Note For Anyone Writing About Me

Guide to Writing About Me

I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella. I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

Citing My Posts

MLA: Zisk, Alyssa Hillary. "Post Title." Yes, That Too. Day Month Year of post. Web. Day Month Year of retrieval.

APA: Zisk, A. H. (Year Month Day of post.) Post Title. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Pronoun Information as a Design Problem

Trans people exist. People we are working with in a variety of contexts won't always guess our genders or pronouns correctly. Sometimes, guessing leads to misgendering people, which isn't good. Several ways of dealing with this have been proposed and sometimes used. None of them are perfect. When people are working in good faith, we can think of this as a design problem: solutions aren't static, we can improve them, and we can come up with new options. (When people are intentionally being anti-trans, handling that is a different question.)

Current solutions include:
  • Adding pronouns to typical introduction circles
  • Pronoun pins/pronouns on name tags
  • Defaulting to gender-neutral pronouns unless and until you have specific information about the person you're talking about.
These solutions all have advantages and disadvantages. Considering them one at a time might help us think about better ways of doing this. (And no, we don't abandon the current solutions while we're trying to think of better ones. That just leaves us with no solutions. I'm keeping my they/them pins and noting my pronouns in introduction circles whether or not they were listed as part of what we "should" be saying about ourselves, thank you very much.)

So, first: Adding pronouns to typical introduction circles. The advantages include:
  • Introduction circles already exist.
  • In theory, we can get everyone's pronouns this way, thereby avoiding misgendering people by guessing incorrectly. 
The disadvantages include:
  • Introduction circles were already a clunky, awkward, unnatural front-loading cram of personal information. Adding pronouns to them does not fix any of ways introduction circles were already awkward, and most people will still forget most of what they "learned" from this cram session.
  • If pronouns are a required part of the introduction, people who aren't out may need to choose between lying and coming out. That's not cool.
  • Only including pronouns in these introduction circles when you think there's a trans person in the room draws attention to whoever it is you think is trans (not cool), as well as to the gender of everyone in the room.
  • Only including pronouns in these introduction circles when you think there's a trans person in the room can lead to not including pronouns when there's an out trans person who would be misgendered without a chance to state their pronouns.
Making pronouns an optional part of all introduction circles might help address some of these disadvantages. It won't do anything about the fact that these introduction circles were awkward to begin with.

Second: Pronoun pins/pronouns on name tags. The advantages include:
  • Name tags are already in common use at certain kinds of events.
  • If the person is present, so is a visible reminder of their pronouns.
The disadvantages include:
  • If there's no name tag, the pronoun pin could be just about anywhere. Where do we look for it?
  • If pronoun pins/pronouns on nametags are required, people who aren't out may need to choose between lying and coming out. 
  • If this is done in a computer system without a fill in the blank option, people may be forced to lie because their actual pronouns aren't on the list of options.
  • When the person isn't present and you need to talk about them, there's no visible reminder. 
  • Blind people may not be able to use this system effectively, so there is an access issue.
Making pronouns an optional part of name tags when name tags are in use can address some of these issues. So can letting people put whatever pronouns they want on their name tags, not limited by a list organizers came up with.

Third: Defaulting to gender-neutral pronouns unless and until you have specific information about the person you're talking about. The advantages include:
  • Not gendering people who prefer not to be gendered.
The disadvantages include:
  • Not all languages have gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Languages that have gender-neutral pronouns may not have a single set of gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Gender-neutral pronouns are also used to de-gender binary trans people, and that's not OK. 
I don't really have any suggestions for tweaking this option.

One idea I have, which I haven't seen discussed as a way of introducing pronouns before (though it could have been -- I obviously don't see everything), is the third person bio. It's a context-dependent option, in that it won't always make sense to include third person bios for people, but some conferences already have presenter bios. So do some meetings. By writing these introductions in third person, we aren't announcing "my pronouns are X," but we are choosing pronouns (or choosing to avoid pronouns.)

