(Dude/Bro) Isn’t Funny: Let’s Talk About Pronouns

Okay, folks, I’m back. (Apparently.)

This isn’t actually what I thought would get me back out of my writing slump—the ICD stuff last fall took a lot out of me (and… stay tuned for the rest of that), but I have so many things I want to start talking about again. (Lecturing on actual musical subjects! Gender feels! Rocket League and found family!) I’m really excited to get back to publishing somewhat regularly, because shouting into the void the internet is part of how I keep my head in the game while we’re all stuck at home. Y’all are part of my community, and I’m incredibly thankful for it.

Recently, I finally decided to bite the bullet and publicly update my pronouns on Facebook. I’d been back and forth on it, considering I’m using the spring semester to take she/they for a test drive and see if everything fits more or less like it should, but I got bored, which is when I make most of my public-announcement decisions, and off to the social media printing press they went. I was spurred on by my frustration that Canvas went out of their way to add a pronouns field but limit your options to she/her, he/him, and they/them, which is problematic in ways we can talk about another time. (Maybe I’ll remember to back-link that post here once it’s published!) I couldn’t put my pronouns in as an actual option on Canvas, and I mentioned it on Facebook, along with what they were. The post was short and to the point, and a couple friends immediately came into my comments and inboxes to spread some love and make sure they knew the specifics of how I want to be referred to. Those early hours were exceptional.

And then someone came in with the dude/bro joke, and even though the intent wasn’t malicious, the ensuing fallout straight up ruined my evening.

Almost everyone who’s had the at times very uncomfortable experience of offering up new-to-them, nonstandard, or (in a cisnormative society) unexpected pronouns in a room full of cis people has heard some iteration of the dude/bro joke. In its most basic incarnation, it usually goes something like this: “My name is [name], and my pronouns are dude/bro.” The person in my comments understood it as a joke—which is exactly how it’s intended. However, like in many instances where we make fun of marginalized and minoritized people, the joke doesn’t come from a good faith argument.

The thing you have to understand is that a lot of the activism around pronouns, which has been around for a while but is in some places just starting to make its way into mainstream discourse, is about teaching people how pronouns function from an identity standpoint. Pronouns can be incredibly gender-affirming! They can function as a verbal reinforcement that someone else sees and acknowledges our identity. (That includes your identities, cis folks.) However—and here’s the important thing—pronouns do not equal gender. We cannot assume that all the people using she/her are women, or that all the people using he/him are men. We also cannot assume that all the people using they/them are nonbinary!

For some, pronouns can be a direct affirmation on their gender. For others, pronouns may be a commentary on some aspect(s) of their gender identity/ies or presentation—an additional piece of information that can tell us how someone’s performance of their gender might conform to or be at odds with traditional gender roles and presentation. Still others use pronouns for even more different and varied purposes, and all of these are important and individual. Treating pronouns as a monolith will get you about as far as treating trans people as a monolith. (Read: do not pass Go, do not collect $600.)

For some folks, the specificity of pronouns may not be something that serves them. Certain people (though not all in either of these categories) may choose the ambiguity of neopronouns, they/them, or any/all because of this. But in each of these understandings of pronouns, there’s one really important throughline: that a person’s pronouns are an intentional choice made about how they share their identity, and as such, they’re something we need to respect immensely. And that’s where the dude/bro joke stops being funny—because unless you have run into the, in my experience, incredibly rare queer person using those terms as pronouns as a direct commentary on transphobia and not-actually-gender-neutral language, you’re dealing with someone who’s decided this super important part of how we communicate our identities is worth shitting on.

At this point, I’d like to transcribe my response to the version of the joke that found its way into my comments on such a vulnerable day, because I think it’s my best assessment of the situation and a somewhat brief summary of how I approach this particular topic:

“uhhhhh is this an honest question? Because the only times I’ve ever seen dude/bro pop up are when people are being transphobic and hoping their audience finds it funny. It’s not a super appropriate thing to just ask for that kind of emotional labor when someone’s announcing their pronouns, because this is a super vulnerable moment. Rest assured I am not amused.

