Pronouns a Right, Not a Preference

Noelle Hedges-Goettl, Contributing Writer

Here at Oberlin, we have this wonderful practice of introducing ourselves with not just our name but also our “PGPs” or “Preferred Gender Pronouns.” Usually, this takes the form of a simple statement. “Hello, Noelle, she/her/hers, nice to meet you.” But when holding initial introductions in a classroom, there is a large variety of ways to express what one wants to be called. Most people will say some variant on “Hello, my name is John Smith, and I prefer they/them/theirs.”

I, however, do not. I say, “I’m Noelle, I take she/her/hers.” Now for most people, the difference here is insignificant; what does it matter the precise language used so long as I wind up calling you the right thing? But it does matter. It matters because what I am called is not just a preference, and it does not indicate my gender.

To call something a preference is to say — if we take the literal definition — that I would rather have one than the other. For most people, calling their pronouns a preference isn’t accurate. When I say “I prefer the red shirt to the blue one,” what I’m saying is that if I got to pick, I’d have the red one, but the blue one is also OK. So if I were to say “I prefer she/her/hers,” what I’m stating is “If I get to choose, I would like to be called she/her/hers, but I would be okay with being called something else.” And that’s false.

My pronouns are not a preference. They are not something that I would rather have for dinner or a shade of nail polish I’d have more fun wearing. They are a statement of who I am and how I would expect to be called. I am not OK with being mis-pronouned; I will not be comfortable being called he/him/his, or ze/hir/hirs. It is not a preference. It is a statement. If you want to be respectful of me as a person, you will call me she/her/hers. It’s not a matter of what I would rather, it’s a matter of what is right. However, there are people who do not have strong ties to particular pronouns and may have a preference between a few that are acceptable; this is a correct use of this term.

On a related note, gender and pronouns do not necessarily have to line up. Someone can identify as a man and not use he/him/his, just as someone who uses he/him/his is not necessarily a man. This breaks down the second piece of the term: gender. See, pronouns are often an expression of one’s gender, but not always, and not always the way we think of them. Frequently, pronouns are not a matter of what is “right” but a matter of what is “least wrong.” I have a friend who talks about their pronouns this way, and it feels very different than my own experience, where she/her/hers is just right. However, just because I use she/her/hers does not mean that I am a girl, woman or female. I could still be any gender and be most comfortable with she/her/hers.

This is why we encourage people to list their pronouns instead of saying “female pronouns,” because there is nothing inherently female or feminine in the words “she/her/hers.” They are values we have ascribed to those words that determine their usage and associations. These pronouns are not the special sanctity of women or females.

When you ask someone for their preferred pronouns, you think you’re asking, “What would you like to be called?” What you’re really asking is, “Define yourself in three words, and I might deign to honor your request.”