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Op Eds

The Case Against Mandatory Preferred Gender Pronouns

By Christina M. Xiao
Christina M. Xiao ’24 is a Crimson Editorial comper in Mather House.

“Let’s go around and share our names, pronouns, years, Houses, and concentrations!” It’s the Harvard Introduction™, and as a first-year student, I’ve been giving these out left and right. Name, year, House, concentration: these may be boring, but they’re all generally good introductory facts for people to know about you. With regard to pronouns, however, insisting that people introduce themselves with their pronouns, fill out forms with them, or append them to their Zoom names can actually harm the community it intends to support.

I will preface my argument by saying that I fully support the usage of preferred gender pronouns. Stating PGPs can reduce the chance of accidental but still hurtful misgendering, and the normalization of sharing pronouns emphasizes the fact that everyone has preferred pronouns, not just trans and non-binary folks. So this is not a piece arguing “we don’t need pronouns because you can tell someone’s gender from their physical appearance, so you never need to ask” — that’s bigotry. This is a piece about the complexities that arise from requiring everyone to state their PGPs.

One such complexity relates to the inherent complexity of outness. While in my experience Harvard’s community is generally welcoming to various gender and sexual identities, outness is intricate and personal. For those who are closeted with respect to gender identity, mandatory PGPs can force people into an uncomfortable lose-lose of either outing themselves before they’re ready or lying and feeling incredibly dysphoric. And while withholding PGPs can lead to others unintentionally misgendering you, self-inflicted dysphoria is a whole other beast, which, depending on the person, may be more painful than being misgendered.

Outness can also be situational. Not everyone is comfortable with their entire entryway or CS section or breakout room knowing how they truly identify. Just like preferred names, some people’s preferred pronouns depend on context. We might want our closest friends to call us Ty instead of Tyler, but would feel uncomfortable if strangers or distant acquaintances called us Ty. Similarly, we might want our close friends to use our true preferred pronouns of they/them with us, but pass as she/her in a less accepting, larger world. Requiring someone whose PGPs are situational to state definitive PGPs in front of a wider group than they are comfortable with only worsens the aforementioned lose-lose situation. Some people may not want to share their true PGPs with a crowd of people they don’t know yet, but would also like to avoid the dysphoria of misgendering themselves in their introduction.

Furthermore, some people just don’t have an answer to the question of pronouns at the moment. For gender-questioning folks, what may seem like a simple question is just the tip of an iceberg of deep personal contemplation. Unfortunately, the expectation when asked for your pronouns is not a rumination on the social constructions of gender. PGP-askers expect a she/her, a he/him, or occasionally a they/them, solely for the purpose of knowing how best to refer to you in third person. Saying “I’m not sure yet” when asked for your PGPs is valid, but maybe you don’t want everyone to know that, since it won’t help the people trying to refer to you anyways.

In a similar vein, sometimes the pronouns themselves are complex. PGPs are expected to be a word or two long, but sometimes they require a footnote or addendum. I personally take any pronouns. But people by and large are uncomfortable with that idea, even though “any” literally means you can’t get it wrong. So I often need to qualify my PGPs as “any pronouns — people generally use she/her,” since I have a woman’s body and a woman’s face and I know people are most comfortable using she/her to refer to me. As you might imagine, that’s a little long to fit on the end of my display name in Zoom.

There is no clear-cut solution here. A common suggestion is stating pronouns if comfortable, but PGPs are not yet ingrained enough in our culture for people to state them unprompted. Any proposed solution to this balancing act of a problem will put some portion of the trans and non-binary community in uncomfortable situations. So while we might mandate PGPs with the best intentions towards our trans and non-binary friends, we need to remember that sharing preferred gender pronouns is not an unequivocal good. In our Harvard introductions, Google forms, and Zoom names, sometimes discretion is best.

Christina M. Xiao ’24 is a Crimson Editorial comper in Mather House.

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