Is Sharing Our Pronouns a Queer Ritual?
Recent angry tweets have been claiming that sharing pronouns is a ritual occurring in the workplace and everyone is being forced to participate. Now, I don't know where all the tweeters work or how things are run in their offices, but I have never had a job that asked us to share our pronouns. Never. And the few places I know about that do, are advocacy organizations or are business who are intentionally welcoming of diversity in their staff. Additionally, the workplaces that do encourage sharing your pronouns, do so as an optional part of their work culture. I suppose, however, when a person hates something, having it happen in their presence might feel like it is being forced on them because they don't want to see or hear it. But demanding no one ever does it, is to force the wishes of one person or group onto others. Trying to ban an optional activity because you personally do not want to do it is what privilege looks like. But these angry tweets have gotten me thinking; sharing our pronouns might be a ritual. Let's break it down. To begin, we need to define what a ritual is for the purpose of our argument. The common definition of a ritual is:
a physical item or action that manifests an inner experience
affirming and life-giving
located within a recognizable form or pattern
designed to build community.
Now that we have written our definition, we need to examine two recognized rituals and see how our definition holds up in relation to them. If they fail to meet all five of our criteria, we will have to rework our definition. Because I am a Christian, I will take two rituals from within my own faith: baptism and the Eucharist.
Baptism Holy Baptism is when a person (infant, youth, or adult) is welcomed into the body of Christ and is forgiven of their sins through a ritual washing with water. The water, in and of itself, does not do anything, but is symbolic of the cleansing of our spirit. So, baptism meets our first criterion (it is a symbol), and because it is an outward expression of our inner experience of forgiveness and our new relationship with the Divine, it meets our second criterion (it is a physical item or action that manifests an inner experience). The ritual of baptism affirms the baptized is welcomed into a healed relationship with G-d and is the first stage in a new life, so it meets our third criterion, as well. Though the specific ritual has varied across time, place, and denomination there are common elements that alert those present they have entered the liminal space of a ritual: the presentation of the person being baptized, the profession of faith, thanksgiving at the baptismal font, prayer for the Holy Spirt and sign of the cross, and the welcoming into community. So, baptism as a ritual meets our fourth criterion. And, finally, it meets our fifth criterion in that baptism "gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the Church" (The Use of the Means of Grace, 18).
The Eucharist The Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, is a ritual meal in which the baptized Christian partakes of bread and wine as a remembrance of their forgiven state and their healed relationship with G-d through Christ. The first criterion is met through the bread and wine, which symbolize Christ's body and blood, that is, his crucifixion by the Roman government. Because the physical action of consuming the bread and the wine is an expression of the inner experience of being one with Christ and having a repaired relationship with the Divine, it meets our second criterion. It is at "the table of communion where Jesus Christ comes with forgiveness, life, and salvation" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 91) and that satisfies our third criterion. As with the ritual of baptism, we have celebrated the Eucharist in a variety of ways, but what remains constant across time, place, and denomination is: the gathering of believers, the Word of G-d (scripture reading, preaching, and singing), the meal itself, and the sending of the faithful into the wider world. These common elements alert us to our presence within ritual space and satisfy our fourth criterion. And the fifth criterion is met because the action of the Eucharist reflects "the unity of the Body of Christ" (The Use of the Means of Grace, 47) and because "God sends us out to share the good news and to care for those in need" (ELW, 91), in other words, it promotes the building of community. Sharing Pronouns
By examining recognized rituals (baptism and the Eucharist) through the lens of our definition of ritual, we have demonstrated that our definition is functional. The next step is to apply that definition to the action of sharing our pronouns. If sharing our pronouns meets all five of our criteria, then we can aptly call it a queer ritual.
To begin, we look at the first criterion and ask, does it function as a symbol? I argue that, yes, it does. Words are written and spoken symbols for physical objects, people, and ideas; they represent what they describe but are not actually what they are describing. Further, pronouns are doubly so because they stand in for a proper or common noun and represent the noun's number and gender. So, we can confidently declare pronouns symbols. Further, we share our pronouns through the acts of speech and writing along with the use of physical items such as badges, pins, and cards. These actions and objects serve as a physical representation of our gender, which is an internal experience that can be difficult to formulate without these means. Therefore, sharing our pronouns meets the second criterion.
We are going to skip over our third criterion (affirming and life-giving) for a moment and look at our fourth and fifth criteria (located in a recognizable form or pattern and designed to build community). There are many ways to share our pronouns with one another such as in the signature of an email, the byline of an article, the badge on our jacket, et cetera. But there is also a very standardized way of sharing, which occurs within in-person introductions. "Hello," we say, "My name is [Jenny] and my pronouns are [she/they]. What are your pronouns?" We can hear these words being shared in support groups, doctor's offices, business conferences, and youth centers across the United States. It is a recognizable form and satisfies the fourth criterion. Further, by following this pattern, we say to those around us that we trust them with our identities and we want to learn more about how they identify. Sharing our pronouns becomes a way to build community and that satisfies the fifth criterion.
Coming back to the third criterion, the individuals who are resistant to sharing pronouns or are antagonistic toward transgender and gender expansive people would argue that sharing pronouns is neither affirming nor life-giving for them, therefore, it cannot be considered affirming or life-giving at all. That, however, is an argument in bad faith. We recognize that the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist are affirming and life-giving rituals for Christian communities that practice these rituals. Acknowledging that these rituals would not be affirming or life-giving for an atheist does not negate their power for Christians. In the same way, trans-hostile individuals might feel uncomfortable hearing people share their pronouns and they might feel awkward telling someone they do not wish to share their pronouns, but those personal feelings do not negate the power of sharing them for trans and queer people. Thus, sharing our pronouns can be both affirming and life-giving for transgender, gender expansive, and cisgender people. This is a radical way to express who we are and to welcome others into a respectful relationship with us. When we ask another person what their pronouns are we say: I see you and I respect you. We live in a society that can be violently hostile to transgender and gender expansive people and every year an increasing number of transgender people are murdered because they have dared to live as their authentic self. In a world that literally steals life from transgender people, performing the ritual of sharing and asking for pronouns gives life. Through this ritual we tell one another that we are affirmed in our identity, we are loved as we are, and our lives are meaningful.
As surprising as it may seem, all the angry people on Twitter decrying the ritual of pronoun sharing are finally right about something, just not in a way they would recognize or even understand. Sharing our pronouns is a queer ritual. It mirrors what we are doing when we witness a baptism or receive the Eucharist. When sharing our pronouns, we engage with a concrete idea or object that symbolizes our inner experience of our gender in a specific pattern that builds community and affirms the lives of those we are talking with. Sharing our pronouns is a queer ritual, and one might even say it is a queer sacrament.