(Dude/Bro) Isn’t Funny: Let’s Talk About Pronouns

Okay, folks, I’m back. (Apparently.)

This isn’t actually what I thought would get me back out of my writing slump—the ICD stuff last fall took a lot out of me (and… stay tuned for the rest of that), but I have so many things I want to start talking about again. (Lecturing on actual musical subjects! Gender feels! Rocket League and found family!) I’m really excited to get back to publishing somewhat regularly, because shouting into the void the internet is part of how I keep my head in the game while we’re all stuck at home. Y’all are part of my community, and I’m incredibly thankful for it.

Recently, I finally decided to bite the bullet and publicly update my pronouns on Facebook. I’d been back and forth on it, considering I’m using the spring semester to take a couple sets for a test drive and see if everything fits more or less like it should, but I got bored, which is when I make most of my public-announcement decisions, and off to the social media printing press they went. I was spurred on by my frustration that Canvas went out of their way to add a pronouns field but limit your options to she/her, he/him, and they/them, which is problematic in ways we can talk about another time. (Maybe I’ll remember to back-link that post here once it’s published!) I couldn’t put my pronouns in as an actual option on Canvas, and I mentioned it on Facebook, along with what they were. The post was short and to the point, and a couple friends immediately came into my comments and inboxes to spread some love and make sure they knew the specifics of how I want to be referred to. Those early hours were exceptional.

And then someone came in with the dude/bro joke, and even though the intent wasn’t malicious, the ensuing fallout straight up ruined my evening.

Almost everyone who’s had the at times very uncomfortable experience of offering up new-to-them, nonstandard, or (in a cisnormative society) unexpected pronouns in a room full of cis people has heard some iteration of the dude/bro joke. In its most basic incarnation, it usually goes something like this: “My name is [name], and my pronouns are dude/bro.” The person in my comments understood it as a joke—which is exactly how it’s intended. However, like in many instances where we make fun of marginalized and minoritized people, the joke doesn’t come from a good faith argument.

The thing you have to understand is that a lot of the activism around pronouns, which has been around for a while but is in some places just starting to make its way into mainstream discourse, is about teaching people how pronouns function from an identity standpoint. Pronouns can be incredibly gender-affirming! They can function as a verbal reinforcement that someone else sees and acknowledges our identity. (That includes your identities, cis folks.) However—and here’s the important thing—pronouns do not equal gender. We cannot assume that all the people using she/her are women, or that all the people using he/him are men. We also cannot assume that all the people using they/them are nonbinary!

For some, pronouns can be a direct affirmation on their gender. For others, pronouns may be a commentary on some aspect(s) of their gender identity/ies or presentation—an additional piece of information that can tell us how someone’s performance of their gender might conform to or be at odds with traditional gender roles and presentation. Still others use pronouns for even more different and varied purposes, and all of these are important and individual. Treating pronouns as a monolith will get you about as far as treating trans people as a monolith. (Read: do not pass Go, do not collect $600.)

For some folks, the specificity of pronouns may not be something that serves them. Certain people (though not all in either of these categories) may choose the ambiguity of neopronouns, they/them, or any/all because of this. But in each of these understandings of pronouns, there’s one really important throughline: that a person’s pronouns are an intentional choice made about how they share their identity, and as such, they’re something we need to respect immensely. And that’s where the dude/bro joke stops being funny—because unless you have run into the, in my experience, incredibly rare queer person using those terms as pronouns as a direct commentary on transphobia and not-actually-gender-neutral language, you’re dealing with someone who’s decided this super important part of how we communicate our identities is worth shitting on.

At this point, I’d like to transcribe my response to the version of the joke that found its way into my comments on such a vulnerable day, because I think it’s my best assessment of the situation and a somewhat brief summary of how I approach this particular topic:

“uhhhhh is this an honest question? Because the only times I’ve ever seen dude/bro pop up are when people are being transphobic and hoping their audience finds it funny. It’s not a super appropriate thing to just ask for that kind of emotional labor when someone’s announcing their pronouns, because this is a super vulnerable moment. Rest assured I am not amused.