“But if I’m gonna put my queer theory hat on, since you’re already here and I’m already bummed about having to field this question in this particular space, the answer is that from a neopronouns perspective, it is something someone could absolutely choose to use as their pronoun set (though I’d probably look for a third indicator after “bro” to specify how the rest of those pronouns would be conjugated), but in current mainstream practice it is a transphobic dogwhistle that reduces our identities to a joke. In my experience, a lot of queer people I’ve come across who choose neopronouns also have some aesthetic, online, or other indicators of their queerness that would help as context clues to determine that they were probably very serious about being referred to this way. It’s not a foolproof method, but when I get a student who tries to pull this with me, my response is always something along the lines of ‘can you confirm for me that this is the pronoun set you’d like me to use?’

“It’s important to me that transphobia is kept out of my classroom, and as this is often used against gender-marginalized people, I wanted to make sure to touch base with you that this is truly the correct way to refer to you.’ The odds of finding an English-speaking neopronoun user who isn’t aware of this harmful trope are pretty damn low, so that’s the system I’m working within until I find something better.”

That, folks, is a 300-word answer to a flippant question that later got deleted, which would have erased the entirety of that labor if I hadn’t preserved it. I’d like to talk more about deletions in online forums at another date, since I’ve got more to say on that subject, but for now, I want to mention a few ways everyone here can foster more pronoun-friendly, trans-friendly environments through communication and community engagement:

  • If you’re cis, offer your pronouns freely and routinely. Adding in the “and my pronouns are [insert yours here]” to the end of your “my name is [name]” will feel a little odd at first—it took me several months to get used to it while I was still using she/her—but offering your own pronouns is a) an acknowledgment of their importance, b) an understanding that not everyone’s pronouns correspond to whatever gender we might clock them as, and c) a great way to create an environment where folks might be comfortable offering up their own pronouns. Please remember that for us, giving our pronouns can be daunting and sometimes dangerous; by offering yours instead of demanding ours, you’re indicating that you’re cognizant of the challenges we face and that you intend to be a force for good in our lives.
  • Seriously, put them most places you put your name. Your artist bio, your social media bios and/or display names, your concert programs, your email signatures—if your name lives there, it’s really great to put your pronouns there, too. Yes, if you’re cis, you might assume folks would get yours right without asking, but some of our pronouns don’t match the cisnormative view of how we present, so the goal here is to actually get people to stop assuming that they know a person’s gender and pronouns without actually using cues and communication provided to understand how we present our identities.
  • Don’t use they/them for people whose pronouns you know are not they/them. That is misgendering, and it is gross. Only use the pronouns people have presented for your use—and remember, for folks who may not be out in every situation or who have other extenuating circumstances affecting their pronoun use, what they tell you may not be what they use everywhere. (Especially if you’re an educator! Especially if your students are minors!) And that’s okay. They understand the risks in their lives best, not you. (Side note: if you do not know someone’s pronouns, using they/them is good.)
  • If you are an educator who may have contact with a student’s parents or guardians, make sure you ask what pronouns they’d like you to use in correspondence with those adults. Lots of trans and gender-nonconforming people face resistance, transphobia, and other forms of violence at home if their families are unsupportive or hostile. By taking this extra step, you’re ensuring you can keep your students as safe as possible in a way that leaves them in control.
  • Don’t mock neopronouns. For some folks, the pronouns we use every day just don’t work, and as a result, an amazing collection of neopronouns has evolved and continues to grow. Some neopronouns are related to other more typical pronouns (my favorite set, that I contemplate using for myself every once in awhile: ey/em/eir, derived from they/them/their), while others follow different rules or are literally descriptive of things we might find in nature or the world around us. (If you’re familiar with some of the Twitch drama last year, this is where that fits in, though an understanding of xenogenders will also help you immensely if you’re looking at that with an analytical eye.) Regardless of the words someone uses to describe themself, it’s important to remember those choices were made with care and intention, and it’s not our job to comment on who they are.
  • Remember that nonbinary people may still choose to use traditionally-gendered pronouns. I contemplated pronouns for months before beta-testing she/they on the CBSS Discord server, and I still don’t know where I’ll settle. But unless you have a close, intimate relationship with someone and you know it’s okay to ask, don’t bug them about why they didn’t choose to add they/them (or whatever the case may be) at some point or another. Unless they’ve expressed they want to answer questions from curious people, don’t ask them to educate you. (If they do want to do that, ask away!)
  • Need some help with pronouns basics? I’ve got you covered: check out this tasty infographic.

