What ‘Pronoun Privilege’ gets wrong about supporting trans students (and how we can do better)

In September, the New York Times published a woefully irresponsible article by City University of New York gender studies professor Elizabeth Reis, entitled “Pronoun Privilege.” Reis’s short, 530-word article outlines her concern that by asking students to state their pronouns, well-meaning professors such as her are actually harming transgender and gender-nonconforming students. In publishing this article, Reis has resolidified her status as a well-meaning but dangerous professor.

I didn’t want to write this essay

I didn’t want to write about “Pronoun Privilege.” Since the day of its release, it has haunted me in my life as a transgender person who recently graduated college and has been on both sides of pronoun check-ins many times.

A few weeks before Reis’s article came out, I had emailed my former colleagues at my university social justice job to provide them with resources for supporting trans and gender-nonconforming students as the academic quarter began. Since I’d graduated out of my job, no one was paying me anymore. But I’d already written up the resources, I still had access to the all-staff mailing list, and I knew that if I didn’t bring up pronoun check-ins and other forms of support, no one likely would. It didn’t seem like so much free labor to send one email.

My decision reversed instantly when a professor replied to my email asking what I thought about Reis’s article. When I clicked through her link and read “Pronoun Privilege” for the first time, what I thought was that it felt like someone shouting at me out a car window as they drove past. It was a painful mess, and as much as I wanted to help trans students by replying, I wasn’t going to hurt myself by dissecting the article in detail for a college that was no longer paying me.

It’s now December, though, and this atrocious article still won’t leave me alone. I feel forced to confront it directly.

This publishing opportunity should have gone to a trans writer

My detailed breakdown of everything wrong with “Pronoun Privilege” hits a snag almost immediately: Reis does not adequately identify her positionality in relation to her article. If she’s trans, I still have many points to contend with her, but if she’s cis, both she and the New York Times are wildly out of line.

In the section of her article that most nearly addresses her own cis/trans status, she writes, “My appearance matches my preferred pronoun, so I don’t worry about anyone misstating it. But some of my students are transgender or gender nonconforming.” The first half of this seems likelier for cis people (particularly because she doesn’t even worry), and the latter part implies some contrast between her trans and gender-nonconforming students and her. This description and her casual transphobia throughout the article lead me to tentatively assume Reis is cis, but without her identifying herself, I can’t know for sure.

My most fundamental objection is that if Reis is cis, her article should not exist in the first place. Cis people cannot advance dialogue about how best to support trans people. To paraphrase and adapt a quote by Kelley Temple about men in feminism, cis people do not need to be given a space in trans advocacy; they need to take the space they have and make it more trans-friendly. Reis should work to make her classroom more trans-friendly, but if she is cis, she should not be cissplaining in the New York Times, nor should the New York Times have given her the platform. Trans people are the ones who innovate ways to balance visibility with safety for our communities. Give us, particularly trans women of color, the opportunity to write for money and a large audience about how to meet trans people’s needs. That being said, the rest of my complaints apply regardless of whether Reis is cis.

Pronoun check-ins aren’t as common as Reis suggests

Reis describes pronoun check-ins, the practice of asking everyone to state their pronouns at the beginning of group meetings, as common at some colleges and universities. Pronoun check-ins are common at liberal higher education institutions in the same sense as shooting stars are in the night sky: just because you’re unlikely to see them elsewhere doesn’t mean you should hold your breath for one.

Here, I suppose, is where I should give you more background about myself. I’m agender, meaning I have no identification with womanhood, manhood, or any other gender. I dress, behave, and speak in ways that are usually interpreted as feminine — not because of or in spite of my gender, but because those matters are what I genuinely prefer. My pronouns are they/them/theirs, xe/xyr/xyrs, and any others beside he, she, and it.

I have a round face and an hourglass figure. I’m consistently assumed to be a woman by all but the most committed trans radicals and allies. The accordance between my body and how people expect me to look, along with my whiteness, makes me an unlikely target for street violence but a very likely candidate for accidental misgendering.

I come out whenever space is made for me through practices such as pronoun check-ins and sometimes elbow my way out of more stubborn closets if I think there’s a chance I’ll be gendered correctly on the other side.

