Joyce Carol Oates and the great pronoun debates

So, I was hanging out on Wonkette early this morning, curating some artisanal tabs, when I came across an article I thought might be interesting to talk about. (You can find it here.)

Because it did actually generate some discussion, and because some people found it valuable and one person specifically asked to have it posted to my blog so that it could be found more easily than would be the case if it were left buried in Disqus comments, I’m going to cross post here the long ass thing I wrote over there.

Yes, it’s long ass, but you’re going to read it anyway, since you don’t want my diligent efforts to go to waste, do you?

I said, “DO YOU?”

Fine, don’t read it. I’ll just sit over here NOT being passive aggressive at you. So there.

The discussion as a whole started when I posted that LGBTQNation article about Joyce Carol Oates fucking up around trans inclusive language… not be being a complete ass, mind you. She just treated it as a question of practicality rather than respect, and opined that this newfangled singular they was doomed not to catch on.

One well known Wonkette commenter and contributor Martini Ambassador (ever one to seek enlightenment) asked for some help in understanding why some people responded badly to Oates when at heart Oates was only saying that she thought it “would not” catch on, not that it “should not”, and that this was all only about language and not about trans people and the respect that we deserve.

Is there something I’m missing, asked our beloved Martini?

Yes, I replied. Only I did it in 48,240 words. Like so:

Yeah, I don’t think you’re wrong about Oates intent.

What you’re missing are the feelings of trans people. For literally decades we have as individuals been repeatedly told that we can exist as trans, but only so long as X. Lots of times in the 90s I was told I could change my name, since that was mine, but I should not ask other people to use it, or to call me a woman, or to not call me a man, or to use another pronoun, or whatever. That’s just trying to control other people, they would say, to force them to do work they don’t want to do.

Well, I’ll tell you that we trans folk have done a ton of work we would prefer not to do. A TON. We do it every day. And to non trans people the Great Pronoun Debate seems like an issue for hypothetical questions and philosophical musings, but trans people are trying to survive in a gender segregated, gender oppressive, gender binary world that makes no room for us. This effort occupies a huge amount of time and attention during the period immediately before and after coming out, and even after you’ve achieved a working peace with the people you interact with most (family, friends, coworkers), you never really leave it behind. A few times a year some complete stranger gives you shit. Once every couple years you might change jobs or change landlords and then there’s a whole new group of people to educate. The work, truly, doesn’t end.

Then people like Oates come along. They have no ill will. They’re not trying to be asshats. But whether they’re bad people or not isn’t the issue. They say something that creates more work, that gives ammunition to the coworkers who want to be jerks (again, even when that isn’t the intention of Oates or similar folks). People with large platforms who make it easier to be a jerk to trans people may not actually intend to make it easier to be a jerk to trans people, but the fallout lands on trans people anyway. And it’s pretty reasonable that we’re not happy about that.

Some individual trans folk may lash out too harshly, and I’m not defending that. It’s in the definition of “too harsh”, right? But if you’re dealing with this day in and day out, especially if, unlike me, you only recently came out and there are still huge struggles because things haven’t calmed down with your friends and family and coworkers, and then you wake up to see a coworker or friend forward this to you (sometimes even sympathetically, like with a note, “You know Kelly is going to talk about this today,”) and what you feel as a transperson is, “Goddamit, not this again!”

We have full, busy lives. Most of us aren’t dealing with anything especially dramatic but life is life, and when we have a full plate and then something, anything, fires up the “debate” about whether it’s a good idea for you to ask people to refer to you respectfully because fill in the blank reason, well. There are millions of us. At any given time SOME of us are going to flip their shit over having to justify, once again, the idea that people should be respectful to us.

We know better than cis people that every new word or new use of a familiar word is a compromise. We have fought (still fight!) many battles within our own communities about how best to speak about ourselves and our peers, to represent ourselves and our peers. Nothing is perfect. Nothing is easy.

But new language for treating trans people with respect is not hard because of some inevitability about new language. It’s hard because people want to hurt us. It’s hard because the consequences are different, and those are different because cis people make the consequences different.

The truth is that even if we had to come up with a new pronoun for every single person in existence, and you had to learn a special word just to refer to each trans person, that’s not actually any harder than what we already ask people to do for cis folks every day.

People forget this, but having an individual name is having a special word, different for each person, that you have to learn to refer to that person. Yet cis people don’t throw up their hands and declare that “names” will never catch on because it’s too complicated and remembering a separate word for everyone on earth is a completely unreasonable ask. Rather than opposite. We have whole industries devoted to printing up cards with that unique “you” phrase, just to make it easier for your clients to remember. We have other industries devoted to printing up laminated cards with that unique “you” phrase and a picture so that the government never makes a mistake about which magically invented phrase belongs to which unique, individual cis person. Cis people are really devoted to this “special word for each person” system even when it’s incredibly inconvenient… so long as it doesn’t benefit trans folks.

