Side Effects Of Preferred Pronouns

I’m starting to dislike using preferred pronouns for nonbinary and genderqueer people. This is a really controversial thing to say my social circles, where many nonbinary and genderqueer people are my friends.

To be clear, I still use preferred pronouns. I like doing things that make other people happy, especially if they care about it more than I do. Please don’t interpret my feelings as an excuse to refuse preferred pronouns just to make a point – you don’t have to agree with someone to be kind to them. The feelings of nonbinary and genderqueer people are valid, and my discomfort does not mean we should take them less seriously.

But whenever I use a preferred pronoun, it feels a bit like I’m playing a game of pretend. If an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person asks me to use ‘they,’ I do my best to treat them like they don’t belong to either gender… but my brain does not play along. It sits on my shoulder like a child. “She’s a woman,” it says. “She’s a woman and you’re pretending she’s not.” I tell my shoulder brain to shut up, but it does not shut up. And so despite what I want to feel, my actual experience around nonbinary people is that I am actually talking to a woman, but I (and everyone around me) are pretending that we’re not.

I don’t mind collective pretending. We do it a lot – pretend to care about the cashier’s day, or that the homeless guy doesn’t exist – but I can’t think of any collective pretend that also includes this amount of fear of acknowledging the fact that we’re playing pretend. I am actively afraid to say this is how I feel – not just due to potential social rejection from the group, but from making the nonbinary person in question feel bad. I don’t want either of those things.

I notice that I’m starting to resent this. I would like to be able to talk about the sense of pretending. There’s a way in which very raw and deep intimacy with someone can only happen without any pretend, and because of this I feel greater difficulty in achieving intimacy with nonbinary and genderqueer people, because I feel actively afraid of revealing that they are registering as a regular ol’ woman (or man) to me.

The sense of pretend seems to come with the presentation of the person. My brain doesn’t feel like we’re pretending when talking to a passing trans person. It gets confused when talking to a nearly-passing trans person before settling on some sense close to ‘no specified gender’ or ‘alternates genders.’

I feel less bad using preferred pronouns with trans people specifically, even if they’re non-passing, because they seem to recognize my shoulder brain is real and they’re actively trying to trick it. I like that. It makes me feel like I could bring this up with them and it would be okay.

But nonbinary people tend to ignore the shoulder brain. AFAB people mostly tend to shave a side of their head and wear baggy pants, and AMAB people will do something like dye their hair blue and wear one earring, and these things do not help my shoulder brain stop screaming ‘THAT’S A WOMAN’ or ‘THAT’S A MAN’ into my ear.

I realize this might sound like I’m expecting other people to change for my benefit, but this is not at all what I mean. Nobody is obligated to make me feel any particular way. They can do and feel and present however they want, and it’s none of my business – you do you, man.

But it sort of becomes my business when they’re asking me to change my behavior and thoughts. They would like me to view them as nonbinary, to use their preferred pronoun. And I’m happy to try! But no matter how hard I try, the sense of pretend remains consistent. And them asking me to change something I cannot change is frustrating.

This leads to fear of being honest with most people who ask me to use preferred pronouns, and I feel sad about that.

26 thoughts on “Side Effects Of Preferred Pronouns

  1. I have a lot of close friends who are nonbinary, and my life partner is a trans man. I think it’s important to keep in mind that your assigned gender can be a relatively comfortable experience for you, and something that is downright skin crawling for someone under the trans umbrella. Like how people think trans folks are pretending, they also feel that they are pretending when they act as their assigned gender. Gender norms are a creation of society and not everyone fits perfectly into those two checkboxes, some worse than others. Sex anatomy is one thing, and gender norms / expressions are something else entirely. Honestly, even if someone is pretending / being a “trans-trender”/ I still use their preferred genders because trans rights need to become more visible and discussed in our society. People demonize what they don’t understand, so the first step is to get it discussed and out in the open. My advice is to just get to know some trans / enbies who are willing to discuss gender experiences because that’s what will make it easier to wrap your head around than anything else. Now when someone says “I’m they now” my brain just goes with it – but yes I did have that mental dissonance for a bit when I was first learning about trans experiences.