I went to a liberal university in a liberal city in a liberal state and planned my educational path around whose classrooms would likely have pronoun check-ins, and still pronoun check-ins weren’t common for me in classroom spaces. It’s hard for me to imagine that pronoun check-ins are “common” in classrooms for any trans student at any school.

The article itself is casually transmisogynistic

Reis explains that her fear that pronoun check-ins do as much harm as good is motivated particularly by a pronoun check-in she facilitated that brought scrutiny upon a student of hers, who would have preferred not to share her pronouns. Reis is right to be concerned for her trans students’ well-being and especially to listen to their individual concerns and preferences, but every conclusion she draws is flawed.

Reis writes that her student, who used a traditionally female name and uneasily shared her she/her pronouns, “looked like any other guy in the class.” The phrasing “other guy” implies that the student, too, is a guy. While someone who adopts a traditionally female name and she/her pronouns may be a guy, Reis being casually transmisogynistic seems more likely in this case. As a writer, she should know better, and as a respected publication, the New York Times should do better. This isn’t just a matter of grammar; it’s a matter of respecting people’s identities in an article about respecting people’s identities.

Asking students to opt into pronoun check-ins based on comfort can leave trans students uncomfortably exposed

After her experience making a student uncomfortable asking everyone to share their pronouns, Reis’s alternative approach was to share her concerns, asking students to share their pronouns only if they feel comfortable doing so, and saying that her class will refer to people by their first names or the gender-neutral “they.”

I don’t think this is an altogether bad approach, but I believe it gives cis students too much latitude to opt out rather than questioning their understandings of gender. Challenging preconceptions about how the world works — such as the existence of only two genders and only two sets of personal pronouns — can be uncomfortable, especially for those whose cis identities are decentered as a result. In my experience, many cis people will take every available opportunity to return to the status quo. This  means they will avoid sharing their own pronouns even though they would be safe to do so, and they will fall back on their gendered assumptions rather than following through on their names-or-”they” commitment.

I treat sharing pronouns as a practice to opt out of, more than a practice to opt into. I don’t want to force trans and gender-nonconforming students to out themselves, but I want to encourage everyone to participate. As a trans person, I felt hypervisible when cis people rely on the assumption that they will be gendered correctly, leaving me as one of few students who did share their pronouns. Similar to Reis, though, I tell participants that we will use names or “they” for anyone who doesn’t share pronouns.

My own method for facilitating pronoun check-ins

My approach is similar to Reis’s new one, but with more focus on long-term follow-through. During introductions, I explain that we will be doing a pronoun check-in, a process in which we share our pronouns with everyone to learn how to correctly refer to each other. I give a succinct explanation of the gender binary, how pronouns fit into it, and why it’s important to create new ways of handling gender and pronouns. I explain what pronouns are, because not everyone was taught or remembers. Discussing parts of speech and challenging how they work can be especially difficult for students who aren’t fluent in English, and I don’t want to marginalize them in the process of creating space for trans and gender-nonconforming students (particularly because these groups overlap). I’ve learned not to skimp on the background information to save time. Every omission increases the potential for misunderstanding and error. Explaining details of pronoun check-ins between introducing the concept and asking students to share their pronouns also gives them time to think about how to handle the situation.

Accidental misgendering is confoundingly persistent

Describing her mistaken thinking about how to create a welcoming space for students such as the one she accidentally harmed, Reis says, “Once she identified herself, no one would accidentally mis-gender her in class.” Only someone whose pronouns are always assumed correctly could be so naive. Throughout my years in college, nothing I tried ever resulted in a class consistently gendering me correctly, and I tried everything I could think of.

In one class, in which I’d had my pronouns on a nametag on my desk all quarter, explained trans and nonbinary identity every way I could (generally and personally, through outside resources and my own writing), and worked with groupmates to conduct archival research about a local trans organization, my groupmates misgendered me repeatedly while giving an earnest presentation about how to be allies to trans people.

I’m curious about what happened with pronouns and gendering in Reis’s class after their initial pronoun check-in. Based on all of my prior experience, I can only imagine they quietly slipped back into their familiar assumptions of gender for the most part. That’s what happens without ongoing intervention, and it’s easy for cis people not to notice.

