Bruce Jenner and the use of pronouns
Until recently, the name ‘Bruce Jenner’ evoked various images in people – a movie-star handsome Olympic athlete, or a reality show participant with the in-laws. No one, however, is likely to have thought, ‘I wonder if Bruce Jenner feels like a woman inside?’ Over the past year or so, Jenner has been increasingly open about needing to transition to female. However, Jenner has continued to use the name ‘Bruce’ publicly and to ask that people continue to use male pronouns.
Jenner’s use of male pronouns (he, his, him) raises the issue of pronouns in general. What does this mean to other transgender people, if anything? Why would any transgender person take such a stance? Why are pronouns so significant to transgender people?
The importance of pronouns
First, it would be a logical conclusion that other transgender people would judge Jenner harshly for continuing to use male pronouns, taking the attitude, ‘Jenner is making it harder on all of us to be taken seriously.’ While some may indeed hold such an attitude, it is also likely that some would respond, ‘Transition is hard enough without others judging any one person’s process. Good for Jenner for having the courage to transition at all when … he’s had such a prominent and public life.’ The pause signified by that ellipses indicates the difficulty a transgender person might have making a statement that seemingly misgenders Jenner; since Jenner has stated, ‘I’m a woman,’ the natural response would be to switch pronouns to she and her. The continued use of him is only because Jenner has made the request.
The second question is related to the transition process as part of a life journey. Most who transition wish they could do so privately, but no one can. It’s not possible to undertake such a profound and visible change as transition and remain private about it. But most who transition are not public figures. In sharing his story with media outlets, Jenner is explaining the process to those who have barely heard the word transgender. This has given Jenner some degree of control over the narrative of his life journey. Given his celebrity status, if he didn’t participate in such interviews, various media outlets would have reported the story anyway, without Jenner having any control over the result.
As Jenner has explained, he has consciously felt female inside most of his life. Jenner told People magazine that he first began transition in the 1980s, backing off from the process out of deference to a former wife. During this transition time Jenner has doubtless been walking a balancing act, trying to be true to an inner identity while at the same time trying to undo decades of straight male life, bringing family and loved ones along on the journey. The female pronouns may well come, over time. Transition is not a flip of the switch kind of process, and the more life a person has built up in their birth gender, the longer and more convoluted the path toward self-actualization in a new gender role.
Finally, there is the issue of pronouns in general. It is difficult for cisgender people to understand how profoundly pronouns can affect a transgender person. Cisgender and transgender alike, we come into the world gendered; a doctor or midwife takes a look at our genitalia and pronounces, ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl.’ Sometimes we are gendered months before birth, via an ultrasound during pregnancy.
The gendering process
No matter when it happens, the result of this gendering process is that we are set upon a particular life path of gender socialization that is as unconscious to us as the air we breathe. An excellent exercise to point out the power of pronouns is to attempt to talk about another person for even five minutes without using a pronoun at all. Note how awkward this is, and how artificial the resulting conversation sounds. Or, have a conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance. Talk for five minutes. Then, switch pronouns in referring to your mutual friend. Notice how difficult it is to do so.
The difficulty of this exercise, and how people respond to it, demonstrate that pronouns hold a great deal of power in determining how we experience each other. To use them on an autopilot basis, unconsciously, is to make a gender determination about another person without putting any thought into the process.
Those who identify as transgender have turned off that gender autopilot, by necessity, in questioning their own birth gender assignment. Pronouns are no longer unconscious to the transgender person, nor is the power those two short words he and she hold. Gender designations carry with them an entire gender role and associated behaviors. Those who transition and request a pronoun change are not just saying, “Call me he rather than she (or vice versa)” – they are also saying, ‘Change your gender conceptualization of me, along with all the associated roles and behaviors that go along with that.’
Gender is an interpersonal process, inherent in every interaction we have with others. Our interpretation of another’s gender tells us our social boundaries with that person – how close to stand, how (or if) to touch the other, what topics of conversation are best, what type of language we can use, etc. Pronouns are a powerful reinforcer of this boundary. The transgender person who is misgendered with the wrong pronoun is being told, ‘I’m still seeing you, treating you, as that other gender over there, with all the social boundary rules that go along with it.’ This is a profound insult to identity. If the misgendering is deliberate, the insult is intentional. If the misgendering is due to newness of the idea, most transgender people will wait patiently, looking for signs the misgendering is decreasing in frequency.
There is an anniversary few transgender people are aware of, and many wish they could track: the last time a stranger misgendered them. For most, it is only a gradual realization, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time since someone misgendered me.’ Still more gradually, it sinks in, ‘That may never happen again.’ Transition is such a long process for most, there is no way to track either of those realizations. Even for Jenner, such a public figure, that day may yet come. At some point his transition will be history to the general public. Many strangers will then pass him by on the street and only see a middle-aged woman. And if they have a thought at all, it will be with female pronouns.