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Episode four of 'TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas' examines the complex realm of non-gender pronouns

Sophie Nourani: "Personal pronouns traditionally identify a person by their gender. For example, she has a dog or he has a dog. Non-gendered, or non-binary pronouns, are not gender specific and are most often used by people who identify outside of the gender binary. So, our first question is: what does it mean when a person identifies as gender neutral or non-binary or gender non-conforming?"

Dr. Lisa Corrigan: "Well, it generally means that they don't want to, or just generally don't identify with the gender expectations of pronouns, right? And so when people say I'm non-binary, they're saying, I don't want to live under the cultural expectations that are associated with male and female. And they don't want to be referred to all the time necessarily as he or she."

Nourani: "They/them is a prime example of a non-binary pronoun. For example, ‘Sue is a civil rights activist, they are based in Fayetteville’. However, that sounds like we are referring to a group of people based in Fayetteville rather than a single individual. And that can cause a lot of confusion and be difficult for some to say without hesitation. Can you provide guidance on best practices for ease of usage of non-binary pronouns they/them?

Corrigan: "If you don't know, ask, but be discreet. So, it's not sensible to ask somebody their pronouns, necessarily, in a huge group of people that they don't know. Right? So, this is a place where we might want to use our best ethical judgment, right, to find out discreetly what pronouns they prefer. So, for example, my pronouns are she/her, it's in a bunch of the literature if you look me up, and so if somebody is introducing me, they would say, ‘Hi, this is Lisa, I want you to meet her. This is where she works.’ And so, it makes sense to me as a good habit to use the preferred pronouns as soon as we know them, so we can practice and practice and practice. And I understand that it's not necessarily going to come easily to people especially if pronouns change over time but it's really the good faith effort that matters and will be appreciated, I think by any anyone you're interacting with who might, you know, use non-gender pronouns."

Nourani: "Right. So, I use non-binary pronouns and she/her, as well. So I use she/they. And as you mentioned earlier it has to do with my comfort with identifying as a female in our culture and how I don't identify with that on a day-to-day basis. I surround myself with a lot of queer people so it's common and it's easier to understand for us because we're around it a lot more of the time."

Corrigan: "Yeah, yeah, you have more chance to practice."

Nourani: "Yeah, exactly."

Corrigan: "I think for people who live in worlds that are strictly controlled by the binary, it feels unfamiliar to use they/them in particular, or even to use she and they together. And that's just a learning curve. It's like any other kind of 'getting to know you' information, right? I'm thinking about new people, and it's like, ‘Where did you come from? Where did you grow up? What religion are you and where did you go to school?’ It's just biographical information like any other piece."

Nourani: "A Trevor Projectsurvey of 40,000 LGBTQ+ youth finds that one quarter use non-binary pronouns. And data show that most non-binary adults identify as queer, bisexual, or asexual regarding sexual orientation specifically. But nonbinary pronouns are not about sexual orientation?"

Corrigan: "Yeah, I mean, really, pronouns have no relationship to sexual orientation whatsoever. And I'm thinking a lot about the Kinsey report, which was the big sex survey that Alfred Kinsey did at the University of Indiana, in the 50s, right, and he sent that survey out to a bunch of quote unquote, heterosexual households. And that survey came back and even though the folks in those households use he, his, him and she, her, hers, they also were having wildly not normative heterosexual sex lives. So, there's really no relationship between sexual orientation and pronouns whatsoever for anybody regardless of how they identify their sexual orientation."

Nourani: "According to the Williams Instituteat UCLA, which researches LGBTQ+ culture and demographics, a small minority of Americans identify as non-binary or gender neutral. Yet our American lexicon has radically changed with widespread use of non-binary pronouns by writers, academics, and journalists. Even straight heterosexual professionals and scholars now use their pronouns in their correspondence signatures. Do you have a comment?"

Corrigan: "Yeah, I think it's sensible for all people to identify their pronouns, because this is sort of a transitional period for the language. And I mean, if you think about language critically, we invent new words, new words get taken up as slang, there are new philosophical concepts or academic terms that get coined. Language is constantly changing. So, it makes sense that gender language and gendered language would also change. So, for me, it makes sense that the language is evolving as people have more freedom to be who they are. And I think it's useful to think about the evolution of language as a fundamental corollary to how many rights people have access to, and the kinds of space that they can take up to be fully human."

