On picking a pronoun and avoiding indecision

These are entries where I publish an excerpt of a private exchange while omitting personally identifying information. The idea is to share general insights on life.

I don’t think you have written about this […] I have some queer co-workers and wish to become friends with them […] but I am straight and identify as he/him. I worry that if I present myself in that way it might send the wrong message? How do you handle this?

I do not how your case fits into the bigger picture of your life and that of your peers, so I must remain generic. If you want me to clarify some point further, I can always do that.

It seems to me that you are over-analysing things and are caught in an unpleasant state of indecision. While the analytical capacity has its obvious upsides, it can be twisted into its unhelpful opposite once it loses the sense of perspective. In other words, you appear to be worrying excessively about a minor issue; an issue that does not merit so much attention.

I understand you lack experience with such friendships and are afraid not to give a bad first impression. Everyone can feel like that, though we eventually have to take risks. We must accept that we labour under imperfect conditions and are fallible.

Queer people are just people. Everyone is different over a broad range of preferences, attitudes, inclinations. We can all get along just by keeping an open mind. If you are genuine in your efforts, no reasonable person will go berserk over the occasional mistake. If you make an error, show that you are learning from it and try again. The effort is always appreciated. People will not take kindly to you if you are aggressive to them or deliberately ignorant about their particularities. This is about exercising common sense, developing some basic social skills, and being tactful.

By “basic social skills” I don’t mean that you must become a party animal and always seek attention. You don’t need to assume a persona, to play a role just so that you may fit in; a role that would otherwise run counter to your natural inclinations. Fitting in is a matter of choice, a process that happens organically, otherwise it is a form of oppression. Without refashioning yourself into an avatar that embodies social expectations, try to salute people, be an attentive listener, give them the benefit of the doubt when they state something you disagree with or don’t understand, don’t try to make an argument over trivialities, and generally control your passions.

If you don’t feel like being sociable, then don’t: do not pretend to be amiable for the sake of amiability. Be genuine about it. The point is to stop worrying about it and to feel comfortable in your social milieu. You write that you want to befriend those people, so I gather that your hesitation is specific to the fact that they are of a different sexual orientation and you do not know how to handle such perhaps delicate cases.

Forget for a moment their sexual orientation and consider how you make friends in general. You think “hey, I have something in common with this person”. Based on that initial observation, you decide to take the initiative in order to test whether you can indeed establish a modicum of mutual understanding and, eventually, develop a friendship. Recall how you contacted me, if that helps: you thought we have something common, perhaps that I could be trusted, and so you sent an email. Voilá, it worked!

Continuing with this theme of making friends in general, you don’t want to be awkward. Suppose your friend has a beard like I do. You would not go to interrogate them with intrusive questions, such as “why do you grow it?”, “are you a monk?”, “can I touch it?”, and so on. You need to have a sense of each person’s boundaries. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable. This is not about pseudo politeness, like how formal language is used, because formal language can still be applied insensitively. The point is to understand that there is a human being there. Do not objectify a person based on an attribute of theirs. A tall dude is not just tall. A blonde girl is not just blonde. I am not just a beard…

Which brings me to the point of objectifying people on the basis of their sexuality. As I noted before, queer people are ordinary people. They listen to music, they read books, they are involved in sport, they have pets, they play video games, they enjoy cooking, or walking, or swimming… You name it! Their preferences are diverse. It would thus be insensitive—indeed erroneous—to reduce a person to a fraction of themselves, such as if you believe that a gay man is just gay. Wrong!

Returning to your hesitation with gender pronouns. You already identify as “he/him”. The reason for picking a suitable pronoun is to make people feel comfortable. There is no hidden agenda against cisgender folks. Now, I understand you may be influenced by a skewed perception of prevailing attitudes, which is informed by controversies on social media. Social media—which are anything but “social”—can easily distort reality, as their algorithms favour content that creates engagement. Anger and indignation sell better, which is why every one of their sensationalised stories involves the word “shitstorm”. In my experience, most people are cool regardless of sexual orientation or any other characteristic/preference for that matter. Those who are vociferous and who would go to extremes over trivial issues are in the minority: they typically are victims of unscrupulous media platforms that assiduously extract value out of them.

By identifying as “he/him” you are not sending the wrong message. You are just stating what feels right for your own sense of self. If, however, you are not comfortable with the fact that you are asked to announce your sexuality, then that is different. In that case, what I do is tell people to use whatever works for them—I am nonchalant about it and take no offence whatsoever. Think about your case in this scenario: does your sexuality change based on another person’s opinion? If someone addresses you with a “she/her” do you internally stop being a “he/him”? If it is just a casual statement, then it has no material implications. The right attitude is to treat it in proportion to its impact, i.e. don’t bother. If, on the other hand, the statement is part of a concerted effort to bully you, then of course it is deplorable and you must take decisive action against it.

As I wrote above, these are just some general thoughts. We must make a fair assessment of how things stand and not spend all day worrying about “what if” cases. No one is faultless, so take it easy.

In conclusion and to recapitulate:

  • Do not overthink things.
  • We are all imperfect.
  • Queer people are people.
  • All people are diverse.
  • Do not reduce a person to a fraction of themselves.
  • Respect each person’s boundaries and don’t be awkward.
  • We make friends by sharing common interests.
  • Pronouns are meant to make us feel comfortable.
  • Your sexuality is not a function of a pronoun.
  • Use a pronoun as a choice, if you feel like it.
  • Don’t worry if someone makes an honest mistake.
  • A mere opinion does not change your sexuality and has no power over you if you don’t care about it.
  • Bullies are not to be tolerated.