The phrase “preferred pronouns” comes with a lot of baggage that people don’t often take the time to unpack. Most people see two camps with this phrase – those who use it without thinking and those who think and then don’t use it – but I belong to a third camp. I think, and then I sometimes use it.
“Preferred pronouns” is often seen as a subtle trans-erasure phrase. It is used by those who say they are supportive but pull you into the corner to say things like “You were so pretty before you started to look like a man,” “Are you really sure you want to be a woman?” and “But I knew you first as [your dead name], so you have to let me keep calling you that.” These are the people who will introduce you as their son while using the “she” pronoun set against your wishes or introduce you as their daughter “who is going by [a masculine name] right now.” These are the people who give a lot of lip service to supporting the trans community but deny trans-focused violence and think we should be grateful that the latest murder victim on Law and Order was trans. They may think that they’re being supportive by saying “Rob’s preferred pronouns are ‘he,’” but a little piece of you dies inside every time you hear that, because they’re just your pronouns. You want to ask your cisfemale mother who never questioned her gender if she considers “she” to be her “preferred” pronouns or just her pronouns.
This leads straight into the second group of people, those who either feel the pain of the “you” from the previous paragraph or have listened to such a person explain that pain. When someone says, “Actually, my pronouns are ‘he/him,’” they are quick to correct anyone who calls that “preferred pronouns.” This is good! This is very good. I 100% agree with this group’s bravery in standing up for themselves and others to be sure nobody’s pronouns (or name, or trans status, or gender) is being erased by adding that sneaky little “preferred.”
The only issue I have with this group is one that is uncommon. When I say to one of these people, “My preferred pronouns are sa/sy,” they correct me. “No,” they say, “those are your pronouns. They’re not preferred pronouns.” Here’s the thing: These are my preferred pronouns. I am very much okay with quite a few pronouns being applied to myself. The preference that I have for my own pronouns exists, but it is not super strong. Trans erasure occurs when the preference is large. Using one of my accepted pronoun sets is not trans erasure. (If you decided to use one of a few pronoun sets I explicitly do not accept for myself, it would be offensive and feel like trans erasure to me.) Using my favorite pronoun set is like having my favorite dessert on hand – it’s nice, but as long as you have something I am able to eat without a bad reaction, I’m okay with whatever. I’m allergic to chocolate desserts, and I have a bad reaction to the two most common pronoun sets (he and she). You can have chocolate desserts for someone else. You can use those pronouns for someone else. You can’t knowingly force me to eat chocolate without being a bad person, and you can’t knowingly call me non preferred pronouns without being a bad person. However, you can have lemon pie and blueberry pie and apple pie, and even though none of those are my favorite dessert, they’re still desserts I’m perfectly happy with. My preferred dessert is blackberry pie, but I’m just happy you have pie.
For other people, there is no such thing as a preferred pronoun. For these people, you are offering blackberry pie or poison – there’s only one acceptable thing to offer. We stand up for their rights when we correct the phrasing of “preferred pronoun” for them; we stand up for their rights when we correct the phrasing of “preferred dessert” in that situation. Standing up with others for their rights is a good thing to do. However, when you say that the lemon pie that I also like (even if slightly less than other pies) is poison, you are not standing up for my rights. You are invading them and implying that I am not able to speak for myself. Lemon pie, apple pie, blackberry pie, and poison – there is a time when I correct the offering (poison, he, she) and would like your support, but there are also times (lemon, apple, ze, they) when I’m still happy and would prefer you not speak over me for something I have no problem with.
There is a way to get the intention of unquestioning support across without invalidating my words! If I use the words “preferred pronouns” in reference to myself, you can question the phrasing to see if I’m a victim of internalized accidental trans erasure without insulting me. “Hey, pip, a lot of people feel like the phrase ‘preferred pronouns’ erases their experiences because they only have one acceptable set of pronouns, not a preference out of many acceptable pronouns. Have you considered that for yourself?” If I say I’ve not thought about it, then look, you’ve just politely educated someone and not offended anyone! If I say I have thought of it and that the phrase does fit me accurately, you’ve politely educated yourself on my gender experience and not offended anyone!
You can also question someone introducing you to someone else or speaking of someone not present. “Hey, pip, a lot of people feel like the phrase ‘preferred pronouns’ erases their experiences because they only have one acceptable set of pronouns, not a preference out of many acceptable pronouns. Do you know if the person about whom you’re speaking feels that way or has ever considered it?” This lets the speaker correct their language if they’ve been told, start a conversation with the pronoun-owner to educate one or both of them, clarify that the other person has explicitly told them this is the best phrasing to use, or ask you more questions about the subject. It is polite. It is respectful. It is educational. It leaves room for everyone.
Consider these ideas the next time you want to use OR correct “preferred pronouns” phrasing. (And, just to be clear, I find ‘preferred pronouns’ to be correct phrasing for anyone speaking of me. My name is pip, and my pronouns are anything neutral with sa/sy as the preferred pronouns.)