“But if I’m gonna put my queer theory hat on, since you’re already here and I’m already bummed about having to field this question in this particular space, the answer is that from a neopronouns perspective, it is something someone could absolutely choose to use as their pronoun set (though I’d probably look for a third indicator after “bro” to specify how the rest of those pronouns would be conjugated), but in current mainstream practice it is a transphobic dogwhistle that reduces our identities to a joke. In my experience, a lot of queer people I’ve come across who choose neopronouns also have some aesthetic, online, or other indicators of their queerness that would help as context clues to determine that they were probably very serious about being referred to this way. It’s not a foolproof method, but when I get a student who tries to pull this with me, my response is always something along the lines of ‘can you confirm for me that this is the pronoun set you’d like me to use?’

“It’s important to me that transphobia is kept out of my classroom, and as this is often used against gender-marginalized people, I wanted to make sure to touch base with you that this is truly the correct way to refer to you.’ The odds of finding an English-speaking neopronoun user who isn’t aware of this harmful trope are pretty damn low, so that’s the system I’m working within until I find something better.”

That, folks, is a 300-word answer to a flippant question that later got deleted, which would have erased the entirety of that labor if I hadn’t preserved it. I’d like to talk more about deletions in online forums at another date, since I’ve got more to say on that subject, but for now, I want to mention a few ways everyone here can foster more pronoun-friendly, trans-friendly environments through communication and community engagement:

  • If you’re cis, offer your pronouns freely and routinely. Adding in the “and my pronouns are [insert yours here]” to the end of your “my name is [name]” will feel a little odd at first—it took me several months to get used to it while I was still using she/her—but offering your own pronouns is a) an acknowledgment of their importance, b) an understanding that not everyone’s pronouns correspond to whatever gender we might clock them as, and c) a great way to create an environment where folks might be comfortable offering up their own pronouns. Please remember that for us, giving our pronouns can be daunting and sometimes dangerous; by offering yours instead of demanding ours, you’re indicating that you’re cognizant of the challenges we face and that you intend to be a force for good in our lives.
  • Seriously, put them most places you put your name. Your artist bio, your social media bios and/or display names, your concert programs, your email signatures—if your name lives there, it’s really great to put your pronouns there, too. Yes, if you’re cis, you might assume folks would get yours right without asking, but some of our pronouns don’t match the cisnormative view of how we present, so the goal here is to actually get people to stop assuming that they know a person’s gender and pronouns without actually using cues and communication provided to understand how we present our identities.
  • Don’t use they/them for people whose pronouns you know are not they/them. That is misgendering, and it is gross. Only use the pronouns people have presented for your use—and remember, for folks who may not be out in every situation or who have other extenuating circumstances affecting their pronoun use, what they tell you may not be what they use everywhere. (Especially if you’re an educator! Especially if your students are minors!) And that’s okay. They understand the risks in their lives best, not you. (Side note: if you do not know someone’s pronouns, using they/them is good.)
  • If you are an educator who may have contact with a student’s parents or guardians, make sure you ask what pronouns they’d like you to use in correspondence with those adults. Lots of trans and gender-nonconforming people face resistance, transphobia, and other forms of violence at home if their families are unsupportive or hostile. By taking this extra step, you’re ensuring you can keep your students as safe as possible in a way that leaves them in control.
  • Don’t mock neopronouns. For some folks, the pronouns we use every day just don’t work, and as a result, an amazing collection of neopronouns has evolved and continues to grow. Some neopronouns are related to other more typical pronouns (my favorite set, that I contemplate using for myself every once in awhile: ey/em/eir, derived from they/them/their), while others follow different rules or are literally descriptive of things we might find in nature or the world around us. (If you’re familiar with some of the Twitch drama last year, this is where that fits in, though an understanding of xenogenders will also help you immensely if you’re looking at that with an analytical eye.) Regardless of the words someone uses to describe themself, it’s important to remember those choices were made with care and intention, and it’s not our job to comment on who they are.
  • Remember that nonbinary people may still choose to use traditionally-gendered pronouns. I contemplated pronouns for months before beta-testing two different sets on the CBSS Discord server, and I still don’t know where I’ll settle. But unless you have a close, intimate relationship with someone and you know it’s okay to ask, don’t bug them about why they didn’t choose to add they/them (or whatever the case may be) at some point or another. Unless they’ve expressed they want to answer questions from curious people, don’t ask them to educate you. (If they do want to do that, ask away!)
  • Need some help with pronouns basics? I’ve got you covered: check out this tasty infographic.

And remember: if someone’s introducing new pronouns and you don’t know them very well, it’s best to let them remain in control of that conversation. Save the jokes for another time.

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