Pronouns and Praxis
Salem DSA moves members from “pronoun politeness” to solidarity across genders
I’m a queer, nonbinary person. The word nonbinary is a synthesis that works for me, for now, to resolve the contradiction between my experience of gender and the gender I was assigned at birth. I wish I had a more affirmative word, something to contribute to the vocabulary of a future society that includes me, but all I have right now is the negation of a gender binary. To cope, I often remind myself that revolution is at the soul of queerness.
I use they/them pronouns. I appreciate when someone asks me my pronouns, and when others introduce themselves using their pronouns. But simply using my pronouns correctly doesn’t necessarily make someone my comrade—for liberals who understand enough to gender me properly, it seems that respecting pronouns is close to the final frontier in their concept of queer liberation. And while my own concept of queer liberation will always be evolving through lived experience, it sometimes seems that comrades I trust deeply are worried that they will harm me by articulating a position or question about gender. That’s why I’ve been working with comrades across geographical and ideological lines to develop the conversation around moving from pronoun politeness to solidarity across genders. I hope this account is helpful for other new organizers like me: I wanted to transform the conversation about pronouns, but had to transform myself before I could stand with comrades to do that work together.
Approaching gender education simply as a non-cis person in the room
My first meeting with local DSA members was in November 2017, the early Pre-Organizing-Committee days of Salem DSA. I was brand new to politics outside liberalism. Almost a year later, meetings had started to run smoothly, we were making things happen in the community, and I had an informal leadership role in the not-yet-official chapter. In September 2018, I went to a Eugene DSA chapter meeting and co-facilitated a discussion on intersectionality and issues facing trans people. Then for the Salem meeting later that week, I changed the “Introductions” line on the agenda to “Introductions: Name and Pronouns.” Although I and others had given and asked for pronouns during introductions in the months prior to that meeting, this minor act of institutionalization felt like progress.
Because pronouns were getting more attention during introductions, there were a variety of reactions in addition to compliance. These usually ranged from ignoring the ask to nervous laughter. If anyone raised the question, “why are we doing this?” I would give a stumbling explanation of how my experience of gender was a radicalizing force in my life, and how using pronouns was a way of showing solidarity. Then the meeting would have to move on: I was usually facilitating, there was usually a lot to cover, and I usually wasn’t emotionally prepared to justify my existence.
Reflecting on those experiences helped me deal with that anxiety and consider comrades’ discomfort with pronouns in a different light. When I implicitly ask people to use my pronouns in the scenario of a quick roundtable series of introductions, what am I really asking for? Am I asking for an expression of surfacelevel liberal politeness, or an expression of deeply rooted comradely solidarity? Until queer feminist thinking becomes second nature for all comrades, to many, it probably seems I am asking for the former. I feel uncomfortable when I hear that nervous laughter, which I interpret in good faith as masking a fear of being ostracized for not knowing enough about gender and pronouns. But I also feel uncomfortable when asked to make or agree with a politicized statement if I don’t understand the politics behind the ask. Because pronoun use is often wielded in service of shallow liberal politics, I expect that leaving behind this assumption may be one of the first steps a comrade takes in developing a socialist politics of queer liberation.
Approaching gender education with structure and intent
Salem DSA publishes a quarterly newsletter with articles in Spanish and English written by locals about local and national issues. In the January 2019 issue, I wrote an article addressing how gendered oppression and In the January 2019 issue, I wrote an article addressing how gendered oppression intersects with other struggles. I argued that using pronouns can create more space for examining the contradiction between, for example, the socially constructed gender binary and the existence of trans and nonbinary people. This idea drove me to do more research beyond my personal experience of gender. I did this research to prepare to facilitate a local discussion on solidarity across genders, as well as to write this article you are now reading.
My expectation was that I’d get closer to some One True Take about gender, and be able to write a satisfying guide to teaching about pronouns. I wanted to invite a deeper discussion among comrades and normalize queer feminist thinking. But what this process showed me was that I could take the longest and most enlightening personal journey through selfexamination and literature review, and still fail as an organizer if I came back with only facts and figures to ask my comrades to memorize. Giving hurried, breathless tutorials on gender at the beginning of meetings with no room for discussion, and publishing that article in the newsletter, were both methods of positioning myself as the authority on gender. I needed to stop thinking of myself as the person in the room with the best opinions about gender, and cede my ground to make space for a mutual process of liberation from gendered oppression.
Following that insight, our socialist feminist working group is bringing this discussion out of the “I” space into the “We” space. We’re refining a plan to discuss solidarity across genders at our April general meeting. The major question we currently face is how to open a good-faith discussion where all our comrades can sit in the discomfort and vulnerability of not having all the answers about gender. It’s clear that many of our comrades are concerned about offending people with their lack of prior research, and many of us (myself included) still find it difficult to get past years of being told to be “polite.” We’ve been told not to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and therefore to expect that nobody should make us feel uncomfortable.
We plan to start this discussion by asking explicitly for suggestions about ground rules and seeking consensus on those rules, so as not to ignore the needs of comrades who feel gendered oppression acutely. We then plan to take a problem-posing approach to the discussion, starting with self-examination. For instance, we will ask: What makes you feel the most connected to your sense of gender? What do you think others expect of you because of your gender? Next, we want to build toward an analysis of gender as a social and historical construct. This broaches other questions: Do we need a predominant idea of gender that rewards or punishes people for their gender expression? How has colonialism impacted the expression of gender on this continent? To complement this approach, we are identifying brief text and video excerpts to help jumpstart the discussion. After we try this approach, we plan to publish an analysis of how these ideas worked out in practice (including that source list, which at time of writing is still very much in progress) to the DSA Discussion Forum. We hope to connect with other chapters and improve the activity for the next iteration. Wish us luck!