Recently, a Bachata DJ came forward with a post lamenting the use of they/them pronouns, followed by an extensive (and since deleted) posting about his deeper feelings. The initial post read as follows:
Pronouns… It was either “he” or “she.” That’s how easy it was. Why is it not that simple anymore?
In one sense – and only one sense – he is right: it was easier. It was easier to make assumptions about people, and sort them visually into categories. It was easier because it was the language we were educated in. It was easier because there was never a confusion between singular and plural.
But, in my view, that is where the rightness stops.
Several years ago, I resisted it too; I didn’t understand the impact of pronoun choices and they/them as a singular known was uncomfortable (I’m glad I do better now). I still find switching my brain into they/them mode to be not fluent. It takes me a few seconds to realize that a person is talking about a singular they/them and not a plural or unknown. I have accidentally misgendered people; I am working on assuming genders, too.
My non-fluency with pronouns is my problem to fix. It is my problem to fix because I want them to feel comfortable. I want them to feel safe. I want them to feel included. The 5-30 seconds my brain takes to switch over is my responsibility as I work on being a person who is devoted to an inclusive and safe community – and as a person who values kindness and respect. Rewiring my brain to not get confused when someone says “they” in conversation is something I can fix over time and with repetition.
A Small Gesture; A Big Impact
Pronouns are a small gesture. They simply are calling someone by what they wish to be called. It doesn’t matter what I think they look like – it matters what they feel like. It doesn’t matter that I don’t “understand” how someone can identify as non-binary; it matters that they identify that way. It hurts no one to refer to someone with their pronouns – but it sure as heck ostracizes and hurts a person to have their identity dismissed.
It’s not the same as me calling myself a flying walrus or an Avenger. It’s not calling oneself a different species or an inanimate object. It’s a pronoun. It’s just a sub-in for a noun. It’s such a small thing to do to accommodate someone that makes them feel validated and seen.
Why would we not give that courtesy to someone? Even if a person has “conservative values”, is giving respect to someone by simply referring to them they way they wish to be referred to that big a deal? Is it worth making someone feel small and unheard just because one person “doesn’t agree” with their personal identity?
Minimizing Harm; Growing Community
Ultimately, we need to lift our communities up and create a healthier, happier community. We have enough problems within dance, spanning from racism to sexism to exclusionary behaviour. All of these problems are complex, difficult, and far-reaching.
But, when it comes to pronouns, it feels like a tiny thing we can do that makes a big difference. It’s a step away from homophobia and transphobia, and even if we don’t get it right all the time, we can try. If it makes just one person feel safer and happier, I think it will be worth it.
Don’t you think so, too?
Teaching West Coast Swing for 20+ years now the habitual use of “he” for Leader and :”she” for Follower is a hard habit to break but creating a community that is welcoming to everyone has always been my underlying goal. The dance itself can be a challenge to newcomers; surely I can challenge myself to change my vocabulary.
When people interact it’s can be helpful to group the interaction into transactional and and relational categories. Transactional interactions facilitate an interaction or trade. Getting a sandwich at subway, talking to someone to get your bill paid, giving directions. Once you walk away they forget about you, you didn’t matter. This is why we stereotypes are useful, to help facilitate these kinds of interactions. Relational interactions are where you are trying to build a relationship with someone, learning about them and caring about their story and life, and hopefully they will return the gesture and care about you too.
This applies to dance communities as well, there are many many times people only want to dance and then walk away – what someone’s pronouns are doesn’t matter because after this song is over they are walking away. Building a relationship with someone takes repeated interactions, and not everyone is worth the effort. Advocating a course of action that ignores this nuance is actively unhelpful.
Another thing to be aware of is “Give me special treatment because I said so.” (They/them pronouns) is structurally similar to bullying “Give me your lunch money because I said so.”. The schoolyard bully is just transparent they they will give you a black eye as the or else part of the interaction. If the person requesting special treatment has already demonstrated value to the community then it becomes a more palatable relational ask.
Re: transactional relationships: they forget about you if everything is OK. The salesperson doesn’t forget the rude customer; the teacher doesn’t forget the belligerent student. The person intimidated by cops doesn’t forget being pulled over. If pronouns never come up – great. If names or pronouns do come up – just call them what they want to be called. Otherwise, you’re no different than a customer who calls a salesperson “John” because they “seem like a John” when their name tag says “Jake” and they gently point that out. The effort to use a person’s stated pronouns is *so* small that *not* doing it reflects as intentionally disruptive and rude.
For relational interactions, it’s even more important. As for “special treatment”, I’m not asking for “special treatment” to ask you to pronounce my name Lo-ra (English) instead of Lau-ra (Spanish/Italian). I’m asking to call me as I ask to be called, according to what my name is. Continuing to call me “Lau-ra” because “you like how it sounds” or “it’s easier” is rude and disrespectful. It’s the same with pronouns.
Let’s use your digital name, with the assumption that it’s your real name for illustrative purposes. Would you be asking for special treatment if you asked me to call you Sudain, instead of Samuel?
Or, conversely, let’s say you wanted to go by “Sam” instead in dance (maybe for anonymity or to keep work and dance life separate), but I insisted on calling you “Sudain” despite your request. This would be disrespectful of me, and you’d be well within your rights to talk about how I insist on calling you by your “legal name” because I think it’s stupid that you’d want to use a different name. That definitely wouldn’t be bullying, for sure 😉
If the complaint is really “It was simpler”, then consider that just using “they/them” is respectful of everyone, and even simpler. One set of pronouns, and you don’t have to change it if you don’t know the gender of the person referred to. Even simpler, save inclusive of everyone.
What if we just stopped using pronouns?
‘We’ is a pronoun 😛
(Pronouns are the words you use when you *could* name every person you could mean, but you’re using a generic stand-in word instead. I’m being a pedant, but in this paragraph, I’ve used the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I’ )
On a more serious note, one doesn’t have to remember genders if one refers to dancers by dance roles (where applicable) or just call them ‘dancers’ or ‘people’. But it’s a hard habit to break, that takes lots of conscious effort on the part of the teacher and/or organiser and/or fellow dancer to replace old habits. I’ll never be perfect, but I can keep working to be better, and to be a better person, and the people I like spending time around are the same – not perfect, but trying to be better 🙂