As an example, many presenters for AAC in the Cloud wrote introductions in third person. (A few used "I." I used "they.") People generally weren't leading into their presentations with their pronouns. I might have (I don't remember), but it wasn't generally a thing. We could get good information about how to talk about people, though: Dr. Kathy Howery starts with her title, indicating we should use it, and uses she/her pronouns in her introduction. I just use my first name (Alyssa), indicating I don't need an honorific (if you want to use one, it's Mx. until I finish my PhD, but I don't need one) and they/them pronouns in mine. Ms. Helland tells me that "Ms. Lastname" is the right format to use for her, and she uses she/her pronouns. And no, I wasn't the only presenter to use they/them pronouns in my bio.

The advantages of this option include:
  • The information about our pronoun preferences is there -- avoiding pronouns is also a choice.
  • This can hold additional information about us, including additional information about how to refer to us!
  • Bios can be referred back to in a way introduction circles can't be.
  • It's a comparatively implicit cue, which may feel more natural for people.
The disadvantages of this option include:
  • Ok, where are we putting all these third person bios anyways? (For conferences and meetings that have programs, the program makes sense, but that's not everywhere. The site where I teach math has them posted to the online classroom on the first day of class, and also on the teachers page.)
  • There can still be a choice between coming out, lying, and avoiding pronouns for trans people who aren't out. I don't think any of those are ideal.
  • Do people actually read these, even when they're present? I'm not certain.

Are any of these perfect solutions? Obviously not. They're imperfect and context-dependent. Besides, I'm an engineer. I don't actually believe in perfect solutions -- just better ones, and continued improvement. So, you know, keep thinking?


  1. Additional disadvantage of introductions and bios: They don't really handle the case where a person's pronouns change after the introduction/after the bio is written (e.g. because they came out later). (More of an issue for longer-term things like jobs and schools rather than things that just last a few days.)

    Additional disadvantages to defaulting to gender-neutral pronouns: At least in English, gender-neutral pronouns (both "they" and neopronouns) are kind of awkward (though that becomes less of a disadvantage if people get used to them, and it's not avoidable when someone's actual preferred pronouns are gender-neutral). Like introductions, this also has a potential disadvantage that people might apply it only when they think a person is trans, potentially drawing attention to that fact.

    Current solutions also include defaulting to whatever you perceive a person's gender to be unless you have information otherwise (and being open to correction).

    This has the very obvious disadvantage that it sometimes misgenders people (especially non-passing or non-binary trans people), and it doesn't really work in text-based communication (e.g. internet forums/chat rooms/comment sections). It also means trans people who aren't comfortable enough to speak up will get misgendered (but such people might also not be comfortable giving their pronouns when asked) and trans people doing something cis people aren't might give them unwanted attention (though so might saying a pronoun different than people expect when everyone else is a male-looking person saying "he" or a female-looking person saying "she"), and the fact that it places all the burden on trans people is somewhat unfair.

    Advantages include that, when people are dealing with cis people, people can just do what they're already doing (though how much of an advantage this is depends on how many people there are cis) (this also might mean it's more likely to be adopted by people who are on the fence about trans rights), doesn't force questioning or closeted trans people to give incorrect pronouns, and some passing trans people prefer people to just correctly see their gender without having to give pronouns. Also, if there are trans people who don't mind being misgendered that much but get dysphoric from having attention drawn to their gender (like me before I realized I was trans), this also has the advantage that it doesn't force anyone to have attention drawn to their gender.

  2. This isn't really a well-thought out suggestion or anything, and it might sound a bit unnatural - but what about encouraging people to just use names, not pronouns, if and until a person clarifies them? (Either by bringing it up themselves in conversation, or in their bio or whatever). This also works for people who prefer that in the first place, but find it difficult to explain, especially on a pin or sticker. Just a thought.

  3. Pronouns... how simple is English language :) In many languages gender is included in peoples family names - e.g. Navratilova - obviously female, . Her stepfather's name was Navratil.
    In Arabic it affects even things people own, e.g. a car - alsayaarat (phonetic), car owned by a man = sayaaratuh, car owned by a woman = sayaaratuha.


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