You’ll get it one day

Respecting someone’s pronouns is the bare minimum, writes Nadia Bracegirdle.

He’s cis. He might even be straight. I didn’t meet him through a queer society, he’s not a friend of a trans friend, he’s not even from class; he’s extra-curricular. We’re at the pub and he uses the pronoun “they” when recounting something I’ve done – and my heart swells.

It’s an uncommon enough occurrence. Between my family, who after two years still don’t seem to be even trying; and my QUILTBAG friends, who always get it right – this is like a minor miracle. I can feel myself liking him just that little bit more, feel the growth of my affection and respect for him. He’s not even the only one! There are others from that group who sometimes get it right, or who correct themselves without me having to remind them. There are the ones who have said to me “I’m so sorry I sometimes stuff it up, I promise, I’ll get it someday!” And I believe them – I want to believe them – and console us both with the reminder that there are others who totally fail, who don’t even try. “You’re trying!” I tell them. “That’s great all by itself.”

I shouldn’t be saying it.

As a transgender individual, I have to constantly remind people – strangers and friends alike – that their assumptions are wrong. As a non-binary person, I remain always on edge, waiting for the next time I have to remind someone that “‘they’ is an accepted, grammatically-correct gender-neutral singular pronoun, you use it all the time without noticing!” (I shudder to think what people who use “xe” or “hir” or other “made-up” pronouns have to deal with.) I once had a panic attack because of an argument with someone who aggressively defended the use of “he-slash-she”. So of course, it seems like a gift and a wonder when someone uses the right pronoun. It is genuinely hopeful and comforting to me when someone catches themself halfway through a sentence to say “Sorry – them, right? Is that right?”, or when they tell me privately “I’m so sorry, I swear I’m trying.”

But the truth is, it’s sickening. It’s sickening that I should be congratulating these people, not even for succeeding, but simply for trying to succeed on something as simple as a pronoun. After months of knowing people who, from the very first, were told “I use ‘they’ pronouns,” it shouldn’t be a mere stutter-and-correction in a sentence that makes me grin my encouragement. Correct pronoun use is surely the lowest possible bar for trans allies. – the Bechdel Test of a trans person’s interactions – and it’s horrifying that I should congratulate my friends for it, and rarely question that congratulation, and that I do still feel such a swelling of happiness and pride at a mere pronoun. After all, who needs gender-neutral bathrooms, or access to proper medical treatment, or comments from strangers in clothing stores, or the masculine-skewed imbalance in accepted forms of “androgyny”, or the correction of other gendered language, or legal recognition, when I have friends who sometimes get it right?

We need to move beyond this paltry standard of trans allyship; but at the same time, when there are so few other victories in my life, to give up those small joys would be ruinous. It’s exhausting enough to endure the people who don’t get it right, let alone to stop savouring the ones who do. Surely – surely – my allies can do better.

For now, however, I’ll be keeping my small joys. But I’m also going to keep those cookies.