Who Gives A Crap About Bruce Jenner's Pronouns?

04/30/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

As a member of the fractional minority of humans who has ever been excited about diagramming sentences or parts of speech -- a smaller percentage, I would wager, than transgender people -- I have been excited to explain repeatedly over the last few days what a pronoun is.

Usually, I have to corner non-trans people to get them to talk about pronouns. It's decidedly not considered the sexy part about trans experience. When I'm ready to talk about genital surgeries (and even when I have said quite clearly that I'm not interested in discussing them) people hang on my every graphic word. As I talk, they ask increasingly detailed questions and pry into my sex life in remarkably unsubtle ways, attempting to determine whether I personally own or have direct experience of, these after-market parts of the body in real life.

When I want to talk parts of speech, it's like I've offered to show my collection of bus transfers. "It's those words that stand in for proper names or nouns -- like he, she, it and they," I explain, with the fervor of a proslytizer in my eyes, while people edge away from me and fake important phone calls. "We say, 'Zev went to the store and he bought milk,' or 'Ignacio bought milk the last time they were at the store,' or 'Hanne is allergic to dairy products, so she never buys milk.' In all of those sentences, there's a pronoun: a word that refers to the main subject so that you don't have to keep saying their name."

Then I say: "We never say 'it' for people unless they specifically request that -- it's dehumanizing and very not cool. If you don't know what pronoun to use for someone, you can always either ask or say 'they'!" (If we're online, I refer them to this genius cartoon from Robot Hugs.)

Why am I continuing to give this little speech even when people would clearly rather have root canal than a little grammar talking-to? It's important. Pronoun use for trans people has been used as a cudgel to bully and wound trans people. If someone really wants to show how very much they "don't believe in" trans folks (clap your hands, honey) they will take repeated opportunities to use the incorrect pronoun, different from the pronoun someone has already indicated they use.

Conversely, one of the most welcoming (or triumphant!) things in my young life was being referred to by the right words; called the right name. It's even a new-ish fashion in progressive circles to give your pronouns when you introduce yourself, or write them in your nametag. I love how much agency this gives to trans and non-binary people to say it once and enforce thereafter.

(Though I always roll my eyes at the non-trans, binary-identified people who say "you can use any pronoun for me, I don't care!" I understand that you're trying to be supportive, but that's not a good method -- it just cheapens the importance of pronouns for people to whom they are crucial. Focus on getting other people's pronouns right instead, please.)

So part of why I am always riding my pronoun hobbyhorse is that talking about people correctly makes them feel both more well and more welcomed. But the other part is that a person's ability to use the right pronouns for someone is an instant barometer of whether they have even the tiniest amount of trans knowledge, even the smallest care to give about being respectful and appropriate. A person who knows less than nothing about trans issues can do this thing right upon five seconds instruction, and learn from there.

Which brings us (inexorably, this week) back to Bruce Jenner. Like every major media circus that relates to LGBTQ and especially to trans people, it's profoundly mixed -- yay for some respectful exposure, boo for focusing again on a wealthy white person to the exclusion of some horrifying truths about the experiences of trans people of colour, especially trans women. Yay for continuing to produce more humans who know that trans is a thing at all, boo for perpetuating some profoundly binary myths about how gender works. It's a mixed grill, and as with all such things we each eat a combination of what we're familiar with and what tastes good to us, not necessarily what we should be eating.

What Bruce Jenner has not given us, however, is an updated protocol with which to refer to him. I assume he's saving this big reveal for a high-ratings episode of his own reality show, in which he and his family receive a share of the advertising dollars that such fodder as the new name of The Olympian Almost Formerly Known As Bruce Jenner will surely bring. Let's be honest: if I could have made money of my transition process, as opposed to just paying and paying and paying, you bet I would have. But it leaves some of us -- the more vulnerable of us -- in a bit of a pickle.

See, usually after something like the big Bruce Jenner special, I would be learning about everyone around me and how they feel about trans people. If someone was using the correct new pronouns, or even trying to, I would have a sense of -- at the bare minimum -- whether they believed in my right to exist or not. In Bruce's case, I'm left with no useful way to take the temperature of my fellow humans. Now for me that's fine -- everyone and their Grandma already knows I'm trans, or they easily could if they knew how to operate the Google.

For people who may be more thinking about disclosing (letting someone know their trans history), or moving toward coming out (beginning to understand themselves as trans), this is very valuable information. In the same way that rape jokes speak volumes to women about who they could trust if they were attacked, derisive refusal to use a stated new pronoun tells trans people (or newbie proto-trans people) who we can trust with information about our bodies and our identities. And for some folks, who are fighting to have their own identities -- and the pronouns that go with them -- respected, an unchanged Bruce Jenner is unfortunately being used as yet anther excuse for the abovementioned bad behaviors of mispronouning and its evil twin, dead naming (calling a trans person by their former name, especially after they've given you their real name).

With violence against trans people peaking right along with the media coverage, knowing who we can trust is more important than ever. Is it important which pronouns Bruce Jenner chooses to use, now or ever? No. But should we give a crap about getting them right, and keeping them right even if his - or anyone's - change in time? Absolutely. It's one more way to support wellness for all trans people, everywhere.