Transcending Flesh: Pronouns and Self

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #6: Pronouns and Self

~Static Pronouns~

Many people, whether trans or cis, have one set of pronouns which are the correct set for them at all times. (There are exceptions to this which I will discuss later in this section.) When those pronouns are known to the narrative voice, they should be used to refer to the person regardless of the configuration of their body.

We understand this when we talk about cis characters; most people don't stop using "he/him" for a man after an industrial accident removes his penis, nor do most people stop using "she/her" for a woman after she has a mastectomy to remove cancerous breast tissue. Yet we often forget this guideline when speaking about trans people, or when writing scenes which involve extensive body modification. As a general rule, in a setting with body modification, a character's pronouns should not switch simply because their body has been altered. Here follows some examples which I have seen and which authors should avoid.

Example A: Using Incorrect Pronouns Until Body Modification Occurs

Jos knew deep inside that she was a man. She just needed to get permission from the Interplanetary BodyMod Committee for the penile-implant surgery in order to make it official.

With the caveat that pronouns do not correlate to gender and that a man can absolutely use "she/her" pronouns, please understand that this reads less like a case where a man uses "she/her" pronouns and more like a case where the author isn't willing to affirm Jos' gender until after body modification taken place. This would be particularly obvious if the narrative changes to "he/him" pronouns after Jos receives body modification.

Framings which imply that people aren't allowed access to their correct pronouns until after medical transition are hostile to trans audiences. Pronouns are not linked to body configuration and we shouldn't need to undergo medical transition in order to convince people to use the appropriate pronouns to refer to us. Furthermore, the extent of medical transition which we have undergone and what state our genitals are in is no one's business but our own!

If Jos is a man who uses "he/him" pronouns for himself, then a first-person narrative or limited third-person narrative from Jos' point of view should reflect that at all times and not wait until after body modification to use them. The only exception to this rule with which I would be comfortable would be a narrative written by a trans person, where grappling with pronouns was part of their journey. But for a cis author writing a character who simply hasn't had body modification, I want to see the correct pronouns used at all times.

Example B: Using Incorrect Pronouns When Body Modification Occurs

Jael shuddered as the spell took hold. He hated the feeling of breasts growing on his--no, HER--frame.

This framing implies that gender and/or pronouns change when a body changes. This is hostile to trans people for the same reason Example A was: it hinges our genders and pronouns upon body modification which we may or may not have undergone. (Or may not want to undergo! Or simply may not want to disclose to strangers in order to have our pronouns respected!)

Example B adds an extra layer of problems by implying that our gender and/or pronouns can be changed against our will if someone inflicts body modification onto us. While that may seem like an impossible or unlikely scenario confined to the realm of fiction, the reality is that trans people have often historically been forced to submit to body modification against their will. Furthermore, confining trans people to an unwanted body configuration in an attempt to force them to be a certain gender is how gatekeeping has been used to prevent trans people from accessing medical transition. "If you keep your breasts, you'll accept that you are a girl" is the mundane equivalent of this fantastical situation wherein Jael has breasts forced on him and accepts that he must use "she/her" pronouns now even in the privacy of his own mind!

If Jael is a man who uses "he/him" pronouns for himself, then a first-person narrative or limited third-person narrative from Jael's point of view should reflect that at all times, and should not change pronouns just because a body modification has occurred. Once again, I might be comfortable with an exception where the narrative was written by a trans person grappling with pronouns as part of their journey, but cis authors should use correct pronouns at all times and avoid entrenching the idea that forcible body modification (or enforced body stasis) can "change" a person's gender.

~Multiple or Fluid Pronouns~

Earlier, I stated that many people have one set of pronouns which are correct for them at all times, but that there are a few exceptions to this. Some people (cis or trans) are comfortable with any pronouns being applied to them, or have multiple pronoun sets which they use. Some people do not have any pronoun set which is appropriate to use for that person. And some people have pronouns which change over time.

"Genderfluid" people experience gender shifts over time. The time period over which their gender shifts can cover years, months, weeks, days, or hours, depending on the individual in question. Some genderfluid people use the same pronouns all the time. They might use a neutral pronoun (such as "they/them"), a neopronoun (such as "xie/xer"), or a pronoun they are already accustomed to (such as "she/her") which they maintain regardless of their gender shifts. (Note there is no "wrong" pronoun for a person to use.) Relevant to this writing discussion, some (though not all!) genderfluid people use different pronouns to mark their gender shifts, such as "he/him" on boy-days and "she/her" on girl-days.

In a setting with BodyMod magitech, some genderfluid people might choose to change their body when their gender shifts. Think of a body like clothing: some genderfluid people dress the same regardless of their gender that day, while other genderfluid people may choose to dress differently depending on their current gender. If your setting includes an easy penis-growth spell that takes five minutes to cast, some genderfluid people might make that spell part of their morning routine as they shower and dress and prepare to face the day.

For characters who are (a) genderfluid, (b) who change pronouns when their gender shifts, and (c) who change bodies when their gender shifts, then in those very specific cases it would be appropriate to write those characters with "new" pronouns when their body changes. But it is important that the author understand that their pronouns and gender didn't change because their body changed; their gender shifted and then the character changed their body and pronouns to "match" their shifting gender.