And remember: if someone’s introducing new pronouns and you don’t know them very well, it’s best to let them remain in control of that conversation. Save the jokes for another time.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.

5 thoughts on “(Dude/Bro) Isn’t Funny: Let’s Talk About Pronouns

  1. This is a sincere inquiry not meant to inflame, and I apologize in advance if I offend, as it is not my intent.

    I’m cis, and I’m trying to understand the importance of addressing someone in whatever pronoun that someone decides is right for him/her/them/…. I’m failing miserably in trying to understand. Maybe it’s not all that important that I understand, but of great importance that I give people space to be themselves.

    What’s missing for me is why a person’s gender identity – or biological gender or sexual orientation for that matter – is of concern to me, unless I’m having some interaction that has a basis in gender or sex. Why is it my business to affirm someone’s gender or gender identity? Shouldn’t that person just go ahead and be who that person is without needing my validation?

    Please don’t read this with hate. I truly seek to open up and understand.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for asking! I think this is a really great question, because it touches on a few different ideas that weave together really well (and I think that’s part of why you’re struggling so much with this). Now that I’m thinking about it in some depth, I’ll probably map out an entire post dedicated to talking about these things, but for now, here’s my best answer:

      Affirming someone’s gender identity is important because society has already deemed it important in cis people. Think about how you move through the world day by day; one of the biggest ways we show respect to people we don’t know well is by saying “sir” or “ma’am” (or “miss,” or “mister,” or… you get the point). In many (not all, but many) cases, we use words like “beautiful” and “dainty” for people we assume/know are women and words like “handsome” and “dashing” for people we assume/know are men. We have “girls’ nights,” “boys’ nights,” “father-daughter dates”… the list goes on. We acknowledge butch women are women and not men, even though a lot of them have a stronger masculine aesthetic than most of the guys I know.

      But imagine we found a cis girl who leans hard into the tomboy aesthetic and told her, over and over again, “you are a boy.” In this scenario, we’d only use he/him pronouns with this person; we’d choose words like “handsome” and “dashing” to describe this person. We would insist that we were using the correct terminology to describe this person, even over her objections. We would continue to gender everyone else around us in ways that were affirming to them, but this tomboy would never see herself accurately represented in our words.

      This, I think, is where I point out something really important: in most cases, we don’t get to know the people around us *really well.* We don’t have deep, soul-wrenching conversations about our gender or presentation unless it’s with someone we (usually) know well and trust. For most of the rest of the world, using our correct pronouns is the only way for us to know the person we’re engaging with respects us *for who we are, not for what society assumed we were when we were born.* Yes, a lot of us will be our badass selves regardless of what everyone calls us, but constant misgendering takes a toll, especially BECAUSE our society has placed such a heavy emphasis on acknowledging people by their gender (and/or using that to solidify existing power structures, but that’s a story for another time).

      By this line of thinking, if someone doesn’t want to gender/affirm trans and nonbinary people, the fair thing to do is to use gender-neutral terms for *everyone.* If you were to try this, you’d find pretty quickly that people don’t like their gender being obfuscated or forcibly unassigned–partly because it’s a societal tool, but partly because it’s an important aspect of who we are!

      If Western society didn’t put so much emphasis on everyone being either a man or a woman based on a very short and specific list of traits present (or assumed to be present) at birth, if we didn’t *reward* conformity to that standard, it might not be so important to validate anyone’s gender, whether they’re trans or not. If we hadn’t collectively decided for decades and decades that marriage should be a romantic and sexual relationship between one (cis) man and one (cis) woman, maybe affirming gay and mspec people (bi, omni, etc.) wouldn’t be as necessary. But just as you may talk about your significant other at work (even if it’s as simple as “my wife and I went to the drive-in this weekend”), just as you may casually affirm the genders of the cis people around you (“you’re going to be a dad! congratulations!”), so too should the queer people in and around your life be able to assert their own selves and expect that same respect in return. Pronouns are a really important part of that journey, and just by taking the time and making the effort to get them right, you’ll show folks that you’re invested in *them,* even if your time with them is fleeting.

