Trans-Writing: Pronouns and Gendered Language

So much of what makes something good representation for transgender people revolves around language. The wrong words can cause a reader to cringe and distrust the author, while the correct words can make the reader feel at ease and affirmed. A lack of consideration when it comes to phrasing will shove the reader out of the pages, leaving their connections to the characters and the story broken. Although this is a general rule for writing as a whole, you can apply this to gendered language specifically: if you don’t think about it, your biases will come through. This post is to help you consider the ways that those underlying transphobic beliefs might come through if you haven’t thought about it. [Note: the long-term solution is not just to nitpick your writing, but to re-evaluate your prejudices.] Keep in mind, internalized transphobia exists, so even if you’re a trans person, you should still consider what I’m going to say.

Pronouns are the most well-known part of this topic, and if you consider your options, you can write trans characters with ease. Other than the binary he/him and she/her pronouns, there are a number of gender neutral pronouns available for your characters. You likely know about they/them, which has been targeted as being not proper grammar for some time now. This post isn’t about defending the validity of the singular they/them, and I have no intention of making this a debate. If you would like to learn about they/them yourself, I encourage you to check out this article on Dictionary.com. I think many people who are not educated on the topic may think that they/them is the only option, however–ze/zir, xe/xem, and e/em are just a few of many alternatives. If you want to learn more about how to use them grammatically, the University of Wisconsin’s LGBT Resource Center has a brief guide here. There are also plenty of people who identify with a handful of pronouns (you may see “she/they” or some variant on their Twitter profile, for instance). People who feel comfortable with multiple pronouns generally fall into one of three categories: 1) they don’t care which one of the listed pronouns a person uses at any given point in time, 2) they feel comfortable with the listed pronouns so long as the speaker changes up which one they use, or 3) they prefer one pronoun or another at certain times and may use tools like jewelry to indicate which one is better on a given day. There are plenty of options, so don’t assume that your character has to use they/them as a pronoun just because they identify outside of or somewhere in between the gender binary.

Now that you have a decent understanding of some of the options in the real world today, let’s move onto my personal favorite topic: fantasy and sci-fi alternatives. For all of the conlangers out there, don’t feel like you have to restrict yourself to just having a predominant he/she pronoun system like in English. Some languages, like Turkish for instance, use locational, non-gendered pronouns for both people and objects–saying “this one,” “that one,” and “that one far away” as a replacement for he/she/they/it. Researching how other (particularly non-Indo-European) languages refer to people can open you up to a whole smattering of possibilities. This particularly comes up in fantasy and sci-fi when there are other species, because it would not make sense for them to perceive gender the same way we do. Much of our own gendered concepts are based in early Greco-Roman and later white-supremacist ideals and strict views of biological sex that were forced on people across the world through imperialism. Since these different worlds we all dream up wouldn’t have the same history, they also wouldn’t have the same views on gender. You can get creative, too: I have a character who is a shapeshifter who takes on some semblance of the personality of the people they mimic. When they take the form of a person with a specific gender, their own gender melds with that person’s, meaning they change their pronouns to fit their form. When you really start thinking about it, the possibilities are endless and really fun to write!

Gendered language goes beyond pronouns, however. While English technically doesn’t have a gendered system for nouns and adjectives like most romance languages, many words are inherently gendered nonetheless. Some are obvious: dude, girl, businessman, Mr./Ms., etc. Some are less obvious: pretty, handsome, callous, bulky, beefy, etc. All of these are based on a gender binary system, but for words like “petty” and “bossy,” a lot of gendered language is rooted in sexism. This goes hand in hand with the latent assumption regarding people’s jobs that–for instance–a doctor is a man and a nurse is a woman. The harm that comes from gendered language is clear for cis women, but it can also hurt trans people as well. For example, an acquaintance of mine (let’s call her Susie) once told me about how a person we both knew (let’s call him Tim) had been insulting me in private to her. Susie listed off the things that Tim had said about me and included that I was “callous,” though when asked about it later, she admitted that she had added that word in because it seemed like something Tim would have said. “Callous” is a word that is almost never used in reference to men. Of course, Tim was being an ass, but none of the things he had a problem with concerning me at all indicated him to be transphobic. I was therefore not surprised when I found out later that Susie was transphobic, herself. She may not have realized the problem with what she had said at the time, but it made me question how well I was passing for weeks. When you’re describing a person (whether they be cis or trans), ask yourself: Would I use this word for a cis woman? Would I use this word for a cis man? Why or why not? If you’re still not sure, google it and make sure to get bias readers. It can take practice and time, but once you get it, it’s easy.

With both pronouns and other kinds of gendered language, it can be difficult to get used to consciously thinking about at first, but it’s incredibly important both for writing and for talking to people in general, so it’s worth it. Creative use of pronouns can be a simple way to set the scene for your speculative fiction while also respectfully treating your trans and nonbinary characters. There are online resources like My Pronouns to help you get used to using certain pronouns. One final note: If you’re still having problems after about a year or so of trying to use them, you should reconsider why you’re having such a mental block with them.

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