  2. Something I feel everyone should be aware of is that this is a learning that has come to the forefront recently, and so not only are we in the position of a transitioning society that is evolving its language, but it’s happening as they greatest amount of people around us will be transitioning at once. And this is not a quick process.

    Once this has settled in society then it’s unlikely a handful of your friends will be still trying on their new identities at the same phase in their life. And that process requires a little acting and learning new knowledge and trying it.

    But right now I hate to hurt feelings of my friends and make mistakes because I’m not carefully examining my words when I say them and I accidentally misgender. But we move on and I slowly correct myself carrying probably a disproportionate amount of guilt.

    Thanks for the interesting reads!


  3. Have you considered that everything that men and women are defined as (beyond the ability to produce viable offspring with one another) was playing pretend first?

    Take a look at how dynamic biology actually is. Look at intersex. Look at chimerism. All that’s required to produce a non-cis person is for hormone levels during genital development to be different from hormone levels during brain development. Yes, these parts of your body developed at different times when you were in your mother’s womb.

  4. “And so despite what I want to feel, my actual experience around nonbinary people is that I am actually talking to a woman, but I (and everyone around me) are pretending that we’re not.”

    Yes! My goodness, thank you for saying this!

    And, yes, it works the same way for me too: Persons whose presentations more closely match their preferred pronouns tend to cause me no trouble at all (especially a particular friend who transitioned fully from female to male and today is far more manly than I can ever dream of being myself), but persons who seem to only be wearing clothes not common for their biological sex cause my mind to frown on me.

    I tend to try to reframe my sentences toward or about such persons to exclude any use of pronouns at all, which is an interesting literary challenge but definitely doesn’t lend itself to speaking or feeling at ease.

  5. “But it sort of becomes my business when they’re asking me to change my behavior and thoughts.”

    Great post. I think that preferred pronouns, especially the more exotic ones, get into political territory and can cause genuine friction with the speaker’s beliefs. I think those beliefs should be respected to some degree, and are getting weighed against the feelings of the non-binary person. It is easy to prioritize the feelings of an “oppressed” group, but most people do have some limit under the hood… My own controversial opinion is that your “assigned” sex matters more than whatever you believe you are. You have a certain biology, neurology, and childhood experience based on that “assignment”, and I don’t believe that most men or women genuinely understand what it’s like to be the other gender. It feels like using preferred pronouns carries the implication that you fully agree with the current left progressive social beliefs around gender. If I could extremify the issue to make it obvious, imagine a very devout Orthodox Catholic met someone who also identified as Orthodox Catholic but only went to church or mass a couple times a year and actually held several views against the church’s doctrines and often sinned without remorse. The devout person could refer to the less active person as Catholic but internally they’re probably thinking “well they’re not *really* one of us, not as much.” I like how you have made me realize that using the wrong pronoun is really two separate sins: hurting the feelings of the person in question and not acknowledging progressive social norms around gender.

    1. Re: Biology: if someone has had SRS, are there really any major biological differences between them and a woman who had her uterus removed for medical reasons?

      Re: Childhood: It seems like there’s a pretty huge variety of childhood experiences to have, especially when you factor in people growing up in different cities/countries, racial differences, and so on.

      If someone has spent a decade being treated as a woman by everyone around them, and no one realizes that they’re trans… aren’t they experiencing exactly what a woman experiences?

      It seems like a more apt metaphor is someone who converted to Orthodox Catholic, shares all the beliefs, and goes to church every Sunday… but some people insist on calling them Muslim because that’s the faith of their childhood.

  6. “I don’t mind collective pretending. We do it a lot – pretend to care about the cashier’s day, or that the homeless guy doesn’t exist”

    I am more troubled by both of these examples, and that you apparently think them commonplace and un-noteworthy, than by the form of make believe the article is actually about. Why are you pretending homeless people don’t exist when you encounter them?

