Transcending Flesh: Pronouns and Others

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 #7: Pronouns and Others

You're in a coffee shop mentally narrating your surroundings one day and want to note that the customer in front of you smiled when you came into the shop. How do you pronoun at this situation?

You might try to work around pronouns by using nouns and adjectives. "The customer at the front of the line smiled" or "The tall redhead smiled" or "An apparition in what appeared to be chainmail armor smiled" are all apt descriptions of the person. Or you might default to a neutral "they/them" pronoun set: "They smiled". As a third option, you might look to their gender presentation and make a tentative guess at pronouns from the stranger's appearance--with the understand that your guess may be wrong.

Gender is a cultural construct and thus both gender and gender presentation vary across societies. Gender presentation can include how we wear our hair (lengths and styles are often used to present gender) or our bodies (for example, whether breasts are bound or presented with emphasis). Gender presentation can include what decorations we place on our bodies: hats, tattoos, piercings, jewelry, and clothing. Clothing in particular can be gendered through color, cut, material, and a thousand other indicators.

It is important to understand that gender presentation is not gender. A person wearing a pink dress and possessing a rocking rack, unicorn tattoos, and a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle may be a man. A person wearing blue coveralls and presenting a Brian Blessed beard, a skull tattoo, and a shaved head may be a woman. Gender presentation is not gender, which is why it's increasingly understood to be most polite to ask which gender and pronouns one should use for a person (and to normalize the conveyance of pronouns through worn items like name-tags which include pronoun information).

In the absence of name-tags and an ability to ask (perhaps because you and this stranger are fleeing an alien invasion together and you don't have time or breath to stop and talk), how do you pronoun the person in your head? If you don't apply neutral pronouns to them, then you probably tentatively pronoun them by looking at their gender presentation and hoping their pronouns "match". You make a guess based on the information you have available, and go with that guess until you receive new information to the contrary.

This is important because there will be cases where a first-person narrator or limited third-person narrator will interact with a person whose pronouns they do not know. In those cases, it may not make sense for the narrative voice to know that the trans person in front of them goes by "xie/xer" instead of the "she/her" that the narrator might assume from their gender presentation. This can lead to "accidental misgendering" in your narrative where a character does not know the other person's pronouns.

Accidental misgendering can happen in good faith and doesn't make the narrator a "bad person". It can harm trans readers who have triggers around misgendering, so do warn for it in the content notes for the material, but it is important to note that even common triggers are not necessarily "bad" topics about which you cannot write. I would just urge that you write with care around this particular topic!

Consider why you're writing a scene in which a narrator misgenders a character. Is this necessary to your story? Can you find another way to frame the scene? Can the character in question correct the narrator quickly? Can they convey their appropriate pronouns in their introduction, so that correct pronouns are used throughout? If the narrator doesn't speak with them and instead observes them from afar, can the narrator overhear their pronouns, or be already aware of them because a friend has told them or (in the case of a spy thriller!) they know of the person from publicly-available research they've previously done?

I must strongly stress that trans people's genders and pronouns should not be framed as a "plot twist" or a "surprise". It is okay for a narrator to not know someone's pronouns, and for those pronouns to come out later when the character feels safe making them known to the narrator, but the story should work equally well if those pronouns had been known by the reader from the beginning. Trans people are not plot twists.

~Pronouns and Magitech~

How do pronouns play into a fictional setting where people can have "mix-and-match" bodies that look however they want? Something you will need to consider as the author is how gender presentation works in a society where people can change their bodies easily. Do people still assume that visible breasts on a chest means "she/her"? Would that really be a sensible thing to assume? We're trying to get away from assuming that now, and we don't even have magitech that allows people to put on and take off breasts at a whim.

Maybe your society employs pronoun name-tags so that people don't have to guess when they meet strangers. Maybe everyone has high-tech glasses and earpieces that take in the faces of those around the user and feed back important information into the user's ear. ("Kelpyr Corcane. Star Merchant, Second Class. Suspected Pirate, though never proven. Nee/ner pronouns.") Maybe society has normalized stating pronouns upon introduction. ("Princess Thea Starguide, she of Colluscent, delighted to meet you.")

Authors should understand that when they show characters interacting, they are also showing us the societal expectations of their setting.

Example A: Assuming Pronouns From Appearance

Let us consider James meeting a stranger for the first time: James smiled as Jared approached him with a beautiful woman on his arm, her grin dazzling even at this distance.

Here we see James assume the gender of this stranger. What is he basing that assumption on? Unless it is made clear that she has signaled her gender in some way (perhaps by wearing pronouns on a tag, or by indicating gender through a socially-known marker like a special accessory) then we assume James is using bodily appearance to guide him. If James is representative of his culture, then the world-building has now established that--despite the magitech ability to radically alter bodies at will!--there is still enough adherence to a bodily type such that James feels it's safe to guess that people with that type use "she/her" pronouns.

