Pondering Pronouns: A Reflection on Trans Allyship at Tufts
After decades of organizers fighting for a cause that many queer activists criticized as too moderate, marriage equality became law in the United States in 2015. In contrast to campaigns for marriage equality that circulated images of nuclear families with same-sex parents and suburban fantasies, the origins of the queer rights movement were far more radical and overwhelmingly led by transgender organizers. Trans women of color, many of them sex workers and homeless, demanded housing, equitable healthcare, and freedom from police brutality.
Now, as the issue of marriage equality has faded from the public view, transgender visibility has exploded into the mainstream after decades of being brushed aside for more “palatable” causes. The rise of transgender people in the mainstream media has called into question how we talk about trans people. More specifically, well-intentioned cis allies may wonder: what do trans people want you to call them?
A common response to this question has been the practice of sharing pronouns, whether in social media bios, during group introductions, or in one’s Zoom name. In many spaces, sharing pronouns has become the norm at Tufts. For many students, Tufts is the first place where they are asked to share their pronouns. While the ritual of pronoun-sharing signals consideration of trans people, it does very little to actually combat the structural oppression and limited material resources that trans people contend with at Tufts and beyond.
It is important to acknowledge who benefits when sharing pronouns is established as a norm. Primarily, the practice is meant to equalize a burden that was once felt primarily by trans people that either do not fully pass as their gender or whose outward gender expression does not align with their pronouns. For those who do not “look” like their pronouns, the normalized act of sharing pronouns can be a relief from having to single themselves out as gender nonconforming.
I remember bringing up the act of sharing pronouns week after week during my summer camp job. During counselor introductions at the opening campfire, I found myself the sole counselor sharing pronouns—not as a noble act for trans equality, but because, if I didn’t, I would almost certainly be called the wrong ones. In the summer heat, I couldn’t safely bind my chest, and testosterone had not yet caused my voice to drop, so campers would always refer to me as a woman unless I told them otherwise. In this case, other counselors sharing pronouns would have established the practice as a camp norm, rather than me needing to single myself out as the trans counselor at every campfire.
However, there are several limitations to the practice of sharing pronouns as a blanket act of trans allyship. On a smaller scale, sharing pronouns can be difficult or even painful for those who either do not yet know what pronouns they wish to be called or are not yet ready to share with others. This can cause awkward situations where those who are questioning their pronouns may have to share pronouns that feel incorrect to them or are forced to make public that they are unsure, thus creating situations where trans people feel unwelcome or unsafe through practices that are meant to include them. On a grander scale, while sharing pronouns is a good initial act of allyship—as it is relatively quick and free—it may also lead people to feel as if they have done what is necessary in order to call themselves trans allies. Sharing pronouns should not be an opportunity for cisgender people to publicly display their support of the trans community while shirking the responsibility of taking tangible steps to improve the living conditions of trans people.
I speak about this issue with a certain level of detachment allowed by my white privilege and other socioeconomic advantages. For years, as a trans child who did not have to worry about getting a job or applying for housing, my primary concern was what people called me. Few things were more painful than finally being able to articulate my sense of self after wading through feelings of doubt and self-loathing, only for a chasm to emerge between what I thought of myself and how the world perceived me. During those sensitive years, having others affirm how I was making sense of myself would have signaled to me that they respected my autonomy in choosing what I wanted to be called. Moreover, that simple gesture would have affirmed my right to self-determination during a time when I sincerely doubted that I had it. Simply put, if I had been called the right words back then, I would have had more confidence in my ability to decide for myself who I am. That confidence is life-changing.
However, now that I am older, there are many processes that are part of public life that I can no longer avoid by hiding behind my mother. These processes would be further complicated if I were at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As a trans adult, I am now the one who has to go to the DMV, navigate the airport, make my doctor’s appointments, and apply for jobs. Despite my deeper voice (I am still waiting on the facial hair), I feel my transness simmering just below the surface of these adult rituals as if it were a mark on my face or an additional limb.
Snags in these rituals can easily be dismissed as insignificant or as a matter of hurt feelings. My passport does say that I am female, but past the momentary discomfort, I am still able to get on a plane and return to either a loving home or my private university. However, the “F” on my passport can lead to raised eyebrows at the metal detector, and incorrect gender markers frequently lead to trans people being more likely to receive invasive pat-downs. The issue is not simply that the marker on my passport labels me as a woman, but rather that this incorrect marker can put trans people in danger of physical harassment.
Likewise, there is no amount of diversity training or correct language that can negate the structural oppression of trans people. It does not matter if the pharmacist calls me “sir” if my health insurance does not cover my testosterone and I cannot afford the hormones I need. It does not matter that my rental application has a line to put my pronouns if the landlord ultimately denies me housing.
Language does matter, and introducing conversations about trans-inclusive language can be a gateway to normalizing trans existence and general trans allyship. However, there is ultimately a limit to how well language alone can protect trans people. There comes a point where you cannot just call trans people by the right name or pronouns; you also have to take concrete actions to change systems that structurally oppress us.
As a Tufts student, I am grateful that my classmates want to signal to me that they care about trans inclusion by putting pronouns in their Zoom names. However, I have also noticed radio silence from many of the same students concerning the array of anti-transgender laws that have been proposed across the United States since the inauguration of President Joe Biden. There is no campus group that advocates for trans liberation in the way there are groups that address climate change, inequitable labor policies, or international conflicts. There has been no fundraising, nor phone-banking, nor even a recent painting of the cannon in response to these discriminatory laws and transphobia as a whole.
I would argue that because Tufts is a predominantly white and wealthy institution, the trans community at Tufts is therefore also overwhelmingly white and wealthy. When many students do not need to find a job to pay for college, or have parents that pay their rent, material discrimination fades into the background and proper language becomes the primary problem. For privileged trans and cisgender students alike, their socio-economic status may shield them from having to confront problems of structural oppression, at least while they are in college. However, it is worth noting that even if trans Tufts students do not discuss structural oppression as much as trans-inclusive language, it should not be their sole responsibility to educate cisgender people in the first place.
Sharing pronouns is a simple and accessible way to honor how transgender people define themselves. It can spark conversations surrounding trans identity and instigate initial steps towards trans allyship. However, there are limitations to this practice as an act of allyship, both in that it can isolate those who are questioning their pronouns and can also distract from more materially-impactful acts of allyship. Simple acts of allyship must not stop cisgender allies from taking tangible action by donating money, spreading awareness to other cisgender people, supporting transgender art, and engaging politically. I am grateful for the small changes cisgender allies have begun to take to make trans people feel welcome. Now, I would like to challenge them to not only make trans people feel welcome, but to also fight for trans people to feel safe, secure, and able to live full lives.