Preventing misgendering requires ongoing intervention

Spoken pronoun check-ins work best when they’re repeated with the same group. Repetition not only helps with memorization, but also provides students opportunities to update each other and the instructor if their pronouns temporarily or permanently change. An alternative or supplemental option is to ask students to create name and pronoun tags for their desks. This makes their pronouns visible for reference, reducing the need to memorize, and you can invite students to update their names and pronouns if they change throughout the quarter. You’ll need to remind everyone to put them out at the start of each class session. Again, habit is a strong force to counter.

Expect and anticipate misgendering if anyone’s pronouns differ from what other people might assume. I recommend inviting students to you how they’d like you to respond if you hear someone misgendering them, because that’s not something you’ll want to guess at in the moment.

One last insulting mistake in a cissplaining mess of an article

In the transition from describing her new practice to concluding her article, Reis also jumps from being naive but reasonable to being outrageously damaging. She writes, “Divulging one’s gender through an announcement of pronouns at best contradicts the reality that our gender may be ambiguous, and at worst forces students to reveal a potentially vulnerable part of themselves.”

Sloppy writing makes this even worse than it might otherwise be. Here Reis places the blame not even on asking for disclosure, but on disclosure itself. By telling you my pronouns are they/them, ze/zir, and any others besides he, she, and it, and I prefer for people to vary them, I am actually cementing harmful ideas about gender. Who knew.

I know this all sounds bleak. There is a lot to be concerned about while trying to create safer, more inclusive spaces for trans and gender-nonconforming students. Before we can solve the problems of cissexism, we first must reveal them, and seeing them in their multitude can be alarming.

And yet, there’s hope

But for all my questionable experiences with pronoun check-ins, I believe they are a necessary part of creating more welcoming spaces. I take comfort in the knowledge that even when some people repeatedly get it wrong, others are learning. When my groupmates misgendered me to the class, several classmates and my professor corrected them because they knew that was what I wanted from them as allies. I’m frustrated at constantly having to be a gender educator just because I’m trans, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it through practice. If you want to know how to respect trans people, we’re the ones to learn from.

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Seattle: Go see Anastacia Tolbert’s “9 Ounces” at Gay City, 12/15 to 12/18

[note: I wrote this review after attending an August performance of “9 Ounces.” Elements of the December show may vary from what is described here.]

Anastacia Tolbert’s one-woman show “9 Ounces” gives viewers a glimpse into the lives and inner monologues of three Black women and girls with an 84-year age range: Luna, Alice, and Seraphina. Their stories are linked through their shared co-op residence, their loving but sometimes strained relationships with each other, and the trauma of being Black in the face of constant racist police brutality — “It could happen to me” is a refrain throughout the show.

Tolbert’s writing and acting are superb; the characters vibrant, whole, and distinct while sharing an actress. Alice, coping with depression, loss, and addiction, addresses the audience as she talks to herself, a strategy suggested by her very cute therapist. Her thoughts wander through unsatisfying and racist moments on the bus, getting kicked out of Seraphina’s knitting club, trying to get back in touch with her sexuality, and more.

Seraphina, Alice’s 91-year-old neighbor, also talking to herself, recounts her own struggle on the bus: she’s fought for the right to sit at the front of the bus, but now young people won’t offer a seat. She approaches the situation with frustration, but also with humor.

Luna, a deeply spiritual 7-year-old, isn’t talking to the mirror — she’s putting on a show with her friend Lightbulb (who is a lightbulb). As her mommy has told her, sometimes she has to be her own audience. Luna wants people to stop making fun of her mommy, who works and goes to school and spends time with her when she can. Luna also likes to shout “vagina!” because it makes adults uncomfortable.

Although most of the show is composed of the characters talking to themselves, it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test (along with other feminist media tests) spectacularly. This Black woman’s representation of nuanced Black women and girls is a desperately needed gift when our media neglects and distorts Black women and girls.

The show’s title, “9 Ounces,” refers to the average weight of a (cis) woman’s heart, and “9 Ounces” is heavy, full of heart, and ultimately cathartic. It’s also deeply political and makes clear that non-Black viewers’ emotional journeys will not be sufficient; what’s needed from us is concrete action against systemic racism.

Use this outstanding show as an opportunity to educate yourself, bear witness, and start or continue thinking about how to support Black women in overthrowing racism and heteropatriarchy.

