I am back in college since graduating with a BA in 2012. I remember back in those original undergrad days my dad repeating things he’d heard about what goes on in universities from Fox News and saying to him, “it’s not actually like that.” Apparently ten years makes a difference. Yesterday, for the first time in my life, while going around the room and introducing ourselves the professor required us to state our preferred pronouns. And there were literally purple haired weirdos asking to be called “they/them.” Just like Fox told my dad.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against purple haired weirdos. I am a weirdo myself, a bald headed, tattooed weirdo, and I prefer the company of weirdos. It’s just that I’m 47. What was weird to me as a first year college student back in 1993 is differently flavored than what is weird today. It takes getting used to. I am not used to being asked for my pronouns. I’m 47, what fucking pronouns do you expect me to give you? This wasn’t a thing when I was young and rebellious.
I felt, for a long time, that simply not being violently offended by gays and ethnic minorities was all the enlightenment I needed, based on the behaviour of the kind of people who were violently offended by them, and that I had a good handle on the weirdos of the world. After all, I grew up in a relatively small Kansas town where there just wasn’t a lot of weirdness going around. Lawrence, Kansas in the early 2000s was also pretty tame in comparison, believe it or not. The relatively small community of weirdos made it so we had to all put up with each other socially. In all the tribal subcultures of the day pretty much everyone was familiar with everyone else, even if they weren’t in your particular clique, and a rudeboy hanging out with goths was very much preferrable to dealing with the “normal people.” So being a part of that I felt experienced, and thought of myself as tolerant.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the transgender community suddenly exploded onto the public scene. I was not prepared for it. I have embraced two things ideologically: a “live and let live” attitude toward what other people do with themselves and a transhumanism-centered political position. Reading about the different ways people percieve of themselves and then go on to present themselves as is one thing, but I was raised by a generation of people who were born before WWII, lived a good chunk of my childhood on an Army post, and grew up in a generally conservative atmosphere. Theoretically I was open to this, but when it suddenly appeared on my radar I had no idea how to respond gracefully. It was the first time a gay dude hit on me all over again.
The first time a gay dude hit on me I was conditioned enough not to react with violence. Some men see being hit on by a gay dude as a threat, and it raises lots of uncomfortable questions for themselves, and it sometimes goes terribly wrong for the gay dude. This was more common back then, I think. It’s what got Matthew Shephard literally crucified. So I was not going to react violently, but for reasons I didn’t really understand I did feel angry about it. Not knowing what to say, and feeling uncomfortable and angry, I just pretended that this was not actually happening and refused to speak until the dude just stopped talking about it. Like, I said, graceless. I didn’t really put a lot of thought into the fact that I did get angry, I just thought it was enough that I didn’t act out on the sudden pressure toward violence that I felt. Why did I feel that way? It’s the difference between theory and practice. And I guess in retrospect I was angry at the guy not for being gay but for putting me in an awkward social position.
I had seen, years before, a documentary on transsexuals. The documentary mentioned the extremely low portion of the population that experienced the mental condition that made them seek reassignment surgery out, and I just felt sort of vaguely sorry for them that they had to deal with not feeling right in their own bodies. My next experience with transsexuals was the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is still one of my all-time favorite musicals. But that didn’t really put me into contact with any transsexuals, largely because, I think, I’ve never been interested in seeing the live showings with all the pantomimes and audience participation. It was/is purely just a movie in my DVD collection, and the transsexuals thereof were comical caricatures. In high school I went to visit my sister, who at the time was a KU student, and saw what was clearly a man in a dress walking down the sidewalk in front of her house, and that was my first time seeing something this “wild” in real life. But it wasn’t wild, it was just someone walking down the sidewalk. It didn’t make a very good story to tell my friends later. “Yeah, I was standing there and a man in a dress walked by. Just, walked by. Totally normal. Probably just going somewhere. In a dress.” Not exciting stuff.
But then, not long after I graduated, this issue was somehow at the forefront of public consciousness and suddenly people I actually knew were outing themselves as trans. And it was like, “Really? Them? How did I not understand this was the case before?” And new people I was meeting were trans, at least one of whom I really had no idea was until I was told. The suddenness of this development was overwhelming. And that was just in real life. Online it suddenly seemed like every third person was trans. I was unprepared for it.
