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Why I Don’t Have Pronouns In My Bio.

Written by Neil Levy

It’s now pretty standard for academics to put their pronouns in their bio – in email signatures, Twitter profiles, on Zoom and so on. There are two sorts of reasons to do this. The first is because you have a preference about your pronouns and there’s a reasonable chance that if you don’t express that preference, you won’t be called by your preferred pronouns. The second reason is the one that applies to people like me: we don’t really have a strong preference about our pronouns or don’t think there’s a significant chance that we’ll be referred to by a pronoun we don’t want, but we want to signal our allyship with trans and other gender non-conforming people.

As the above suggests, I do want to be an ally of gender non-conforming people. So why no pronouns? Perhaps I should put pronouns in my bio; perhaps the reasons I’m about to give are outweighed by reasons to signal support. But I’m uncomfortable with the kind of overt expression of a preference that putting pronouns in my bio would involve.

I am (let’s get this over with) a cis male. That is, my gender identity aligns with my birth sex. So – in the jargon – I’m writing this from a place of privilege. I don’t feel a need to change or distance myself from my perceived gender identity. But nor do I feel strongly identified with it. While no other pronoun fits me better – others fit me appreciably worse – I don’t really recognize myself in he/him. That’s essentially why I feel uncomfortable with proclaiming my pronouns: it seems to me to indicate a degree of identification I don’t feel. My pronouns are he/him only because other pronouns are worse, not because I’m especially comfortable with these ones.

Though I don’t usually find Louis Althusser’s work very useful in general, one Althusserian concept is helpful here: interpellation. We’re interpellated as subjects, in his terminology: that is, ideology (I’d prefer to talk about social meanings) construct us as people of a particular kind. Individuals in contemporary liberal societies are systematically different from people in different kinds and cultures: while social scientists have sometimes greatly exaggerated these differences, there can be little doubt they’re real (Joseph Henrich’s recent book on WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic – people provides evidence for how we WEIRD people differ from non-WEIRD people, as well as a somewhat speculative account of how we came to be this way). For one thing, we’re more individualist: we experience ourselves as sources of meaning and as responsible for what we make of our lives. I like Althusser’s terminology for how social forces construct us as culturally specific kinds of individuals because interpellation emphasises how this is experienced for me: as a kind of imposition. My gender identity as a cis male is imposed on me, and it feels inauthentic to proclaim it as me.

Ironically, my experience of interpellation might itself reflect how I am interpellated. Us WEIRD people are individualists, and we’re individualists because social forces make us this kind of being. If I weren’t interpellated as an individualist, I probably wouldn’t feel uncomfortable at being interpellated as the kind of subject I am. Interpellation as an individualist is a kind of ironic interpellation: it’s inherently unstable insofar as it leaves the interpellation person unhappy with their interpellation on the grounds that it is interpellation. Nevertheless, my discomfort is real.

My discomfort is surely very much smaller than that of gender non-conforming people, and in a world that is very unfriendly to them – sometimes murderously so – the reason it gives me may be entirely outweighed by reasons to signal support Perhaps I should go ahead and put my pronouns in my bio. But I won’t feel comfortable doing it.

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10 Comment on this post

  1. I far prefer Dewey’s account of this process in Human Nature and Conduct to that of Althusser. For one thing, it does not invent special terminology when ordinary English (or German or whatever) is adequate. All behavior is surrounded by customs and institutions that shape our habits. Good enough for me. There is something to the author’s analysis, though. Individualists don’t like being coerced by newly invented norms into joining masses. That is surely what the ‘pronoun’ thingie is – coercion to conform.

    Perhaps I am more ‘interpellated’ than the author – or perhaps I am just biologically more typical. I live a life in society, and so my masculinity is inevitably shaped by the available social forms of masculinity. There is one of them that fits me well and thus I don’t question it much. Feels good. In my line(s) of work – as philosopher, psychologist, and educationist, it is unavoidable that I think about sexualities and identities. But after reflection, I am satisfied with my typical and unremarkable ordinariness.

    Like the author, I am pleased to offer support for gay and trans people. But I am not pleased to offer any support for illiberal coercion.

  2. There is a missing reason for including pronouns. The reason is to help create a space. In particular, since many people in the LGBTQ+ *want* to identify with pronouns and the practice is *not* common, one might be afraid to. However, the more people who voluntarily do so, the more common the practice becomes. And if the practices becomes very common, the less likely the member of the LGTBTW+ community who publicly uses and signals their pronouns winds up outing themselves and perhaps increasing the chances of harm.

    The general idea, then, is to create a cover for people to identify themselves in the way that they want while mitigating their worries with doing so.

    1. Liberal Californian Tomboy

      many people in the LGBTQ+ *want* to identify with pronouns

      From what I have seen, it’s specifically people in the TQ+ community who want to identify with pronouns, while the majority of LGB people prefer to avoid the fuss and continue just having people use the pronouns that are visibly appropriate to their sex.

      1. Thanks for the comment!
        Several things to say in response.
        -First, what you say may be the case. But that’s consistent with what I said; I, of course, do not think that TQ+ persons comprise the *majority* of the LGBTQ+ group. I only said that “many” persons do, and that a large number of people in a group may want to use their pronouns publicly is compatible with the claim that most members of that sane group do not want to.
        -I’m unsure what “a majority of LGWB people prefer”, as this is an empirical claim. And I have no evidence for any such claim. I’m trying to avoid making my case seem more plausible than it is by appealing to meaningless statistics.
        -It still seems that one can amend my original, explicit point: just that there is an un-mentioned reason to put pronouns in bios that the OP missed, namely that it seems likely to create and sustain a safe space (in the relevant) for *some* members of a particular group.