In other words:

Cause: Body changed.
Effect 1: Gender is now a boy.
Effect 2: Pronouns are now he/him.

Cause: Gender is now a boy.
Effect 1: Pronouns are now he/him.
Effect 2: Body changed.

Once again, I will caveat that the advice contained herein is meant as guidelines for cis authors. A trans author might well choose to explore a genderfluid character who doesn't have control over their body-changes and feels their gender shift in response to those uncontrollable changes. Such a character would need to be written with immense care, as it would be very easy to imply wrong things about how gender works. I would recommend that cis authors not attempt such a character.

~New Pronouns~

In writing this section, a reader asked: Can a character choose to change pronouns during the story? Can they realize during the story that their gender is different from what they thought?

Yes! Absolutely, it is fine for a character to decide that their gender is different from what they thought it was, and/or that they would like to try a different pronoun set for themselves. Not everyone knows what gender they are from birth, and exploring and questioning that is a great idea--especially in a setting with BodyMod magitech where they can explore not only their inner identity but their outer self-image as well.

There is not even necessarily anything wrong with a character deciding, "You know what? I like this penis, I think I'll keep it and use 'he/him' pronouns from now on." The important thing is to ensure this isn't the only trans portrayal we see in your BodyMod society. There will and should be other people who do not base their gender and pronouns on whatever their current body configuration is at that given moment.

~"Genderless" Binary-Body Societies~

If you've read this far, I hope you accept there will be a variety of pronouns used among your characters, and that those pronouns will for the most part not change when body modifications occur. If you can take my word for that, you can skip this section entirely. Otherwise, we're going to talk about Charlotte.

Charlotte wants a world where body modifications change pronouns automatically, such that anyone with a vagina uses "she/her" and anyone with a penis uses "he/him". She wants this in part because it's easier to write, but also because this is how a lot of cis people think pronouns work: they change what pronouns they use for a trans person when that trans person transitions, so they associate body modification with the pronoun change in the wrong direction. (The pronouns didn't change because the body changed; the body and pronouns changed because the gender wasn't what society had assigned.)

The other reason Charlotte is hostile to the idea of consistent gender and pronouns is because she doesn't trust her readers. She wants to give Robert breasts and a vagina through a wacky medical mishap and use "she/her" pronouns for Robert, because if she keeps calling him "he/him" then the reader might forget his genital configuration. As a writer, avoid this! Very few good stories have revolved around the reader needing to be constantly aware of what genitals are in the protagonist's pants.

Charlotte has heard of the concept that "genitals aren't gender", but she really wants her fictional culture to have a strict "genitals are pronouns" policy wherein all vagina-owners use "she/her" and all penis-havers use "he/him". In an attempt to justify this, she'll call her society "genderless" and insist that pronouns don't indicate gender, just genitals. She has decided that gender is a squishy subjective "feeling" but that genitals are "objective" and therefore a better thing to base pronouns upon.

For the record, there are agender people who don't have a gender. Very few of them, in my experience, are fine with being told that their pronouns must correlate directly to their genitals, or that they should placidly accept new pronouns if their genitals are altered against their will. Agender people are no less deserving or desirous of bodily privacy than gendered people; why should it be anyone's business that Robert has a vagina now because someone spiked his morning coffee with a body modification potion?

When genitals determine pronouns, a pronoun change because of a genital change is the same as walking into a room and declaring "hey, everyone, I have a vagina now!" Why would society normalize that? To what benefit is it that everyone change pronouns from the ones Robert is accustomed to and prefers (because he's still a man since the BodyMod magitech didn't change his inherent gender!) just to be "accurate" in indicating that he has a vagina which is no one's business and no one cares about?

Fictional societies which map pronouns to genitals aren't "genderless"; they're a cis fantasy which is hostile to trans people. "What if trans people just accepted the pronouns we gave them at birth based on their genitals and stopped being so difficult?" is the question posed, but the reality is that humans do not work that way. Robert is not going to accept and internalize "she/her" pronouns for himself just because the BodyTron5000 malfunctioned, even if he is accustomed to pronouns based on sexual characteristics. His body is now, as far as he is concerned, wrong and he will remain a man in his mental narration as he struggles to overcome this plot obstacle and change his body back to a form which fits his self-image.

Many cis people do not recognize they have a gender in addition to their genitals because our society has attempted to conflate the two. But if you take a man's penis away, or remove a woman's vagina, their gender does not automatically change--not in society's eyes, and generally speaking not in their own. BodyMod magitech will not result in a "genderless" society where people have genitals and no gender; gender is a social and cultural construct which intertwines with our self-image and which can exist regardless of our body configuration at any given moment. If anything, magitech would help clarify that gender isn't genitals by giving cis people a chance to explore different body configurations while realizing all the ways in which their gender identity doesn't shift in perfect adherence to the whims of the BodyTron5000.

A final note: A genderless-by-default society is fine for a cis person to write, but it is more likely that such a society would give a singular pronoun to everyone (until they asked for a different one) rather than trying to map a binary pronoun system onto everyone via primary sexual characteristics. The simplest reason for this is that human bodies cannot be easily bucketed into one of two types. There is not a human body binary, especially in a society with BodyMod magitech freely available.


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