by Justine Mara Andersen (aka Barefoot Justine)
For years “Pronoun trouble” meant nothing more to me than a good laugh at a classic bit of Vaudeville between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. In the classic cartoon Bugs repeatedly convinces Daffy to get himself shot. In an effort to unwind his undoing, Daffy slows down their verbal tennis match, having his ah-ha moment when he catches Bugs switching pronouns. “Pronoun trouble,” says Daffy. The sophisticated bit always made me laugh… but that laugh is a tad tainted now.
Writing this piece for Pride Month happened to coincide with the degrading coverage of Bradley’s journey to Chelsea Manning, and that gave me the opportunity to rant about the biggest source of anxiety in my, and many of our lives… pronoun trouble. However obvious it is that I am a woman, some people insist on calling me “he” or “sir,” which is ludicrous. I mean, seriously, folks, look at me… “sir?” It just so happened that every comment or bit of coverage on Ms. Manning opened with, and sometimes centered around, “pronoun trouble.”
Witnessing the media’s pronoun cluster-fudge coverage of Bradley’s first steps towards Chelsea got me to thinking about how little people understand transgendered people, and why pronouns are so important. Though I plan to focus on binary male to binary female (as that is the only experience I can speak to), there are many struggles and issues common to us all, for example the very real fear of verbal, emotional, and violent physical attacks. To an ignorant public, transgendered people are seen as creatures worthy of suspicion, the people closest to them may well be convinced that their transitions are a phase, or worse, that they have gone off their rockers. Along with our transitions comes a certain amount of alienation. But what’s worse, is any transgender person can expect heartbreaking and degrading public disdain delivered with such subtle slyness that they won’t be able to convince people that it’s happening. People who degrade us like to do it in such a sly way that no one else witnesses it, yet their abuse is sniped with such aim that the sniggering and derision will hit its mark every time. Oh, and yes, any of us can expect to be so pained, self-conscious and fixated on bad pronouns that half the time we won’t even trust our ears, doubting whether we even heard what we thought we heard. “Did that waiter just call me ‘sir,’” I have frequently asked myself.
Any newbie transgender person can expect that their laughter at that classic line from Daffy Duck to change. They can expect that, like many of us, pronouns will become slowly of great significance in their lives. People will stab us with bad pronouns, mostly men in regards to transwomen, as they can’t seem to cope with the idea that anyone might want to trade their precious balls in for breasts.
To make matters worse, there is no community consensus on pronouns. The most common guidelines on how to be a trans-ally recommend that people never assume and should always ask what our pronoun preference is. No! No, a thousand times no! Asking me is rather like saying, “I know you’re a man, but do you want me to pretend you’re a woman?” There is also a rather selfish tendency among some in the gender fluid crowd to want to do away with pronouns and go neutral as a matter of course. Again, no, and why no? Because many of us do not want asked! No one asks my mom if she’s a woman. I don’t want anyone neutering me or taking away my right to be identified female by assumption. As you can see, the pronoun issue is a muddy one at best, Any transperson can expect to fall on one side or the other of this argument, and very soon they will develop strong feelings about all this, but why are the feelings so strong?
For a start pronouns are a sign of respect, and not merely to us personally, not only to our identities, but also to anyone who is trans. Improper use of pronouns is a weapon people wield to show their contempt and bigotry. On the personal level, for many, the all important issue of “passing” as a woman (again, to stick with what I know) largely comes down to what pronouns strangers use when they address us. A bad pronoun is in essence a failing grade, and it can leave us reeling, doubting our sense of self, ultimately leading to self-loathing, and for many, agoraphobia and isolation. Some simply choose to avoid dealing with bad pronouns and being misgendered, so we hide. Pronoun trouble!
“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” — Anais Nin
When a person looks at me and still says “he” rather than “she” they are not seeing me. The problem is that I am “her” now, and I was never truly “him.” Then I was a nonperson. I was a drunken bitter crust built around denial of the truth. When I transitioned it was not a creation of a new me, the transition was a release of the true me from the prison of self, a shedding of a disguise, and being called “he” demonstrates that the person misgendering me does not see me for who I am, they see only the past that they are more comfortable with… they reveal their own limitations, bigotry and lack of imagination. When a person calls me “he” I realize that they are only seeing their own limitations. I am She. This is why I moved away from Ohio, to be among people who do not remember “him.”
There are a number of other things that people should understand. Once it comes to hormone replacement therapy, all transgender people have to make what is the single most important decision of their lives. We have to decide if the transition is literally worth our lives. At my age the choice to start hormone replacement therapy put me at a 24% chance risk of bloodclot, stroke and cancer— though hopefully not all at once! Yeah, think about that. We are literally willing to die for that change of pronoun. When a person makes the choice to put their lives on the line, there is nothing funny or cute to them about another person’s cruel or simply thoughtless misuse of pronouns. Keep in mind also that a public misgendering or bad pronoun draws attention to us, and in this transphobic society, being pointed out is extremely dangerous. It is better for us to pass under the radar.
Once the decision was made and the journey from male to female started I lost body hair, gained hair on my head. My body fat moved around, softening me head to toe, I grew real breasts, hips, and a little bit of ass (though not enough to satisfy me—oh yeah, now I have body issues, too). Replacing testosterone with estrogen completely changed the way I felt and thought. I learned to trust my emotions, until they got too hot, and I learned to cry and feel more completely. The toxin testosterone blocks emotional clarity by convincing men that the brain and intellect provide the only reliable answers to life’s problems, and transwomen, thanks to the emotional balance provided by the hormones, can finally understand and regret things they could never understand before, like why the things men say and do hurt so much. As I progressed through my second puberty I would look in the mirror with pride to see how much I’ve feminized thanks to the hormones. Just as I began to think that the risks of hormone replacement therapy were all worth it some schmuck would come along, mistakenly see me as a man, call me “sir” and fill me with doubt about the risks all over again. And it damn well hurts… every time.
This is why it was so contemptuous for anyone or any entity to insist on misgendering Chelsea, me, or any of us. When the press did that to Ms. Manning they were not merely scoring political points for the right against her, they were pissing on all of my trans brothers and trans sisters. They were not merely passing judgment on Manning, they were dismissing and disrespecting all of us, and that is unacceptable. In the eyes of many on the right, Chelsea will be one more case in point proving to them that transgendered people are ungodly and unpatriotic low-life freaks, and I’m not sure we need that now. Still, I wish her well, and feel so sorry that she will soon not only be in prison, but isolated, abused, confused, terrified and misgendered… just like the rest of us. “Pronoun trouble” indeed.
Read more by Barefoot Justine at her website, barefootjustine.com.
Letters of support to Chelsea Manning can be sent to the following address. As per rules, the outside envelope needs to say Bradley Manning; inside Chelsea is fine.
PVT Bradley E Manning
1300 N Warehouse Rd.
Ft Leavenworth KS