This world-building undermines the entire magitech premise! We already understand, in our society, that it is impossible to accurately guess gender from body configuration. This will only be more understood in a society wherein people can change their body configuration at a whim in order to test-drive a penis or a shiny new pair of breasts. In a world where everyone can experiment with body shape to their heart's content, it doesn't make sense to guess gender from body configuration. You might as well guess gender based on hair color, as you'll have equally poor odds of success!

Example B: Using Neutral Pronouns Until Informed Otherwise

Now let's try another approach: James smiled as Jared approached with a beautiful stranger on his arm, their grin dazzling even at this distance.

In this version of events, James is careful not to gender the stranger. He uses neutral "they/them" pronouns until he learns the right ones, either through signaling from Jared ("James, this is Melody. She is my accountant and an excellent flamenco dancer."), or by asking outright upon introduction ("James Carlisle, he/him, professional panda-wrangler. You are?").

By normalizing a direct offer-and-ask of pronouns, we see a culture wherein it is widely understood that gender presentation is not the same thing as gender. Without saying a word about magitech, the author has reinforced that this society is different from ours in that bodily appearances are not considered to be static indicators of gender. The directness of the ask also implies that James will accept whatever answer is given, indicating a culture where trans people are safe giving their pronouns to strangers.

Now let's talk about some pronoun corner-cases you may have to grapple with as an author.

~Deliberate Misgendering~

I spoke above about "accidental misgendering" and how it can happen in good faith. When a character is corrected, they should accept the correction and use the appropriate pronouns from there onward.

"Deliberate misgendering" is when a person knows the correct pronouns to use but deliberately uses wrong pronouns anyway because they don't accept the person's gender. Deliberate misgendering is an act of violence! It is okay to have violent characters in your fiction, but the author must recognize they are violent.

For example, if you have a character who is a man who uses "he/him" pronouns, and he has told his family that but they continue to call him "she/her", then that family is not loving. They are engaging in abuse against this character by trying to assert their will over him in an attempt to change his gender.

I would strongly recommend not including deliberate misgendering in your work if you are a cis author. It can be misused as "easy" violence against trans characters, and can be wielded in ways which may hurt the reader. Consider developing a villain who is villainous for reasons other than bigotry.

~Pronoun Shifts~

Some characters (such as genderfuid characters who experience gender shifts over time) have pronouns which change over the course of the narrative. Let us consider Jordan, who is sometimes "he/him" and sometimes "she/her".

One way to handle this is for the narrator to ask Jordan how they should refer to Jordan when they do not know Jordan's current gender. Jordan may ask that the narrator use a neutral "they/them" for times when the narrator isn't sure of Jordan's gender. ("I don't know where Jordan is. Can you reach them on their cellphone at all?")

Another option might be that Jordan prefers people stick with a pronoun set until they're directly informed of a change. In that case, the narrator would use Jordan's last known pronouns when discussing Jordan with others. ("I spoke with Jordon yesterday and he said he was angry with Matt, so I expect he still is." The last "he" in that sentence assumes that Jordan is still a "he" until told otherwise.)

Asking how to respectfully pronoun a person isn't hard or rude. It is perfectly okay to write a scene wherein the narrator asks Jordan how to use pronouns! Asking about pronouns should be normalized, and no different from scenes in which narrators ask about names, nicknames, name meanings, and so forth.

~Pronouns in Flashbacks~

What about cases where the person's pronoun doesn't shift regularly, but has changed in the time since the narrative voice saw them last? Once again, asking is the best choice here. ("Laen, when I tell stories about our childhood should I use your pronouns, or do you prefer me to use the ones we used at the time?")

In general, people should use the current correct pronouns for any and all stories about a person, whether or not those stories occurred in the past when the person was going by different pronouns. The reason for this is that many trans people feel their childhood pronouns were wrong all along. Some bigoted cis people persist in using those wrong pronouns as a means of asserting power in an attempt to define a trans person's gender and childhood against their wishes.

Having said all that, please note that trans people are not a monolith and some trans people do use "old" pronouns and "old" genders when recounting stories of their past. ("When I was a little girl...") Be aware that there are multiple ways for trans people to tell our stories. It is always best to ask the individual person what pronouns you should use for them when talking about their past.

"That's all well and good," I hear you say, "but I'm writing fictional trans characters. Whatever answer they give me when I 'ask' is an answer I came up with as their creator. So what should I do?" My answer is that if you are a cis author, do not change pronouns for trans characters when telling a story of their past. That switch can create the impression that you think trans people "change" gender when they transition, or that trans people who don't transition aren't allowed their correct pronouns. If Brian is "Brian" and "he/him" in the present day narrative, then he should be "Brian" and "he/him" in flashbacks as well.


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