Today is National Coming Out Day.
Throughout the day, I’ve seen touching and wholesome coming out posts on various social medias. While I have, of course, given my support and love to my queer siblings, something has held me back from making a post of my own.
It’s not like I’m not out to some people. I’ve written multiple articles about my experience as a non-binary lesbian, and I’m very open about my pronouns — they/them — in school and work settings. But publicly letting everyone know that I’m transgender feels … daunting. Scary. Even asserting my transness to people who already know feels like it’s almost too much.
One of the biggest things holding me back is a nine-letter word. No, it’s not a top-secret slur only accessible to the gays who complete level 20 of the oppression Olympics. It’s “preferred.”
You may know this word from the phrasing “what are your preferred pronouns?” on a survey of some kind. In person, it usually sounds like “OK, everyone, let’s go around the room and share our name, year, major and preferred pronouns.” Sometimes professors or group orientation leaders even ask if anyone has a “preferred name.”
Is this inherently bad? No, absolutely not. I love the idea of being more inclusive and asking people what their pronouns are. The trouble, to me, comes when we start calling them “preferred” pronouns.
A lot of different people have misgendered me, as I wrote about in my last letter from the editor. But the danger with “preferred” is that it often comes before the misgendering and, in some cases, before a trans person decides to come out.
For me, when people use the phrase “preferred pronouns,” it just shows how much they see me as “other.” I had a professor recently thank me for the “gentle reminder regarding your preferred gender pronouns” and let me know that they “try to be respectful of individual preferences.”
If I was cisgender, do you think there’s any chance she would have phrased it that way? When professors go around and ask for people’s names, do they ask for what your “preferred pronunciation” is?
By only applying these labels of “preference” to transgender experiences, it creates a sense of “otherness.” Yes, trans people will often have a “chosen name,” but no one bats an eye when someone named Kathleen wants to go by Kaity or when that kid in my high school named Elias went by Tikki. That’s not their “chosen” or “preferred” name. It’s just their name. And calling Tikki Elias probably did not cause him nearly as much harm as calling a trans person by their deadname would.
When people use words like “chosen” or “preference,” it minimizes the seriousness of trans experiences. It makes me feel uncomfortable and isolated. It makes me feel like I’m some kind of freak, some degenerate.
I’m not saying this experience is universal. There may very well be some transgender people who think nothing of the term “preferred pronouns.” But there are also transgender people, like myself, who see the term as a vehicle for cisgender people to distance themselves from us.
I understand that people who are using this language are, sometimes, trying to be inclusive and sensitive. Maybe they’re trying to make trans issues more visible by making sure that people aren’t assigning a “default” gender to everyone.
While I can appreciate that sentiment in theory, that doesn’t erase the harm it causes me and other trans people. And, I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s working. In classes and workplaces where we’ve shared our “preferred” pronouns, I get misgendered just as much — sometimes more — than classes where we don’t even share our pronouns.
So if adding the extra modifier of “preferred” doesn’t help and instead causes emotional distress to transgender people who you’re trying to cater to … maybe it’s time to find another way to be inclusive.
As for me, well, maybe I need to stop caring if people think I’m “other.” Maybe, on some other day, I’ll end up coming out on social media.
Because it’s not a preference. It’s who I am.
Sydney Miller is a senior psychology major. Reach them at email@example.com.