“9 Ounces” will be at Gay City from Thursday, December 15th to Sunday, December 18th, running from 7 to 10 p.m. each night. Tickets cost $12-20. For more details, see the Facebook event page.

Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” is an ableist dystopia in disguise

kelly
[image description: a screenshot of Kelly, a young Black woman portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asking two other young people, “Have you seen a girl? Mid-20s, brown hair, glasses?”]
20-something-crowd
[image description: a screenshot from earlier in the episode of a crowded bar full of 20-somethings and no one else] I don’t know, Kelly, have you seen anyone who’s not 20-something?
 

[spoiler alert for all of Black Mirror S3E4, “San Junipero”; content warnings for death, eugenics, ableism, homophobia, and car crashes]

Since Black Mirror’s October 21 release, people have been going wild about it. In particular, lesbian, bi, and queer women have been rejoicing about the episode “San Junipero,” the story of a lesbian and a bi woman who meet, flirt, and fall in love.

There’s a lot to like. “San Junipero” shows us unambiguous bi and lesbian representation, a subversion of the Bury Your Gays trope, and queer women driving off into the sunset to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” as credits roll. The happy ending is all the more remarkable coming from a series that often closes on characters in abject horror at technological dystopias in which they’re sometimes complicit.

But to me, “San Junipero” is its own kind of dystopia: one in which elderly and disabled lives are considered not worth living.

The episode begins with “an outgoing party girl”, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and “a shy young woman,” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meeting in a bar in 1987 as Kelly tells Yorkie to go along with whatever she says so Kelly can get away from a man who’s harassing her to have sex again. The two women hit it off and continue talking after the harasser leaves.

Yorkie is consummately inexperienced. It’s her first night in the beachside party town of San Junipero. When Kelly buys her a Jack and Coke, Yorkie sniffs it before taking a sip and winces at the taste. Kelly asks if she’s never had it before, and Yorkie is slow to lie that she hasn’t had one in a while. After more conversation, Kelly gets an uneasy Yorkie on the dance floor. Yorkie runs outside before revealing she’s also never been on a dance floor. Kelly invites Yorkie back to her place. Yorkie declines, saying she “never did anything like that.”

As the show reveals more about its world, we learn that San Junipero is actually a virtual reality to which people can have their consciousnesses uploaded when they die, and where living people can visit for five hours a week. The system was designed as “immersive nostalgia therapy” for Alzheimer’s, but it’s said that people who spend too much time in the virtual reality go crazy and dissociate from their bodies.

Keeping pace with revelations about the fictional universe, “San Junipero” unveils more about its characters’ lives and backstories. Neither Kelly nor Yorkie is actually a young woman. Kelly is an elderly woman with an unspecified disease who’s living on borrowed time; Yorkie is an elderly quadriplegic woman with a tracheostomy tube, waiting for her wedding of convenience to a man who will be the final signature she needs to be authorized for euthanasia. Her paralysis resulted from driving off the road after a fight with her homophobic parents when she was 21.

Generally, the government in “San Junipero” isn’t wild about euthanasia, which is on “triple lockdown” to “stop folks from passing over just because they prefer San Junipero flat out.” Yorkie has obtained the necessary signature from her doctor and has signed off for herself, but her disapproving parents won’t provide the requisite family signature.

For all the difference of this sci-fi universe from our own, its biopoliltics are strikingly similar. The government doesn’t want citizens electing en masse to die early for an afterlife of recreation. Although the episode doesn’t explore this aspect, it’s likely that workers’ lives are needed to maintain capitalism. We don’t see any labor outsourced to virtual reality, so presumably the loss of a worker’s life is a loss for business. Workers mustn’t die while they still have value to exploit, so family members and doctors are expected to keep healthy people from voluntarily dying.

In contrast, we’re supposed to see Yorkie’s right to die as straightforward and obvious. In the real world, we only see her lying in a hospital bed, able to hear but not to respond in any way. A passing line tells us that she’s talked to Greg (Raymond McAnally), her fiancé, on the comm box, a device that isn’t explained but seems to be part of the real world. But we don’t get any other information about how this works or see her having any other agency in the real world. Yorkie is meant to die because her disabled life is unlivable. Every sympathetic character wishes for her death, and the audience is meant to as well.