Nourani: "In addition to non-binary pronouns, we have neopronouns. What are they and who uses them?"

Corrigan: "Well, I think neopronouns are useful because they get us totally away from the gender binary. And I think for people who do not identify with male and female as concrete identities of self, it's useful to invent new language that is not connected, either phonically, or linguistically to the way that gender operates and to pronouns in English. So, it makes sense to me that neopronouns are becoming a larger part of the lexicon, because people need different ways to express themselves."

Nourani: "But they are a lot less common than non-binary pronouns?"

Corrigan: "Well part of that is, like, think about how many forms we fill out, right? I just did a bunch today, and I had to put my sex, male or female, and sometimes you get a box for ‘other.' And sometimes you get a write in -- fill in the blank. But even in terms of official forms, there is just not enough of an uptake in thinking through how people self-identify. So, I think for a lot of people, even if they're part of the LGBTQ+ community, or especially if they use, you know, non-gendered pronouns, there isn't an opportunity to replicate their sense of pronoun and their sense of self in a lot of our public space. So I think that they're less common now. But I anticipate that changes, you know, in the next ten years, certainly."

Nourani: "So data show that most transgender people do not identify as non-binary. What linguistic trends, if any, are emerging in the trans community when it comes to gender-variant pronouns?"

Corrigan: "So that's very interesting because the first national trans survey came out in 2012, and I was at a conference where those results were announced. And there were over 250 different ways that participants in the national survey identified themselves. And that was in 2012. Right? And so I think that there's just a huge variation in terms of how people perceive themselves as beings, and the kind of space that they can occupy when they're asked to actually give their pronouns. So, I also think that as the culture opens, right, for people to express themselves as fully as possible, there will be a lot of different expressions that get circulated as part of the larger culture, not just LGBTQ+ culture, but also the American culture writ more broadly. I study communication and gender and the data on how early gender pressure begins on people. It begins in infancy. And the preschool studies are fascinating, because the way that gender norms are produced and enforced on very, very young children, is profound. So some of that’s habit, some of its culture, some of its violence that enforces, you know, the way that we conform or don't to social norms. But as freedom expands, so does self-expression."

Nourani: "Do you have any additional comments, something that you feel like we didn't touch upon?"

Corrigan: "One thing that I think about a lot, in terms of people who are new to gender neutral pronouns, is the way that they worry, and manifest anxiety about people who don't conform with gender pronouns. And it makes me wonder how many times they've been misgendered, right? As children or as adults, or if somebody has yelled a slur at them in a fight, right? People don't want to be misgendered, regardless of their gender, or sexual orientation. So, I think for listeners, it's important to think about that, like, do you want to be misgendered? You don’t. This is a sex panic moment, right? There's a lot of concern about sex and sexuality. That happens frequently in the U.S., especially at times of political crisis. And so queer people very often get scapegoated. And that's what's happening now. And it's [especially] happening to LGBTQ+ youth. And so, I think that the uproar about pronouns is really about anxiety, about the family, and it's changing status. I think that the scapegoating of LGBTQ+ people, especially as its articulated around pronouns, is a way that people deal with their anxiety about the changes that they don't have any control over. The psychologists that I work with would say that it's displaced envy, sometimes, towards youth. I mean, your generation has a lot more flexibility and freedom to exist in the world and in ways that my generation didn't, and that older generations don't. So, I think for, you know, for folks who are tuning into this programming, it's a real service to think through what kinds of freedoms we want to secure and make available to future generations. And it's also, I think, a point of reflection, about the missed opportunities and the unlived lives of so many of our community members. And so kudos to you for hosting this program and for doing this kind of community work."

Nourani: "Of course, no, I came into journalism because I think it was so important to provide a voice to those who don't have it in traditional media."

Corrigan: "And that's the importance of public journalism. So, I'm grateful to be a part of it in whatever small way that I can."

Nourani: That was Dr. Lisa Corrigan, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Arkansas, interviewed for KUAF's Listening Lab series, "TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas. "TEA" was filmed by Emerson Alexander, edited by Sophie Nourani, and produced by Jacqueline Froelich. To view the full episode and previous episodes, search "TEA" on Listening Lab.

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Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
Sophia Nourani is a KUAF producer and reporter.
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