Great Pronoun Debate conversations thus minimize the accommodations we make for “normal” people while maximizing the drama and perceived difficulty of treating trans people with respect. Now just because Oates has never thought of things this way doesn’t make Oates a bad person. But for trans people who spent years literally trying to find reasons to stay alive in a world that felt too relentlessly disrespectful of what we are, who we are, and even THAT we are, it is simply tiresome.

We’re tired.

We don’t want to have the conversation one more time.

Yes, Oates had a reasonable point.

Yes, Oates shouldn’t be thrown in the trash heap of history for one tweet.

But even that is privileging Oates’ perspective. “Can’t we please,” say trans people on twitter who are not me because I don’t use twitter, “drop all the conversation about whether we’re making language hard or ambiguous or new or unfamiliar and instead talk about whether we’re making language better? Making it more respectful?”

Why is causing some random person momentary confusion, which is, of course, completely justified when I use “tubular” or “bomb” or “gam” in a new way (assuming I invented all the slang from the 1930s to the 1990s), more important to the conversation we are having as a planet than causing trans people to fight for the right to use the language that, while imperfect, hurts us the least? Why is it necessary to have a whole separate conversation about how inconvenient it is to have conversations? And why is the conversation about how conversations are inconvenient more important than showing simple respect?

Oates isn’t an asshole. But she said something that asks trans people to again answer an objection to treating us with respect. We get it, cis people. Treating trans people with respect is fine unless you actually have to lift a finger or learn a new thing that’s a lot less difficult than figuring out what the fuck ROFLSOB is supposed to mean the first time you read it. We understand that you want to be clever and invent FSMs and score “tuddies” with your “GOAT BFF mancrush” but that all this use of pronouns for trans people is just a little too difficult to catch on, and therefore must be discussed at length, rather than just accepted that this is how some subset of the population speaks.

Maybe “they” won’t catch on long term. But if it doesn’t, it will be because trans folks came up with a better way for people to be respectful to us. And we and the people who want to show us respect will be on to using that word and we won’t give a fuck about the terrible and long lamented fate of the singular they, because we’re worried about people. We’re worried about the health of people, the happiness of people, the respect we show people, person to person or group to group.

We invite everyone, cis or trans or neither or nonbinary or genderqueer or genderfuck or, yes, confused (because by the time we come out we’re very rarely confused, but before that we and others can be very, very confused by illogical binary gender) to skip the conversation about whether language is practical or compulsory or hard or a bore or a ever-changing or ideally static or eternally local or ever more globalized and instead just talk. Just listen. Let singular “they” sort itself out, and in the meantime if someone asks you to do them a favor and learn a new name or a new slang term or refer to the paint on their wall as the exact name on the paint chip because isn’t that just the coolest paint name ever, maybe just do it. Maybe if someone feels seen or respected or happy, that’s enough.

And if that means that one trans person on twitter gets to skip one day of tearing their hair out, well, that’s a side effect I’m willing to tolerate.







  1. Tethys says

    No Ma’am, I do not want your diligent efforts to go to waste, and I enjoy reading them because you are funny and smart.

    It is very hard to get people who do not speak a gendered language to understand that singular they is ancient. Germanic languages all started with 3 categories for gender, with neuter/none/mixed as the third category. English does not retain pronouns for plural He, or plural She, we only use the neuter category of they them their. These words are part of the thy, thee, thou, thine group that denotes singular neuter you.

    Vikings would have no problem with using the correct pronouns, so modern English speakers need to stfu about their ignorance of their own language and simply use the one correct pronoun that remains in the language. They.

  2. says

    Thank you for this post.

    One other consideration that came to me, is that positivity is contagious. If you speak with the expectation that people will be more respectful in the future, that catches on with people on the fence, and they start to think more positively about the trend as well, and are more likely to participate. What Oates said is a subtle discouragement.

  3. says

    If I referred to a cis woman with “he” or to a cis man with “she,” then this person would correct me. If I stated “from now on I will refer to everybody with ‘she,’ because it is too burdensome to use either ‘he’ or ‘she’ for each person,” then cis people would complain or even scream that I am being disrespectful.

    Cis people do not want to accommodate my preferences, but they sure as hell want me to accommodate their preferences. It would be funny to watch how cis female transphobes reacted if I started referring to all of them with “he.” Or how cis male transphobes got mad if I referred to all of them with “she.”

    A double standard indeed. The society expects me to respect preferences of people who think it is too much effort for them to respect my preferences.

    By the way, it is not just pronouns. Cis people also expect me to get all their names and titles correctly (Mr, Ms, Miss, Mrs, Dr, and so on). And I even have to memorize how each name is spelled. For example, somebody with a name Brendon or Emilie would correct me if I typed “Brendan” or “Emily” instead.

    Too much effort indeed.

  4. Tethys says

    Let singular “they” sort itself out, and in the meantime if someone asks you to do them a favor and learn a new name or a new slang term or refer to the paint on their wall as the exact name on the paint chip because isn’t that just the coolest paint name ever, maybe just do it.

