When was it that the newest woke thing to do was to ask for pronouns? In the queer communities in which I have been a member, it has been fairly common parlance to do so — but in regular life, I can’t place when it happened.
It was sometime in my residency, between my first and second years, when, suddenly, everyone knew that it was important to ask for them. Cisgender, heterosexual people learned that they could reinforce their denial of their own transphobia by signing their names with their pronouns listed. When almost all our meetings went online, people took to writing their pronouns next to their names on Zoom. There was a push for pronoun pins, and some medical students at my university even organized a campaign. Who knows what their funding source was, but hundreds were made and distributed at the university and at the hospital where I worked. My wife got one. I got one. I saw people pick theirs up. I was pleasantly surprised. Wow, I thought — is this really happening?
She/hers, my pin read, with (interestingly) pride flag colors running down the center. I put the glaring omission of trans flag colors to the back of my mind. Otherwise, the pin was nice, magnetic, could easily attach onto a shirt or lapel without damaging the fabric, and required significant force to pull off. The students had clearly put lots of thought into making them. I put mine on every day. I insisted my wife wear hers. Maybe predictably, I saw fewer than a half dozen pins worn on the lanyards, lapels, and scrubs of my colleagues and co-workers. I persisted. This is important, I thought. Yet, each day, as I looked down on those two words, a little pit would grow in my stomach. Ironically, I was shadowing in our gender diversity clinic when I texted a close friend a selfie between cases. I captioned my photo, “Your boy looks fine today!” (I was clearly excited to be there.) And then, I impulsively confessed my truth: “These pronouns are a lie.”
The truth is, in addition to the stress of residency — clinical duties, research, advocacy projects, and a marriage that was often long distance — I was stressed out about myself. Somewhere around the spring of 2021, people had started noticing my gender expression. Perhaps even to their credit, they had started wondering if this was the exact type of person toward whom all their sensitivity training was aimed. Suddenly, I was being asked my pronouns. It felt like it was happening everywhere, and only at the most inappropriate of times. Particularly memorable moments include: seeing a psychiatry patient for a medical consult, the nurse who was introducing me to the patient turned mid-sentence to ask “She? Right? That’s your pronoun?” Another time: an attending, at the nursing station, in front of my juniors and medical students: “Tahereh, I have something to talk to you about later.” As the senior on the team, eager to impress, and wholly unsuspecting, I insisted we speak immediately. He took it as an invitation to ask in front of the team, “Well, I never asked your pronouns and I realize I must be getting it wrong. Tell me, what are they?” An email from a senior program member, distributed to a number of colleagues, skipped the questioning process directly, and presumed they/them pronouns. I sent back a “reply all” to correct this, and the justification provided was, “Well, I didn’t know.” Was my own personal nightmare now a workplace harassment issue?
My personal life demonstrated my point. With the pandemic precautions improving, the IVF clinic with whom my wife and I were working gave us the green light. Most of our appointments were by phone, and though my voice is a contralto, it is distinctly, and perhaps reassuringly, female. But my physical appearance would be described (in binary terms) as masc of center, and I am proud enough not to change that for anyone. One of the nurses, who had been speaking to me by phone on a regular basis, caught me one day to speak in person. As she was talking, I saw her gaze slowly pan over me, taking in my ball cap and bomber jacket, typical plaid shirt showing through, and a pair of men’s joggers. It was my day off and I had just darted in for some quick bloodwork, and here she was, realizing I was the one about to get pregnant. Even with the mask on, I could clearly read her expression: this is no lady, and only ladies get pregnant. Later, she sent me an email, and next to her name, her pronouns were listed for my benefit: she/her.
“Safe space.” “Cultural sensitivity.” Pride and trans flags. You cannot use these terms and symbols unless you also do the hard work of fighting your own prejudice and hate. You cannot ask for pronouns or offer them without the exchange itself being safe. We do notice the signaling. I take note of the flags and stickers posted at cafes and stores, and I relax a little. But only a little. Because I see those same symbols co-opted every day by the very people I work with, and I know how they treat me and my community.
My friend replied almost immediately to my euphoric selfie and my incongruous pin. She said, “That’s always my thought when I see your pin. But I know why you wear that one.”