    1. It might depend on where you’re at – there’s different cultures around homeless people, and different types of homeless people, in different cities. I live in Berkeley, and basically every single person I see ignores the homeless people begging. It’s not ideal obviously, but it’s necessary to function – it’s unrealistic to give money every time when asked, and it’s better to give money to the shelters instead of to the homeless directly.

      1. “…basically every single person I see ignores the homeless people begging.”

        How horrible. Even if you can’t spare money, this doesn’t require that people who are down on their luck be ignored. Indeed, one should make every effort to acknowledge and engage with the homeless. It costs you literally nothing. Evidently there is an empathy deficit in Berkeley.

        To this point, and the substance of your article, if there’s something you’re pretending doesn’t exist it’s almost certain it’s something that you should be consciously choosing to face.

        1. I like the idea of empathy and being direct and honest, but I don’t think this is practical in a large society that requires people to operate in specific roles in order to make the machine run. We take on ‘functional personas’ who react in different set ways depending on what we’re doing. I’m one person with my family, another person at work, and yet another person with my close friends. I do like total honesty and directness, but it’s not very feasible to do this all the time. My family actively does not want me to be honest with them, and neither do the people at work. We engage in compromises of identity in order to function together harmoniously.

          As a side note: In Seattle, I befriended the homeless, brought them food and hung out and talked with them regularly. I am actively afraid of doing that here in Berkeley.

          1. I live in Port of Spain, which is the capitol of Trinidad (island in the Caribbean). There are many, many homeless persons in the town and the reasons for that range from the deeply tragic to the utterly irritating.

            When I first moved here, I very much was giving, squatting down to have a chat, sharing breakfast and all the rest of it. After five years though, I came to find it was pretty expensive. I agree with you; Sadly it becomes impractical to give without restraint every single time.

            What’s wound up happening is a bit of discrimination. Busking musicians? 100% if I have loose cash. Elderly persons? Same. Young persons, however, and especially young men? Sorry, but I’ll have to refuse.

            People have started calling me ‘judgemental’ these days and I’ve come to accept it.

  7. It seems like partly, your brain just doesn’t have an “enby” gender bucket? I often struggle with non-binary pronouns, but the actual gender-identification seems solid to me. Not all enbies give me this vibe, but a lot of them… it just doesn’t make sense to sort them in to male/female except in terms of ASAB (assigned sex at birth).

    I’ve definitely met enbies that register to my brain as “woman pretending to be an enby”, but it tends to be similar to pre-transition trans people: this person is not actually making any effort to *present* as enby/transitioned, so my brain has more trouble accepting pronouns/identifiers.

    My brain is also used to holding the idea of genders that “simplify down” to binary: this person is {complex Tumblr 3rd gender} which simplifies down to {enby} which simplifies down to {female} – they’re happiest with the first, but they still mark the female box on government forms. I’m wondering if that makes it easier for me, because now “enby” is less of a play-pretend and more a completely different level/framework.

    One last weird quirk: I find it much easier to acknowledge asexuals as enby. Once that interaction is off the table, my brain doesn’t care nearly as much about gender.

    Thanks for creating a little safe space to discuss this – this isn’t usually a topic I talk about much, despite being trans and enby myself. I tend not to be very pushy about identifying as enby or expecting they/them from people precisely because it feels like a degree of “pretend”. It does genuinely make me happy when people will play the Preferred Pronouns game with me, but I don’t feel comfortable imposing any sort of obligation to play that game (whereas with trans, I am very comfortable imposing that obligation)

    1. Thanks for the well thought out comment!

      It made me think of another thing, which is that I think enby buckets would make more sense if they didn’t occur to the exclusion of male-female buckets. Like if you could be a ‘female enby’ somehow, that would do way more intuitive things with my brain.

      1. This is also controversial, but I’ve actually just gone ahead and made distinct AMAB/AFAB enby buckets in my head and it’s been useful in not deadgendering (neologism – i just needed to find a word that was similar to misgendering but specifically means avoiding calling someone by their assigned pronouns) people. I’d rather be kind to people than abide the maximal-confusion party line on gender terminology. Caveats: It isn’t a model that prepares me to deal with multiple sets of neopronouns (xe, ze, ey, etc). It also doesn’t endear me to masculine butches who prefer their default she/her pronouns either.