      I hope this helps, and thanks again for writing!

  2. Hi, I’m a surfer from both Florida and Southern California, I’ve been called a dude my entire life. I don’t understand why someone wanting to be called Sir, or Mamm’ (which is appropriate in their sociological context is fine), but per your article If I want to be called my pronoun to provide “an additional piece of information about myself” such as dude then I’m the bad guy?
    I have a trans brother, and 2 gay daughters I’m active in my local pflag organizations. I’m not anti-anything. Why does everyone else get to choose their Identity but me? Dude does is an important identifier to my identity. Funny enough Dude does not refer to the male gender. It’s a genere neutral term.
    I’ve taken significant grief from this in school to the point where I’ve even had professors test me calling out from across the room “Dude” to see if I would respond (which I did do).
    Your indignation at others using this as a joke is justified, but if society is going to be forced to use a standardized list of acceptable pronouns then can we get a list? Who would make it? Would we all vote on it? In your scenarios, everyone can pick the preferred personal pronouns of their choice except me. Everyone gets to be comfortable with their pronouns but me? Don’t misinterpret your lack of understanding of my culture for mocking.

    1. Hi, Chris.

      I’m from California myself and grew up around plenty of surfers, and I’m aware of the prevalence of the term in that subculture in particular. However, you can’t tell me dude isn’t gendered; ask any man how many dudes he’s fucked and you’ll realize that the default assumption is that it means men.

      However, you’re misconstruing my point well out of context. If you’re comfortable with people going, “hey, dude!” or “dude, check it out,” that’s totally cool! It’s identity-specific in a way that describes and affirms you, but you’re not using it (or requesting it be used) as your pronoun set. THAT’s what I’m talking about here. People who are doing what I’m talking about in the essay above AREN’T going “you can call me dude, I’ll answer to it,” they’re joking that their pronoun set is (dude/bro), which should be formatted the same as he/him, they/them, etc. If we were to conjugate this pronoun set, it would look something like this:

      instead of “Chris went down to the beach by himself, and he brought his surfboard with him.”
      you’d have “Chris went down to the beach by broself, and dude brought bros(?) surfboard with bro.”

      Sometimes dude is a stand-in for a nominative pronoun (just like “bro,” “sis,” “buddy,” etc.), which is likely what you’re describing, but it’s not a full pronoun *set* (or part of one I’ve seen used by anyone). I am not, as you say, mocking your culture *or* misunderstanding it; I’m outlining how an aspect of it has been forcibly weaponized against trans people. Choosing new pronouns isn’t something we take lightly, and having pronouns joked about is usually another way of saying “it’s fun to misgender trans people!”

      If I ran across someone who genuinely used a dude/bro pronoun set, it’s very likely that a) they’d be trans and b) we’d immediately proceed to have an awesome discussion about neopronouns. However, neopronoun users get absolutely shit on most of the time, and they’re not about to go weaponizing their very real pronoun sets as a “gotcha!” on the internet. So that doesn’t line up with the behavior I’ve described here.

      There is no single list of “acceptable” pronouns; neopronouns continue to develop around the world in virtually every language. I’m not even arguing that (dude/bro) isn’t an “acceptable” pronoun set; I’m saying it is ONLY ever used by cis people going out of their way to make a mockery of trans people. (It very much lives in the same genre of jokes as “I identify as an attack helicopter.”) If you’re curious, I’ll link below the most comprehensive list of neopronouns I’ve ever come across, but it is by no means exhaustive. Queer historians and chroniclers are compiling these across other sites as well.

      In the end, though, I’m not mocking your culture or your identity. I’m pointing out that others are using a very vibrant part of your culture as a purposeful attack on trans people. What you do with that information is your prerogative, but if I were on your end of things, I’d be pretty pissed at the transphobes.


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