Attack of the Grammar Zombies

Last night I attended the “Trans+ Social Meet Up” in Cardiff for the first time. It was the largest gathering I had been to yet, and also the most diverse, with transwomen, transmen, allies, agendered, and gender-neutral people in attendance. With such a varied assembly, this led inevitably to the topic of appropriate pronouns…

Years ago, when I was still passing myself off as “Anthony,” I applied for a job in an LGBT-friendly cafe in Islington (and the fact that I had applied for such a job in the first place might well be filed under the “who was I kidding” category…). The interviewer / assessor was male-bodied, simply but femininely dressed, and otherwise communicating no overt gender signals. I was unsure whether I was in the presence of a transwoman, or a gender-neutral person, so I spent many hours avoiding pronouns. Eventually, though, the conversation ran me against a wall, and I uttered a gender-binary pronoun. It was the wrong one…

When in doubt, always opt for gender neutrality, however awkward all those “theys” sound rolling off the tongue. I can’t say whether or not that misgendering cost me the job, but one could feel the atmosphere in the room freezing in the wake of that unfortunate pronoun. Misgendering is hurtful, there is no denying. When carried out intentionally, it can be construed as at least as hurtful as deriding a cis-woman as being overtly manly, or a cis-man as being effeminate, and possibly even more so, as it can also come with an added dose of moral judgement. When accidental, it is still potentially hurtful, as it hammers home the difficulty the trans person faces in being perceived as they would wish. It is, to say the least, an uncomfortable feeling to have a profound sense of one’s inner being, yet to have the people around you often struggling to recognise that while still perceiving you as “the other.” Having given up playing “let’s pretend” for the world, one sometimes suspects that one has only placed that burden on the world itself…

Ought one to shout, scream, wear t-shirts proclaiming “I AM A BLOODY WOMAN – DEAL WITH IT”? The likely response to that would be a lot of people giving up on the struggle of trying to be sensitive, and just avoiding contact with me as much as possible. Then should one just bite the bullet and accept the misgendering and dead-naming*? Not a very good solution, either, and there are situations when to accept it would be to accept abuse: employers in the UK, for example, are legally obliged to respect the rights and identities of trans employees, unless certain circumstances apply (For example, religions who anathematise trans people are not obliged to employ trans ministers, though why I would want to minister in such a religion anyway beats me…). Friends or family members who persistently refuse to even make the effort to use corrected names and gender terms are clearly setting an unacceptable condition – that they only accept you as the persona you were before – and unless you intend to go back to that, you can probably assume that relationship is as dead as the persona…

And ordinary members of the public? I would say if they are merely confused and uncertain, but trying to be polite, the best approach is either to say nothing, or to very gently correct them. Galling as it is, unless one can sense a definite effort to wound one’s morale, it is better not to gear up for battle. The life of a trans person is fraught with conflicts at the best of times, so battles should be picked carefully.

As for members of the public who clearly are trying to wound one’s morale, I have heard two suggestions. Firstly, one could sneer, walk away, and leave the narrow-minded little wretches to enjoy their petty lives (Generally my approach). Alternatively, one could misgender them and see how they like it. That is, of course, if one feels up to saying “thank you madam” to burly male security guards, and the like. If you do give that a try, just don’t say you heard it here…

* “Dead-Naming” – A wonderful term I learned yesterday, which I can only assume means use of one’s obsolete pre-trans name. I fully expect my own zombie name to stalk me for many years to come. Brains…

2 thoughts on “Attack of the Grammar Zombies

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  1. I learned the pronouns he, she and “zie” and then his, her and “hir”. I’m not sure if that has been added in the Brittish dictionary yet, but in Sweden we often use “hen”, neutral of “hon” (she) and “han” (he). It is now often used in schools, and workplaces. I try to say zie all the time and to everyone – it is hard to get off the habit of binary system, but yea at least kids are learning that now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Zie” is pretty well known, but I don’t think it’s made it into the Oxford dictionary yet, though I could be wrong. It certainly isn’t much used. Most gender-neutral I know prefer “they”, or even “it” (though personally I could never feel comfortable calling anyone “it”, except possibly most politicians).

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