Pronouns, Gender, and Change vs. Transformation

The difference between changing pronouns for someone and transforming the way you think about gender is crucial to liberation.

Pronouns, Gender, and Change vs. Transformation
Screenshot from the 1999 movie The Matrix of the hallway with three agents, shown in the Matrix green code.

I wasn't going to write anything about today being International Pronoun Day, but here we are! Because using the right or wrong pronouns for someone really matters.

For a recent paper in grad school, I had to explore my own notions of change vs. transformation. I needed an analogy to help explain it, and one I ended up reaching for was around gender and pronouns.

One can change the pronouns they use for someone, but are they simply changing those pronouns intellectually or are they transforming the way they conceptualize and categorize gender? On the surface, the experience may look the same much of the time (until they slip and misgender someone), but internally, it is a radically different experience.

I know when I get misgendered that it's because people see me and their brain auto-sorts me into the "woman" bucket for whatever reasons (my voice, my minimal facial hair, my chest, my hips, something else?), and then "she/her" pronouns get plugged into whatever they are saying and it just comes out automatically. They might even know I'm non-binary and trans and use they/them pronouns. But because they have, at best, only ever tried to change the pronouns for someone – rather than tried to truly transform their way of thinking and conceptualizing sex and gender – it's incredibly easy to slip back into that binary way of thinking and categorizing. It's what has been carved into us by society for so many years, by so many means.

I know, because I do it too. Yup. I fuck up and use the wrong pronouns for people sometimes. I try incredibly hard not to, and I very rarely do it these days, but it happens sometimes (very rarely outloud, a little bit more in my own head). When it does happen, I have to pause, contemplate it, and correct it – but first you have to notice when you do it, and that takes practice. Like everyone else, I have to constantly work at carving new grooves in my mind to really transform my way of thinking. And yes, I've been working on dismantling my binary ways of thinking for years.

The thing is, transformation isn't easy. It isn't fast. It's often incredibly life-altering. I often like to reference The Matrix, because Neo is a great example of transformation vs. change. Neo's journey is one of transformation. And at a certain point in the journey, once you see the Matrix for what it is, it's incredibly difficult to unsee it. Even if you still fuck up sometimes.

So, I suppose I'll issue this challenge to you, dear reader. Think long and hard about if you're simply working on changing the pronouns for someone on the surface (where you are much more likely to misgender people) or if you are working on the harder, more important task of transforming how you think about and see gender (and truly, all false binaries created by white supremacy).

And if you haven't yet, I encourage you to check out my presentation What Even Is Gender? – which is hopefully a helpful starting point in transforming your ideas about gender.