronouns on gender and believe I have feminine characteristics. Given consistent usage, the people they’re talking to could rely on it to assess that person’s belief about my gender. If they used “he”, they’d be misleading others as to their belief.

  13. Actually I thought intersex had been brought up but to be honest I have not read all them comments thoroughly.

    I will say intersex individuals are not hermaphrodites; certainly binary pronouns are less appropriate. For many people who are intersex, the term hermaphrodite is offensive and disparaging (as well as biologically inaccurate), which is why the term intersex is preferred.

    As I have said more than once, the difference between male and female is like the difference between day and night–it may seem very obvious, and it is indeed easy to tell in many cases, but when you get to the boundary it gets very confusing. When does day end and night begin? Is it when the rim of the sun first touches the horizon? Is it when it is halfway down? Is it when the light of the sun is entirely gone? Certainly you can define it in such a way to try and make it seem as if there is a bright line between day and night, but in truth any such definition is arbitrary, the reality is that day grades into night.

    XXY is actually not that uncommon, but normally such individuals are biologically male. Presence of an X chromosome does not make one biologically female, rather the default is female, but a Y chromosome overrides the default. The Y chromosome has the sex determining region on it. If there is a problem with testosterone receptors then sometimes individuals will not respond to the higher levels of testosterone, but in most cases if the Y chromosome is present then there will be more testosterone and the individual will be biologically male.

  14. Very much just my opinion:

    It might be a helpful guide, but I think it’s very odd to point to (say) the Oxford English Dictionary as somehow a *definition* of our language rather than as a historical record of it. I mean, it’s nice that we can all agree on spelling now … sort of… :)

    It strikes me that calling people by the pronouns they prefer is, if nothing else (though it is much else), simple common courtesy. If you feel your integrity is threatened by being asked to use a pronoun that in your judgement is incorrect, then I’m confused. I must be missing something or mischaracterising something. If so, I apologise.

    If not: firstly, personal integrity ought be able to withstand that level of (perceived) abuse; secondly, you’ll be judged harshly for other traits (possibly along the lines of callousness or at least stubbornness); and finally, of all the lies great and small that we commit directly or are complicit in on a daily basis, picking a battle over the white lie of using a gendered pronoun you disagree with seems (to be petty and rude) petty and rude.

    1. My integrity is not threatened by the request, but by the expectation – and the threat of censure for failing to live up to it. Quite simply, some people have taken my position as a personal affront, and seem intent on hammering on this issue until everyone knows what a bad person I am for disagreeing with them.

      I’d rather be perceived as callous or rude than to act in a way that is inconsistent with my beliefs. Bear in mind that I have no malice towards trans people; I merely refuse to actively deceive others regarding their sexual status. If doing so is seen as a common courtesy, then my values diverge from those shared by today’s society. Frankly, this is not an unusual state of affairs. :-)

      I suspect many consider pronouns to be a form of malleable personal title, subject to the whims of their subject. In such a case, it would be natural to consider their use a courtesy, rather than a matter of substance for the speaker.

      As for picking a battle, we’re here because my personal opinion was dug up from a passing comment in a two-year-old comment thread in a private LiveJournal community. I have not sought to compel others to my usage, nor denounced others for holding a differing opinion; instead, they are intolerant of mine. It is this intolerance which drives attempts to exclude me from their circles; or, failing that, to exclude themselves from mine.

      1. It must be very odd and unpleasant having dozens of people going through your 2 year old dirty laundry. I wouldn’t like it if it happened to me.

        When I mentioned picking battles, I wasn’t referring to the publication of this article. I certainly appreciate that you don’t expect people to think the same way as you, and that few are tolerant of your point of view, which as far as I can gather seems to be one that upholds sincerity as a moral virtue. In short you face the same censure and problems as those practicing “radical honesty”.

        It must be maddeningly difficult and (it seems to me) prone to cause more rather than less deceit because of the assumptions you necessarily make based on someone’s appearance (even without considering gender or intersex conditions, the two primary physical sexes are frequently difficult to distinguish). So I don’t agree with your approach, but I sympathise with your reasons. It should be clear to everyone that you aren’t acting out of malice.

        1. I suspect most people see sincerity as a virtue worth upholding – to an extent. The issue is when one virtue comes into conflict with another, and you have to decide on what value to put on each virtue.

          Deceit can usually be avoided by not making an assertion of sex or gender, which I’m happy to do. For some, that is not enough, usually because they perceive a lack of speech to cause harm.

          It is here that our values collide. Is it better to actively say something you do not believe in order to prevent harm? As a general rule, I’d say no; but of course, it’s not a black-and-white decision – it depends on your values, your estimations of the level of harm, etc.

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