Theoretically, as a “live and let live” transhumanist, I should have been good enough to just take it in stride. Realistically, that’s not how people work when their worldly paradigms are upended. The Matrix had changed, and I was disoriented. I’m from the Great Plains, I didn’t have enough practice with this. I did what I normally do when disoriented: I made some regrettable statements on social media, held a friend or two hostage with long rants about my burning questions, and pissed a few people off. But also, once I calmed down a little bit, I went straight to the source to learn about these people. I talked at length with trans people on an online forum, and asked direct, honest questions and then took their answers at face value. I didn’t argue with them (much) and I worked to try and imagine the world from their point of view. I may have been weirdly obsessed for a minute, but once I felt like I had absorbed enough to recompile my worldview I let it go.
When later on I worked with a trans person I found it super easy to treat them in the way they presented. Using a trans persons pronouns with functional sincerity was no problem. I am not of the opinion that trans X are literally X (medical technology hasn’t come nearly that far) but I am also of the opinion that in better than 99% of social situations they might as well be. Trans X may not literally be X, but they are human beings who deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. If that means “playing along” then I’m for it, because that’s really just accepting people at face value. Until you have a reason not to you should do that with everyone.
There are political and ethical questions surrounding the trans movement. Some of their problems just aren’t for me to address other than to be as supportive to them as I am to anyone else. What I’m more interested in is my own reaction to it. In theory it’s just an expression of morphological freedom. The mental health angle is outside my wheelhouse, but as a transhumanist I should not just support the emergence of changing trends but also expect it. Not a specific transhumanist trend, but that they are coming. And they are coming. And I’m not as comfortable with it as I’ve pretended to be in the past. This boom in the visibility of the trans community has taught me that. The first time I got hit on by a gay guy taught me that. Various other things that I don’t have time to mention here taught me that. I am not the person I want to be, but I am working on making myself that person. I am working on making my practice line up with my theory.
I think my process with the trans movement was mostly positive. There are a couple of people who are no longer friends with me because of the chaos involved in the beginning, but I never really cared for them as people anyway, and I hold that I am enlightened enough to not like a person for who they really are on the inside despite their othered social status. (LOL)
So going back to the pronouns thing which inspired me to write all this mess. In theory I am OK with people choosing pronouns. Culture is what we make of it, it is a human invention, we can change what we want to about it, and anything that is now normal was at one time new and frightening. In practice I am a grumpy middle aged Gen X dude who is weirded out by the idea that I would have to tell someone that I am a he/him person, because that has been the paradigm for forty-seven years and the Matrix only just now started this process of reset.
The saying of name/major/pronouns started on the other side of the room. I hoped that the people other than the obvious pronoun rebels would just not participate and set a precedent for me to gracefully avoid it, but the first guy failed to state his pronouns and the professor made sure to make him do it. I guess this is what made me uncomfortable with the whole thing. I am an old guy and I feel like I should not have to participate by default. I should feel OK offering my pronouns if that’s my thing, but I should also feel OK just not fucking doing it. Everything you need to know about my pronouns could be said by my reluctance to give them. Nobody would ever mistake me for a woman, and I am not trying to present myself as one. I’m a bald middle-aged man with a moustache. It doesn’t take much for me to look like the regional manager of a mid-sized corporation. I can put on a tie and go anywhere and have people assume I’m in charge of something. There is no doubt that I am a he/him. So getting asked is off-putting. It made me feel defensive. It made me feel like I should give a rebellious, snarky response. I toyed with the idea of saying “my pronouns are Your Majesty/His Majesty” or “thee/thy” or some equally combative thing. That was my first impulse.
But the reality of a university classroom has always been that you are going to have a hard time if you are combative with the professor, no matter what their deal is. This was something that seemed important to her, and my resentment for having to participate was not inline with my personaly theory. It’s a small thing. There was none of the stuff people use as extreme examples online. No “bunself.” No “xir.” None of that. Culture is a synthesis, and I think that at this moment in time there isn’t much tolerance for those sorts of things outside of niche social media. He/Him; She/Her; They/Them. This seems to be the prevailing actual usage, though I will admit my first hand experience has been limited so far. If someone with a straight face asked for completely new pronouns that nobody else had real experience with I don’t know how I would handle it at this time. It seems to be not much different than my snarky thought to demand to be called His Majesty. There needs to be a popular movement behind a particular neo-pronoun for anyone to take it seriously, and I just don’t see that there is such a thing.
