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TBD: Pronouns

TBD: Pronouns

This is a piece on how I have ruminated on my usage of she/they pronouns and also the politics around it. I embrace, through a non-linear format, the ever-so-frequent failure in making a clear point about my gender expression, inviting you to be curious and not all-knowing about gender relations in general. As Jack Halberstram states, experiences of “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Queer Art of Failure by Halberstram 2011 : 02). I have numbered my thoughts in a haphazard manner to allow you to connect dots however you like—-perhaps you will come up with a conclusion I could not.


When setting up a zoom profile for a union conference, we were asked to change our names and pronouns. I have had a tough time navigating pronouns and their public declaration---often thinking if it makes for a safe space or does it force marginalized folx to come out without having decided, or not wanting to be judged by specific parameters language can be a symbol of when they are transitioning. In another meeting, someone put a caveat that they will be okay if we didn't want to share our pronouns. This gesture helps those who are still wondering and wandering, but also gives leeway to those who get angry at this entire "pronouns business"-- as if their entire life will fall apart if they could just modify language as times develop. I slowly settled into a mental compromise—people who navigate this via harmful means are collateral in the process of creating an accepting space for those who might want to state their pronouns.


Someone asked me "how would you feel most comfortable today/for now, when being referred to?" after having shared their chosen mode of address first, as compared to the non reciprocal, unilateral "what are your pronouns? What do you identify with? ". This helped me give them a tentative answer which worked for that particular period of time, and also feel secure in the good faith of the question. Sure, that sentence was a mouthful but the words for now and "how would you feel" made me feel instantly at ease--- it wasn't a question about my entire lifetime: the past that had gone by and the uncertain future that I had no control over. The longer the sentence got, the less tension I felt. Someone did ask me however--cant this temporal dimension be interpreted in bad faith "you're not sure about your gender expression?". But anyone who thinks change and shifts are a  bad thing, that they don't want to acknowledge that any kind of stability is not an inherent trait but an achieved resource—the problem lies therein. 


 The temporality of identification as fluid and changing was given room by just one word: for now. It felt very similar to the ease I feel when someone asks: how are you, today/for now?, and not how I am, period. The subtle acknowledgement that my moods, feelings, thoughts can both change over time and also be stable/stabilizing, was also extended to my way of thinking about my gender expression, identity, and the language I give to it. It wasn't coming from a place of: they have no tether, but that the anchors could shift over time or remain– the power  to declare the same was with me. To be asked–how/who do you want to be referred to for now—how can this not be freeing? 


The way bureaucracy functions--- we aren't given the chance to assess our life at a limited temporal frame but are asked to define our entirety of existence in an abstract manner. And yet, if we start incorporating giving people the chance to limit the amount of variables they need to take into account when asked a loaded question around gender--maybe we will be changing the conversation around it, pushing to changing the world around it as well. 


The fact that people are so adamant against pronouns is precisely because it challenges their belief systems that have been hardened via institutional backing and socio economic logics we work under. A mere change in language might also seem small compared to the other changes it needs to be backed by--- but it should happen for us to be pushing for those transformations. Language only reflects a change in our culture and vice versa. The adamant defiance to change only goes to show the attachment to oppressive structures people are okay with or are too used to.


Indeed, there are many languages in the world that do not necessarily use a gendered language. Their linguistic gender also sometimes doesn't have anything to do with human gendering processes given it also extends to lifeless objects. I have been using Hindi/Urdu of a specific kind all my life where we don't use she/he for anyone out of respect-- the go to words are always plural and gender neutral. This just goes to show that language is a human construct with real consequences and thus should be taken seriously in at least two ways-- first, that its abstract "logics" could be concretely impactful, and second---they can be changed. 


I nowadays go by both she/they pronouns. My journey has brought me to this tentative stop after much pondering over how I express my gender, how I feel about the world around me through the lens of my body and also my sexuality. I feel comfortable and respected when someone calls me they---precisely because a conventional feminine or masculine hasn't always fit my way of understanding myself. In this process, I have realized how we begin to not only question conventions, but give "conventional" folx a chance to think and fight for a world outside of it, even if they cannot currently survive outside of it. I am reminded of Alok Vaid Menon who taught me that gender binary hurts everyone precisely because we aren't ready to heal from our own repression. Some suffer violence overtly while others tend to preserve the violent possibility for the benefits it has reaped. 


This is precisely the kind of a world we need to strive for: where our socio economic systems do not stymie our imagination of who we could be, and do not make violent norms the category of our survival. We need a world where freeing pronouns are not only respected, but are a natural consequence of its liberated/liberating mode of existence. 

About the writer

Prerna Subramanian

Prerna Subramanian (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate and labour activist at Queen's University where she studies politics of space and gender dissidence in Indian cinema. She loves cooking Indian food and unwinds with binging on her evolving collection of cringe.

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