    Exactly. It’s basic manners to be respectful of people’s preferred pronouns, even if they ask to be called a completely novel term. I find the endless debate of singular they by people who claim it’s onerous to be very disingenuous.

    Collective singulars are not a huge part of English, but folk still understand them as being a category that includes all genders.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I think that the ‘singular they’ will definitely catch on. Apart from all the issues you raise, it also greatly simplifies writing. I find myself using it reflexively now in all my writings for publication and no one has said anything.

  6. lochaber says

    I really feel the people arguing against the ‘singular they’ are disingenuous at best. It’s long been used without complaint to refer to hypothetical people of unknown gender (“what do we do if someone comes in and no tables are ready? -have them sit at the bar until a table is ready”, etc.), and it’s only now that people want to use ‘singular they’ when dealing with an actual vs hypothetical person, that all of a sudden weird little arbitrary grammatical rules are VERY IMPORTANT.

    I’ve been trying to use they vs he/she when relating stories and such, unless it’s one where the gender of the person specifically matters. More so in writing, then talking in person.

    A while back at work, when I was too new to really be confrontational about much of anything, someone started complaining to me about “confused people” who “think they are something they are not” and “expect you to agree with them” I just responded with something like “meh, it’s no skin off my back to use the terms they like” I do wish I would of thought of something that maybe could have started to change this person’s thinking, but since it hasn’t come up again, I’m guessing I at least didn’t register as sympathetic to their transphobia…

  7. raven says

    I think that the ‘singular they’ will definitely catch on.

    I’ve been using “they” for decades now.
    It’s not that I even have to think about it anymore, just use it when it is appropriate.

    It’s the same with “person”.
    Spokesperson works just fine.

  8. khms says

    what the fuck ROFLSOB is supposed to mean the first time you read it. We understand that you want to be clever and invent FSMs and score “tuddies” with your “GOAT BFF mancrush”

    Surely nonsense like this will never catch on? Surely this is just people inventing their own secret language?

  9. cartomancer says

    I, likewise, suspect that a lot of the complaints in the general discourse on the subject are made in bad faith. That it’s not laziness or a cantankerous pedantry driving them but plain, old-fashioned bigotry. Nevertheless, if they are framed in terms of cantankerous pedantry, that’s a language I speak very well and can offer advice in kind.

    The great thing about pronouns is that pronouns are entirely optional. Pronouns replace a noun, and a speaker can just use the appropriate noun instead if a speaker doesn’tt want to risk using a pronoun that might offend. Sure, most speakers are used to regular pronoun use in sentences as a matter of style, and as such speech can sound a tiny bit unusual when pronouns are avoided entirely, but not very much. The meaning is entirely clear and entirely grammatically coherent. If a speaker is seriously unable to acquiesce to using the preferred personal pronouns requested by others then just avoiding pronouns altogether shouldn’t upset anyone. Bingo! the cantankerous pedant can get a smug sense of satisfaction and, far more importantly, vulnerable people who quite like not having to deal with microaggressions of this sort every day don’t have to go through the tired old psychologically wearying rigmarole of justifying personal existence one more time. Everyone wins!

    And it has a greater utility than just allowing people to avoid the issue. In fact, I tend to use this strategy when dealing with trans and non-binary people who have not expressed a pronoun preference, and indeed anyone I suspect might fit into that category. I don’t want to offend, so rather than guessing I adapt my language to avoid the possibility. This is actually surprisingly useful, since the vast majority of trans and non-binary people I deal with are teenagers who are just coming to terms with their identities and exploring what pronouns might feel right. They often change their minds several times over the course of a few years before settling on something that works for them, and frequently don’t feel comfortable sharing such intimate issues with someone in my position (as a teacher). So unless there has been a direct and recent request for using specific pronouns, or I am reasonably convinced from observing said individual’s interactions with friends that I have worked out what is preferred, I err on the side of caution and just don’t use pronouns. They have these very convenient things called names that work very well instead!

  10. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Yeah, people are actually complaining about how younger people reflexively use the singular “they”. I did that in middle and high school, *way* before I had any awareness of trans issues.

    Oates’ point also has broader problems. Okay, let’s say that Oates had some special position that allowed her to see that something wouldn’t catch on by default. Would that mean that fighting for it would be pointless? No!

    When people tell me their new names after transitioning, or pronoun preferences, it *may* not change the way I refer to *everyone*, but it does change the way I refer to *them*. And it helps me think this is an issue.

    The pronoun conversation is one where trans folks are asking for a completely benign, simple change to behavior that costs no money or even any extra time. It’s a good place to begin. Would we be better off with another topic of change that required people to not only face any ignorance or antipathy they may have but also required them to take out their wallet? I don’t think so.

    In reality, of course, this is a perfectly winnable fight. “African-American” became common. But even if it weren’t at the macro-scale, it would still be worth trying for the meso-scale and micro-scale.

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