  3. Pronouns are part of a social movement and are nothing but a manifestation of a social movement, adhered to with much enthusiasm- you won’t need to wait for a formal sociological analysis- I have it from a prominent sociological theorist, to remain nameless, that pronouns like the gay rights movement and feminism is a social movement.
    Sometimes this is a good development- for the life of me, though harmless, pronouns are silly and useless.
    Like in cults, outsiders don’t get it.
    I don’t. There are a lot of problems to work on in the world.
    This is a distraction

  4. While I have great sympathy with the need to specify pronouns and the impulse to do so, the one thing that has always puzzled me is the emphasis on third-person pronouns. I have taken to saying that my preferrred pronouns are “we” and “you.” Talk about me if you must, but please always consider including me in the conversation.

  5. I had a similar experience. They started with pronouns in bio, on stickers etc. and I just did not feel happy with she/her. I don’t particularly like she/her for me. I don’t mind it, but I don’t feel it fits. I like they/them but at the time when the pronouns and stickers began to be normalized this was still felt as very odd, ungrammatical, etc. and I move in philosophy of religion and other circles where it is still seen as very odd.

    Indeed, were I to insist on they/them then a lot of credibility would be lost. I am still okay with she/her but my mind reels back/resists putting it in my bio. I don’t like the gender stickers at conferences. That by itself is an interesting phenomenological experience. After a while, it became normalized to show yourself an ally and I am not a gender-critical trans-exclusionary person, so the best thing I could come up with is “any pronouns fine” (I’ve often thought about it, I think even he/him would be okay, though I don’t identify with these anymore than with she/her. I think I just don’t feel a female or male gender identity). I feel extremely dysphoric when being called a “woman” so I think unlike you, I am not cis. I find the term “adult human female” and other such things very dysphoria-indusing (sometimes gender crit people will insist that actually my gender identity is exactly what they have namely something that is entirely reducible to biology. I disagree! I think I do feel some gender identity, but it is not one that fits male/female binary.) The fact that social practices have made me aware that I’m not cis is in itself interesting.

  6. I find this comment, and the earlier one fascinating. Gender is not biological but social. It is a category of social identity. But it has powerful biological roots. In this it is like sexual orientation. And the mechanisms of both gender non-conformity and homosexuality overlap – though the two are quite different and the overlap is hardly total.

    Every culture known to history has had both gender non-conforming and homosexual people. And all of these cultures have responded – in a great variety of ways. Just as there is not just one way of ‘being’ gay or lesbian, or gender non-conforming, there are several ways in just about all cultures of ‘being’ male or female. These ways, these ‘masculinities’ and ‘femininities,’ represent multiple interactions of biology and culture.

    Because sex is implicated in reproduction, and because gender is also sexual signaling, I do not see how we can avoid some generality of conventional binary gender identities. But because culture is generally binary in this regard, it does not have to be binary-centric. It can be binary-tropic — that is, exhibit a non-normative binary gender tendency, just as over the last two decades many parts of the world have moved toward a binary-tropic approach to sexual orientation.

    There are customary ways of exhibiting bi-gender or uni-gender identities. They should become much more recognized and accepted – and first, this will require that they be better understood in their biocultural complexity.

  7. Liberal Californian Tomboy

    I do want to be an ally of gender non-conforming people.

    Putting pronouns in your bio, emphasizing them, or asking others for theirs reinforces the idea that merely being a member of one’s sex isn’t enough to qualify as a man or woman, and that if they don’t conform to sexist stereotypes enough, they belong in the “they/them” or opposite-sex category. That’s not being an ally of people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, it’s being an ally to people who believe in sexist stereotypes.

    I spent my first twenty-odd years believing I wasn’t a real girl/woman and not identifying as one because I’m a tomboy aka “gender non-conforming.” If I’d been born 20 years later, I would’ve identified as a “he/him” and likely headed towards transitioning. Instead, with no other option, I eventually grasped that anything I do or feel is automatically something a girl/woman does or feels; not conforming to feminine stereotypes doesn’t mean I’m not a woman or that female pronouns don’t belong to me just as much as hyper-feminine girly types.

    1. Tomboy’s comment is really interesting. Being a tomboy is, almost by definition, an available “femininity.” Because of wide biological cultural variationi various masculinities and femininities get constructed, with available cultural models. John Wayne may be masculine, but being a John Wayne type is not the only way to be masculine. On university campuses, for example, having a penetrating mind is an available masculinity, and increasingly, an available femininity. Raquel Welsh, may she rest in peace, once said that “the mind is an erogenous zone.” The famous British cultural historian-philosopher Isaiah Berlin was reported to have been surprised to discover how, despite his crumpled overweight look, he was so sexually attractive to academic women. Our culture makes so many different masculinities and femininities available that most individuals, regardless of their biological substrate, can find a good match. T he same is true for unisex types. I think it was Sally Bowles in Isherwood’s Berlin stories who was one prominent model of unisex identity. New models will continuously be produced and modified to fit emergent needs.

      So Tomboy is right: trying to push individuals into they/them pronouns reinforces stereotypes. Tomboys are “real women”!

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