But even virtual reality doesn’t present a disabled life worth living: no one in San Junipero is discernibly disabled, elderly, or even middle-aged. “San Junipero” is full of crowd shots, but there’s not a disability or midlife signifier to be seen. This is a deliberate decision both by the show’s creators and by the residents of San Junipero, who can change their styles and cross distances instantaneously.

Kelly estimates that 80 to 85 percent of people in San Junipero are “full-timers,” people who have died and had their consciousnesses uploaded. Many of these people likely lived long enough to become disabled, and all of them have rejected both old age and their disability for their happily-ever-afters. (At one point, Kelly describes Yorkie to a stranger as “mid-20s,” which is comical in the endless sea of 20-somethings.)

It’s not surprising that Yorkie views her disability negatively. She acquired it in a traumatic series of events, and with her parents’ constant surveillance and scrutiny, she never got to explore the full possibilities of any embodiment. But seeing the choice to be able-bodied echoed by Kelly (who ditches her breathing tubes and use of a caregiver for support with walking) and by each of dozens of extras in San Junipero makes it clear that ableism in virtual reality is systemic.

Because the narrative and framing of “San Junipero” connect Yorkie’s able-bodiedness with her agency, it’s not enough for virtual reality and death to liberate her from homophobia and her oppressive parents; she must also be liberated from her disability. Lingering shots throughout the episode of Yorkie feeling the rain and sand on her feet further emphasize the already striking difference between her elderly disabled real-world self and her young able-bodied avatar.

The built environment of San Junipero discourages disabled existence. As Kelly jumps through time periods in search of Yorkie, we see 1980, 1987, and 1996 versions of Tucker’s, the bar where Kelly and Yorkie met, and each of these versions has stairs, as does the Quagmire, the bar with a “freakier” clientele. Even with instantaneous teleportation, it’s unclear how someone could navigate these crowded social environments with a wheelchair or a walker. What do you do when you need to poof up the stairs but there’s not enough space to poof into?

There’s also the unresolved issue of pity. Before Kelly and Yorkie meet in real life, Yorkie tells Kelly she knows her fiancé Greg pities her and it pisses her off. When Kelly visits Yorkie’s hospital, she pleads with Greg for five minutes of virtual reality time with Yorkie, which she uses to propose. The marriage and euthanasia happen the next day, as planned, but with Kelly instead of Greg as Yorkie’s spouse.

Yorkie and Kelly fight on their San Junipero honeymoon, Yorkie a new full-timer and Kelly still alive and on the five-hour time limit. Yorkie begs Kelly to reconsider her previous plan and stay with her in San Junipero, rather than passing away completely, when she dies. When Kelly objects, Yorkie cites their marriage. Kelly tells her that she married her “as a kindness, to help you  pass over.” Yorkie keeps insisting over Kelly’s further objections, overstepping so far as to insult her husband of 49 years, and Kelly responds by telling Yorkie twice that she pitied her.

Kelly drives off and into an intentional full-speed car crash, which in San Junipero has no consequences. Yorkie appears out of nowhere to offer a hand up. Kelly reaches for her hands, but her virtual reality time runs out before they touch. Soon Kelly tells her caregiver she’s ready “for the rest of it” and passes away.

When we next see Kelly and Yorkie together, it’s for their joyous seaside convertible ride into the sunset, with no discussion of Yorkie’s white entitlement or Kelly’s ableist pity. This couple is charming at times in their flirtation, and I want to believe in them, but ultimately I wouldn’t bet on them staying together a month, let alone for much of eternity.

Show creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker acknowledges that their future may be difficult but maintains that Yorkie and Kelly have “the happiest ending imaginable.”

Not to me. An inaccessible eternity where no one wants to be or is disabled is dystopia. It’s hell. I’d spend the rest of my existence mourning the loss of crip community, crip wisdom, crip magic,  and dedicate my afterlife to disability activism.

“San Junipero” suggests the possibility of representation for disabled elderly lesbian and bi women but ultimately buries them in permanent able-bodied youth. Kelly and Yorkie’s future stretches on potentially forever without futures for elderly and disabled queer women. Not even immortality can redeem the lifelessness of compulsory able-bodiedness.

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