Also, “they/them” is something I’ve used, and I think a lot of people used, apolitically as a generality for decades. It flows more naturally than “he or she” when speaking of an unknown someone, even if it is technically incorrect grammar. And when speaking vaguely of a person it sometimes seems interchangeable to me. In that respect I feel that they/them gets a pass. Even if I am suspicious of anyone who specifically asks to have a vague, genderless pronoun used for them. Trans I feel like I’ve handled, gender fluid I am still critical of. I have not been able to speak with anyone in depth who identifies this way, and even among the lgbt community the concept seems to be viewed with suspicion. But, it will get sorted out in time. I do not forsee as likely a situation in my life where supporting or rejecting the idea is important.
Anyway, when it came my turn I said my name and my major. I left it at that, hoping the professor would just let it be. Look at me. I am a man. Why is this a question? It’s a question for the same reason the teacher is asking us what name we want to go by. Like a lot of people I do not go by my given name. I have a nickname I prefer, and I really feel irritated when anyone but my family calls me by my given name. I remember when most teachers didn’t ask for what name we preferred. In general if your name was William and the teacher called on you for the first role call instead of “present” you just said “Billy” if that’s what you went by. Unlike gender there is no biologically rooted cultural norm for name preference. There are no recognized visual markers for what makes a person an Andy versus an Andrew. But anyway, the teacher/professor is interested in being sensitive to gender identity. The population of gender-atypical people isn’t really large enough to justify it, but it’s a political and social hot button issue. So demonstrating that you are sensitive to gender issues by asking a student for preferred pronouns is also demonstrating that you are open and accepting to your students no matter who they are, where they are from, or what their deal is. I believe that I could make the argument that forcing me to provide pronouns publicly after I attempted to not do so is exactly the sort of insensitive the professor is trying to avoid. But… do I really care? Is making a scene about it a practice that is in line with my theory?
The answer is no.
The professor, either not twigging to the fact I deliberately left it out or, more probably, making a statement about her views of inclusiveness by forcing me to go through the ritual, prompted me for the pronouns the say way she had the first guy who tried to not participate. I just said “he/him” and life went on. It came up again in the class I had today. This professor seemed to offer his pronouns as an afterthought, as if there was a meeting where higher-ups said this is what you should do and he was just complying with this “advice.” But going around the classroom a precedent was set for avoiding giving them, and I just didn’t participate. I said, “my name is Max” and gave my educational background and left it at that. I felt my educational background was more important than my pronouns. I am obviously still uncomfortable. My theory says it’s not a big deal, my gut is annoyed by it, but my heart is trying to deal. I guess it is way more important to the people who answered “they/them” than it is to me, and to me it isn’t really all that important, despite me working out this long blog post about it, so why not accommodate the two or three people in class who are apparently wrestling with their identity. College can be ridiculous sometimes, but it’s important to be nice.
Why does it make me angry? Because it’s new, because it goes against decades of worldview, because the whole subject is highly political, and because I just don’t like being made to talk about private things about myself. Being asked for my pronouns feels a little bit like being asked to declare my sexual preferences. “Hi. My name is Max, I am an Animation major, and I am into shorthaired tomboys who play sports and have visible abs.”
Why aren’t more people?
That’s what it feels like to me. Oversharing. Things people I just became acquianted with shouldn’t want to know, and that I don’t really feel like sharing with most of my friends anyway unless it’s to make a humorous point. Is it ridiculous to feel like my privacy is being invaded when pronouns are a part of everyday speech? It feels that way to me, mostly because, I guess, I am uncomfortable with sharing about myself in general (insert comment about my dumb blog here.) I don’t want to be the center of attention. I don’t want people bothering me. And asking for my pronouns is bothering me. I feel like, “take one look at me and hazard a fucking guess. I will definitely correct you if you’re wrong, but you’re not going to be unless you’re just being an asshole about it to try and prove a point.”
But this is just the way I feel, and feelings change as people get accustomed to change. Like all feelings I am entitled to it. But bitching about your feelings is what chicks do, and I’m a dude, so we’re done with this particular line of thinking.
And I guess I’m done in general. If those girl abs up there are yours just email me and I’ll take them down if you want me to. I found them on 4chan and nobody provides attributions there. The image was modified, so fair use I guess, unless you really want to be mad about it.