  8. There are two things people can ask from us.

    “I was born as a man, but I feel that I’m a better fit for the female social role, so please treat me as a woman.”


    “I want you to endorse the following stance on the complex epistemological question of who counts as a man and who counts as a women.”

    What bothers me is being asked the second.

    Under the first, accidentally misgendering someone is just impolite, like forgetting the name of an acquaintance.

    Under the second, it’s not okay to be referring to people one way in your internal monologue, and then mentally reversing all the pronouns when you talk out loud. So when you inevitably slip up, that outs you as an evil person and a fake ally. (For instance, when it takes you five seconds to work through whether a given trans person’s relationship is considered “straight” or “gay,”)

    I’d do whatever I can to accommodate your preferences, however ridiculous I may privately think they are. But I don’t like having my thoughts/beliefs policed.

    1. Thank you.

      I agree that the second request (or demand) is completely beyond the pale.

      I do have empathy for the first, but because I find the notion of gender roles problematic, I resist it as well. In consequence I either try to avoid using third-person pronouns, or use the pronouns that correspond to the person’s sex.

      Sex and gender can be separated, and I support anyone who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes and expectations. But sex is real, and it matters. I will not comply with demands that I ignore it.

    2. >AFAB people mostly tend to shave a side of their head and wear baggy pants, and AMAB people will do something like dye their hair blue and wear one earring, and these things do not help my shoulder brain stop screaming ‘THAT’S A WOMAN’ or ‘THAT’S A MAN’ into my ear.

      LMAO. What the heck.

  9. I remember that I used to feel this way, but at some point, it just… stopped. Now, when I’m around genderqueer or other trans people, usually have literally no sense of their assigned gender, at all! If I think it through – “this person just talked about their experience of having a neovagina, so logically they must have been AMAB” but it’s a completely abstract intellectual activity for me, and I have trouble remembering the conclusions

  10. Suppose that someone had been in a really bad car crash, and they had scars all over their face and body. You can’t avoid noticing the scars, but it would normally be considered rude to bring them up during conversation. Would you consider this to be pretending in a similar way?

    1. Right, like I mentioned there’s lots of pretending that we do all the time and is fine – but pretending usually goes away the more you get to know someone. I always feel like I’m creating distance between me and someone else when I’m not acknowledging disfigurement. For a while I had very severe hormonal acne, and I felt weirdly more at ease the very rare times someone would acknowledge it.

  11. I find it interesting that your brain makes this so difficult. For me it is quite easy to get my brain to ignore the AGAB of anyone who presents even a little bit androgynously. I don’t think I had to put in any effort to get this to be the case.

    I wonder what the source of this difference is, and which pattern is more typical.

    It might or might not be relevant that I am a closeted trans girl and have never felt particularly strongly about my gender identity until I realized this (which was quite recently).

    1. That’s really interesting! I’m also curious as to the cause, and if there’s any correlations. Maybe I’m more sensitive to stuff like reproduction, and find ovaries/semen to be more meaningful?

  12. I initially felt like PPs were a power trip that some people liked to used to feel more in control and important.
    Then I determined that a majority of those with a PP just wanted to be seen and recognized as they felt.
    Now I try to focus on the fact that we are all continually evolving and growing, as people and as a culture. So, perhaps the fact that the use of PPs in general is new to most of us is the real issue. I am hoping that over time our brains adapt to the use of all types of new PPs, they become normalized, and my brain stops trying to autocorrect my words and thoughts.

    PS…. I really dislike the term They as a PP. I simply feel it does not do anyone justice and we all deserve a better identity!

    1. Right, I believe those with PPs want to be seen and recognized as they feel and this is 100% valid and I respect that. I just also want to note that this is having an effect on me.

  13. Huh. TIL that preferred pronouns was an issue with people who aren’t trans. I don’t have any people in my social circle who’s non-binary/gender queer by that description so I didn’t even realize this was an issue.

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