Declaring your pronouns is pure narcissism The Times 11.08.20

The original article is here.

I’m Joanna, she/her. You probably guessed that from my name and my photo. But declaring one’s pronouns is all the rage and I’d hate to appear out of touch.

Last week the performance poet and musician Kate (now Kae) Tempest came out as non-binary; that is, neither “she” nor “he” but “they”. Their new name, pronounced like the letter K, is the culmination of a long journey in which they learnt “to be able to stand with my own queerness and where I sit on the gender spectrum”.

Kae follows in the footsteps of the Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter Sam Smith, once “he”, now “they/them”. When Smith declared themselves to be no longer male but genderqueer back in 2019 they said: “I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It’s all on the spectrum.”

For the overwhelming majority, declaring yourself to be neither male nor female is to deny biological reality. It is to say that all those pesky things such as chromosomes and hormones and genitalia do not apply to you. Your feelings — more finely tuned than everyone else’s — override the inconvenience of a body.

I’m all for denying biology. I pretend I’m not getting older and can still drink too much without suffering the next day. I pretend I can fit into clothes I bought 20 years ago. But I don’t insist other people confirm my delusions. Demanding to be called they/them rather than he/she is to insist that the rest of the world share in your fantasy.

It’s not just biology that’s being rejected but linguistic convention. “They loves me” is meaningless as well as grammatically incorrect. Although, to be fair, it makes marginally more sense than the made-up gender-neutral pronouns “Xi/Xim” preferred by some. If there is a narcissism in rejecting biology to conjure up your own special brand of gender identity then there is an arrogance in saying that a language that coheres communities across space and time must be altered because it no longer suits you.

This is not to say pronoun-changing decisions are taken lightly. The individuals concerned make clear that they embarked upon a process of self-discovery before arriving at the non-conforming point. And this can be very hard work indeed. The feminist author and journalist Laurie Penny wrote on Twitter last week asking that she be referred to as they/them by people she knows in non-professional settings, but as she/her when being a feminist in public. This is only right, Penny declared, because “I earned that pronoun with a lot of hard work”. But third-person pronouns are not earned, they are conferred.

Although there is no hard data, it is commonly thought that under 1 per cent of the UK population is transgender. But a broader cultural shift that sees gender as fluid and self-determined rather than binary and fixed before birth means that instead of humouring individuals who decide to change their pronouns or refusing to alter recognised linguistic conventions, it is increasingly seen as polite for everyone — especially gender-stereotypical people — to declare their pronouns.

When Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the Pink News awards late last year he began his speech by saying: “My name is Jeremy Corbyn, pronouns he/him.” Surely no one in attendance doubted Corbyn’s manhood, or that men are commonly referred to as “he”. Such statements of the blindingly obvious are intended to “show solidarity” with the transgender community by normalising the declaration of pronouns. Corbyn is not the only one. Across the pond, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announces she/her; Lin-Manuel Miranda he/him; Jameela Jamil she/her and Monica Lewinsky also she/her.

People devise all kinds of ways to signal their political beliefs, particularly when they decide that doing so makes them out to be especially virtuous. But when the aim is normalisation, we rapidly move from personal idiosyncrasies to an expectation of conformity. At many universities, students are given pronoun badges when they arrive on campus. They may be expected to state their preferred pronouns in seminars. At conferences, too, attendees might be offered pronoun-identifying badges. Some corporations, such as the BBC and local authorities, ask staff to include pronouns in their email signatures.

Pronouns are not something we work hard to achieve or something we need to go on a journey to discover. They are conferred upon us by others, in recognition of how we are perceived. Normalising pronoun declarations sends a message that we must take nothing for granted in our dealings with others. We can never believe what our eyes tell us and must always politely wait until strangers tell us who they are. Yet, up until this point in time, people have successfully rubbed along without informing each other that today, in a professional setting, they are “her” but tomorrow, in the pub, they are “them”. Of course, mistakes are occasionally made, but we apologise and move on.

Pronoun-declaring is, in truth, a game played by an identity-obsessed minority with far too much time on its hands. Forced attempts at normalising pronoun introductions may be done in the name of inclusivity but they reveal only how hopelessly out of touch those who run our universities, local authorities and political parties have become. They no longer have any idea how normal people talk to each other.