My Pronouns Are Not Polite

On Oberlin and the Transgender Existence

ELEANOR CUNNINGHAM // APRIL 27, 2018 

Oberlin largely does well with transgender issues. For example, at the beginning of the academic year, much emphasis was put on normalising the sharing of one’s pronouns in introductions, and for those whose legal names are incorrect, it is not difficult to have them corrected in the school’s systems so as not to be deadnamed on a regular basis. However, there are a multitude of points where Oberlin fails, which I believe must be addressed.

The first is that to have one’s name corrected in the school’s various systems, one must contact individually each department in which some alteration must be made, and that some of these are not accommodating. Many of their reasonings are logical. I understand, for example, why one’s legal name must be present on one’s transcripts and grade reports, or why it must remain in the mail system so that legal or otherwise official documents can be properly delivered.

However, in my experience communicating with the mailroom, they are not only unaccommodating, but also, to a degree, disrespectful. Before I had my name changed, when I contacted the mailroom requesting a correction, their response contained the following: ‘The information that I received from the Registrar’s office shows that your legal name is XXXXX and your chosen name is Eleanor,’ followed by a statement that my then-legal name could not be removed completely from the system. Again, I understand. Yet in this message there are three distinct issues: firstly, the unnecessary deadnaming of the person in question; secondly, that the aforementioned information was received from the Registrar, meaning that the office is capable of distributing one’s deadname, but not so one’s correct name; and thirdly, the phrase chosen name.

Now, in the case of many trans people, this is the case: our names are chosen; however, referring to them as such, to me, conflates them with a nickname, and implies a lack of legitimacy compared to a legal name.  This issue extends further, specifically regarding the multitude of signs plastered about the mailroom stating, ‘If you have a preferred name,’ your legal name cannot be removed.  The problem here lies in the language--a problem present in every aspect of Oberlin where trans people are concerned. It is that of ‘preferred’ versus ‘correct.’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘prefer’ as: ‘To favor (one person or thing) in preference or to another; to like better.’ At Oberlin, our names are favored; our pronouns are favored.  Except, for trans people, these things are not favored.  We do not like better to be correctly named than to be deadnamed; we do not like better to be referred to as ourselves than to be misgendered.  These are not matters of preference; they are mandatory.  By using such language as ‘preferred name’ or ‘preferred pronouns’ (and particularly the ‘cutesy’ acronym ‘PGPs’ for ‘preferred gender pronouns’), one implies a distinct sense of optionality.  This not only invalidates the transgender existence, implying that to be transgender is optional, but also condones acts of violence against transgender people--particularly transgender people of colour, who face far higher rates of violence, thus for whom correct naming and gendering can be a matter of life and death, more so than for their white peers.

By making another’s name or pronouns a preference, one implies that to align one’s language with that preference is to perform a service to that person, or that it is merely a matter of politeness. This sort of language aligns one with those for whom trans names and pronouns are optional.

These can be either one who entirely disregards a transgender person’s correct identity, or the performative ally who respects a transgender person’s identity until they have reason not to, such as when out of said person’s presence, or for use as a low-ball attack during some form of confrontation.

As I mentioned above, Oberlin does mostly well as a trans-inclusive space, through the aforementioned emphasis on learning and using others’ correct names and pronouns. For a while, this was successful, but over time this sort of allyship tapered off.  That brings us to the present, where pronouns are rarely--if at all--part of introductions. Pronouns are only reintroduced in certain official settings, or when initiated by someone who is transgender.

Efforts of transgender-inclusivity have plateaued, and begun to pivot towards Oberlin being an increasingly transgender-exclusive space.  One might then ask why. To use pronouns as one example, the reason is cis people.

The cis world is a remarkably easy one compared to the trans world, built upon myriad assumptions, the most notable of which is that of gender.  The majority language spoken in Oberlin, English, is one of many which insist on designating gender in the use of pronouns. This designation takes the form of a binary ‘male’ and ‘female,’ with little room for those outside of it.  In the cis world this does not matter, for in the cis world there is only this binary. In the cis world, this binary distinction is made based on one’s perception of another’s presentation--which itself relies on dominant social, physical, and patriarchal norms which enforce and uphold it.  In the cis world, gender is paradoxically both unimportant and of the greatest importance. In the cis world, one’s own gender exists at such a level of unquestionability that it is of little regard to the self, whilst the gender (and particularly the perceived gender) of others is ever present in cis language and the cis mind. In the cis world, gender and sex are consistently conflated, and thus assumptions are made of people’s bodies, selves, and existences based on the cis perception--a perception based upon incorrect notions of a gender and sexual binary.

Oberlin holds a similar conflation, not between sex and gender, but rather the relationship between transgender people and cis women. Many of the activities, organisations, and spaces on campus which are advertised as existing for trans people consistently tack ‘women and’ to themselves--a somewhat logical grouping, given a shared oppression by cis men. However, whilst presenting a generally inclusive space for trans women (but only those who can pass as cis women), by consistently combining these two communities, Oberlin neglects the oppression trans people (particularly trans women) often face at the hands of cis women.  This also forces the nonconsensual outing of trans men and nonbinary people in order to be welcomed into a space.

Another issue which arises due to this association is the continual co-option of transgender safe spaces by cis women, out of either a lack of forethought or by intentional invasion. These cis women--if not overtly transphobic--neglect or disregard the issue of pronouns, leaving it up to trans people, and rely on transgender people to educate them on transgender issues and terminology.

This co-option is done almost exclusively by cis white women.  Another problem which arises with this is the fact that most trans safe spaces on campus also act as safe spaces for people of colour.  To use Oberlin’s Baldwin Cottage ‘women and trans’ campus housing as one example, the space shares a building with the Third World Co-op, a safe space for people of colour.  Yet the residents of the ‘women and trans’ community are overwhelmingly white, excluding many women or trans people of colour from utilising both of these spaces. This gets into a larger issue of most trans or otherwise queer events and spaces in Oberlin being largely exclusionary to queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC), or of being used as ‘test subjects,’ such as the misguided placing of QTPOC housing in North, thus isolating one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups on campus from other spaces of similar purpose.

To conclude, then, I will admit that Oberlin has extended commendable efforts towards transgender-inclusivity, efforts which would not have been made--let alone considered--at many other institutions, for which I must be grateful. Oberlin’s issues lie in where it falls inevitably short: in further normalising trans-inclusivity, in proper terminology, and in exclusively trans representation and spaces--doubly so for trans people of colour. These are issues for which Oberlin is not entirely to blame.  Rather, these are issues that are so ingrained into the cis world and the cis mind so as to be nearly invisible to those outside of the transgender existence. There is much work to be done, much of it daunting and without clear solutions. For now, though, let’s agree to start with this: My name is not polite. My name is correct. My pronouns are not polite. My pronouns are correct.

Contact contributing writer Eleanor Cunningham at ecunning@oberlin.edu.

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