More On The Pronoun Game
November 3, 2008

So, a while back, Lisa took me up on my post specifically about an episode of the TV show Bones, called "The He in the She." Her feeling, and the feeling of many folk in the trans community, is that the episode wasn't all that great - some would call it perpetrating stereotypes, some call it not enough discussion. Then, of course, I fell down on the blogging job again and have let the subject slip for a while.

It's back.

First, I'm going to intersperse Lisa's comment throughout this post because I think many folks don't really read the sparse comments here on older posts and I think this is an issue worth bringing to the front again. Second, since we're discussing gender and sex, we need a few quick working definitions. Please note that better and more detailed definitions exist - this is a working definition for the purposes of this post. Sex = your biological sex as reflected by your genitalia. Gender = a social construct of ideas defining how each sex should behave. (I.e., females like dolls and shopping and staying at home with the kids. Males like Tonka and cars and going to work every day and avoiding housework and the kids. Gender roles often are interpreted as stark stereotypes ... the reason some folks insist there are more genders than there are biological sexes is precisely because most people do not fit into these narrow stereotypes.) A fast definition of "cis" is someone whose biological sex and genders match within "normal" parameters. That is, a female might like cars, but also very much enjoys wearing dresses and make-up, etc. A cis male might enjoy cooking and spending time with his kids, but still exhibits primarily "male" behaviours and interests.
Think of it as a continuum instead of as a black and white - one end of the line is folks who are stereotypically "male" or "female" whose biological sex is male or female. And then the other end of the line being a stereotypical "male" who is biologically female and a stereotypical "female" who is a biological male. There's LOADS of room in between encompassing all the variations of human existence. But the end that tends to match sex and gender would be "cis" people and the end where sex and gender appear mismatched would be "trans" people.

Now, I think Lisa made some excellent points in her last comment and I needed some time to digest them. First:

Many cis people like to assert that they're confused about trans people's preferred pronouns, which gives them an opportunity to misgender trans people repeatedly. Asking them to use the proper pronouns is asking them to stop taking up that particular bit of space, because trans people do happen to be standing there and need breathing room as well. That's what my point about taking up space was about. I was thinking of Amanda Baggs' analogy about how people are like water when I wrote it.

This is interesting ... but I had to go look up Amanda Baggs' analogy to really get it:

people seemed to be a lot like water. Water spreads out to take up whatever space the container it is in allows it to take. People, also, seem to spread out in a similar way in terms of what actions they view as okay for them to be doing. And they rarely notice all the space they are taking up, until some person or event makes it clear to them. It just feels 'natural' to take up as much space as they're allowed.

At first Amanda is talking about the portion of the Harry Potter books when Neville finally stands up to Harry and his friends and tries to make them play by the rules. Ron fusses that Neville was supposed to stand up to other people not them! Ron is essentially telling Neville to expand to fill the space somewhere else - and not to impede Ron, Harry and Hermoine's expansions. (We're getting back to the cis/trans and pronoun issue in a moment, hang on.)

Then, Amanda goes on to talk about Irit Shimrat's Call Me Crazy. A psychologist who reviewed Shimrat's book was at first offended and dismissive of Shimrat because she felt that her entire profession was being dismissed and belittled ... and then she realized that her "feeling of being discounted and unfairly stigmatized in this book parallels what Shimrat and her colleagues often felt as patients." Baggs goes on somewhat scathingly to protest that the psychologist's "hurt feelings" are in no way analogous to the experiences of "captivity, degradation and torture" which many psych patients are subjected to.

Now, here we can circle back to the cis/trans issues - and indeed, the core issue at stake in the episode of Bones as well.

Crap, I just used academic-speak, didn't I? I'm sorry. I get carried away when I analyze things. It won't happen again.

Anyhow, I think the situations are analogous and, in fact, very useful depending on the person having the revelation. Yes, there are several degrees of magnitude difference between the shrink realizing that there's a parallel and the psych patient being degraded and essentially tortured. But the right shrink getting that realization can make a huge difference. If they have that eureka! moment of epiphany, then change is possible. Has the shrink felt the exact same way? No, but then we're not actually comparing hurts here. We're talking about understanding.

It's the same when we talk about cis/trans issues. If a cis person continually fumbles with pronouns or worse, insists on using the wrong ones, they are like the water expanding to fill all the space at the expense of the other folk in the room. They're like Ron Weasley insisting that Neville should stand up to everyone except them.

Now here's the thing. To effect a long-lasting change in society, we need both the people who see the small steps - like this shrink who finally sees that psych patients are too often discounted even though her experience of hurt feelings is in now way similar to what Shimrat has been through - AND we also need people agitating that this doctor's epiphany is not good enough.

To bring it back to Bones, we need both episodes like that one which struggle with the topic ... AND we need the angry reaction from the trans community to cry out that it's not enough.

The first is a stepping stone ... the second is making sure we can't then step backwards onto our familiar ground, but that we must continue stepping forward.

ARGH. I've written far more than enough in the past hour and covered only one small portion of Lisa's comments (and the excellent post by Amanda Baggs as well). But, I think this is enough to digest for one post. More laterz ....

Posted by Red Monkey at November 3, 2008 7:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Lisa Harney said:

Thank you for this followup, Red Monkey. I don't have much to add at this point, though. :)

November 5, 2008 7:13 AM


Deb said:

This is one of the most interesting topics for conversations in our times. Soooooo much to think about.

November 12, 2008 8:41 PM
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