I have been asked, second or third hand mostly but, more and more lately, what pronouns I prefer. Part of me is fascinated at this growing trend regardless of its personal application. Unrelated to me, I am aware that in the world in general, pronouns and the inclusion of “they” (related in a New York Times article that the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced “they” as word of the year) as a singular pronoun reference is more widely considered, known and used. Related to me, I am wondering if external changes in me are more observable than I acknowledge or am aware of. I’ve said repeatedly here and other places that the internal changes in me are big but the external changes seem insignificant, infinitesimal. I look in the mirror daily and see plain old me staring back. But maybe there are changes and they are more perceptible than I know. At one dinner party with friends over the winter holidays I was asked 3 times (not directly) what pronoun I wanted used. Asked three times, in the span of under 3 hours, must be some kind of record. And the answer is?
In addition to my sentiments of curiosity, I have other feelings that crop up when I’m asked about my pronoun preferences. Depending on the day, my mood, patience or shame level, I hem, haw, splutter and dodge. For the most part I avoid engaging in this discussion altogether.
The cynical part of me feels like it’s a setup. Sure, I’ll play along. I choose what pronoun I prefer and set that parameter. Then I have to experience people messing up, forgetting, stumbling and using another pronoun repeatedly. I’m forced to endure awkward apologies and the discomfort of others which I have seemingly caused by my request. Sounds like fun.
The shame-filled side of me is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, shame-filled. By any pronoun to tell the truth. She has always felt yucky to me. Always. It has never felt right. Now it feels just plain antagonistic. He has never been mine to have/use, so that feels wrong as well. I feel fraudulent and dishonest. Like a sneaky child who might, at any moment, get caught out and exposed. And they feels so millennial I just can’t even. I’ve been in conversation with other trans-guys my age who say the same thing. There is some form of embarrassment in each of the choices. Nothing feels right, like it fits, like it belongs to me.
The irritated part of me wonders why I have to be the one to decide anyway?! How hard can it be to simply refer to me as Hali and cut out the pronouns altogether?! But I know it is not nearly so simple. I recently edited my brief bio for work and removed all the pronouns and it was a tedious and persnickety project. It was hard to make it flow smoothly and not sound like a it was written by 12 different people playing mad-libs on several different pages in languages they do not speak.
When I play hockey, and I am standing in net, I often talk to myself. Don’t judge. I do this to keep myself focused and my nerves at bay. I have to say, I keep up a patter of commentary worthy of many a sports commentator. Sometimes I talk directly to myself; coaching suggestions, feedback, reminders and the like – “come on dude, focus!” or “keep on your edges sister”. Other times I will do a color commentary of the game being played in front of me. When commenting on a play coming toward me I will refer to myself in the third person, as just another player on the ice. “The goalie is in position. He/She at the front of His/Her crease.” I play with the pronoun options just to get a feel for each. No matter which pronoun I use it feels incorrectly applied, weird and silly. The person I am speaking about is not me.
The sociological dorky, lazy, conflict-avoidant side of me wants to just say, “CYOA” – Choose Your Own Adventure. Let the speaker choose what pronoun I am gendered with based on their experience of me in that specific moment. I think, given the work I do and the people I interact with most, I may be able to fathom this slightly more easily than the average person. Most of my day is spent engaging with people with some level of dementia. I have had patients gender me he, she and they all in the course of one interchange without so much as batting an eye. One of the patients a few years ago, talking about a poorly dressed cis-male physician said, “He looks like a rumpled bed! But you! Look at you! You’re a man who knows how to dress. And you’re a mother and I bet you would never let one of your children out of the house dressed like that.” People with dementia are not more limited, they are less constrained.
But back to the point… All sarcasm and humor aside, there are other reasons I like the CYOA answer. One, it takes the onus off both me and the other person with whom I am speaking and lets us simply talk without any weird pressure. Two, quite frankly, I’m more interested in having a conversation. The awkward hesitation, pause, focus on my pronoun interrupts the flow of the conversation in a way that is unnecessary and irritating. I’d rather focus on the topic of conversation than on my pronouns. Third, If someone uses a pronoun to identify me that doesn’t sound or feel right to them they can simply use another one the next time they are referring to me. That seems so simple and beautiful. Not to mention creative. And it isn’t like there is any single answer that is comfortable for me.
This dilemma seems to be coming up more and more lately. A combination of social awareness and the changes in me. I’ve been wondering if people are feeling less comfortable with “she”, which is one of the things making this a dilemma. So of course it makes sense that I can say, “choose your own adventure” more authentically because more people are on the same page as I am – not entirely sure, not comfortable with either.
So, is it cowardly or a copout to keep avoiding making a decision for myself? A good friend really pushed me. Asked me over and over again to really think about it and go deep inside and push away the shame. If I’m totally truthful, I suppose I prefer he. “I could get used to he I think”, is how I phrased my response. But I quickly followed up with a disclaimer. Except that I don’t want to have to explain myself to anyone listening who might question it because my shame and anxiety would be off the Richter scale every time. I also don’t want to be the one to set the rule. She challenged me about letting others set parameters for me, letting others “control” me, define me and make decisions for me. I hadn’t thought of the pronoun dilemma in quite that way. That’s something I’m going to have to sit with and contemplate for a while.
For now I’ll just let people choose their (and apparently my) own adventure.