Pitzer, Language, and Gender

Courtesy of Miller Saltzman
Courtesy of Miller Saltzman

by Riam Griswold

Staff Reporter

Language has never been neutral. Structures are built into it that advantages more powerful groups in ways that few people ever notice, mapping the same patterns onto our minds and our perceptions of the world. Gendered language in English—most prominently third-person singular pronouns—is one of those structures. As a trans person, I am endlessly, uncomfortably aware of this; every day, people pepper their speech with gendered pronouns, while never pausing to check that those pronouns are correct.           

Pitzer is better than most places when it comes to this issue. A culture is growing, here and in some other places, in which inquiring after pronouns as well as names is beginning to become normal. The first time I sat in a circle with other students and we were asked to give our names and pronouns, I was thrilled. Every time it happens, even now, I feel a glow.

Still, this custom is very limited. It’s only common in certain social situations, and most of the time, it doesn’t occur to anybody to ask; it doesn’t occur to them that they can’t tell someone’s gender by looking. Bringing one’s pronouns up unprompted is awkward and difficult, so most of the time we’re forced to sit there smiling as people misgender us again and again and again.

Even when the pronoun question is asked, cisgender people often don’t understand. Many respond with “male” or “female,” as if that’s a pronoun. They act offended and bemused. They answer with jokes. They say it doesn’t matter, not because they truly don’t care, but because they can’t imagine people actually repeatedly calling them the wrong pronoun. In all these ways and more, they make it clear how confusing, absurd, and unnecessary they find the question, and as extension how uneducated they are about trans issues.

We can do better. We’re doing well, but we can do better. People don’t run around not bothering to ask someone’s name just because they look like a Morgan to them. Why should pronouns be any different? This isn’t the time to describe the immense psychological damage it does to a person to be constantly misgendered. It’s suffice to say that the damage is real and huge, and if people understand that, and understand what to do about it, we can take steps toward stopping it from happening.

And it doesn’t have to be difficult. Normalize introductions including both names and pronouns. Memorize someone’s pronouns just like you memorize their name. And if you don’t know their pronouns, call them “they.” Most of this solution is just education, providing the information and making sure it gets through to people, then reinforcing the habit. It shouldn’t be difficult. This is a school: education is what we do. There are endless opportunities to send this message, and they are for the most part passed by. We can do so much better.

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