by Kirby Conrod

I view it as a sort of hapless community service the amount of time I spend explaining to cis people that misgendering is bad. And that linguistic difficulty on their part doesn’t actually mitigate the psychic harm of misgendering. And that misgendering hurts anyone who suffers it, but that trans people ‘just so happen’ to face far and away the highest rates of these constant linguistic paper cuts. It feels like picking up litter in the hot sun—I believe in the overall good of doing this outreach, or I wouldn’t be doing it, but god it is not fun. It is tiring and uncomfortable and I do fantasize a lot about spending my Saturdays some other way—but then again, I do it so someone else doesn’t have to.

That’s fine.

Instead of doing more of that, though, it’s Our Month and so I’m going to talk about Our Stuff. This is a post talking directly to you from within the family—not really public outreach, not giving guidelines or advice or prescriptions, just reporting on how it’s going in here. 

So, let’s think of pronouns. I’m going to talk about third-person singular English pronouns – the ones with gender stuff sometimes – as a teaching example, as convenience, because this blog post is in English, not because these types of pronouns are cross-linguistically typical or more important than others. Let’s think of how we use pronouns to show our care for each other. Hence the title of this very post! 

What is care work? 

Care work is a fairly transparent term, I feel—labor that’s about taking care of people. Care work can be compensated through a capitalist system of exchange of currency for service or labor—nurses are a pretty straightforward example. Nurses provide services that are part of, but not necessarily limited to, the immediate care of bodies in a healthcare setting—there’s administering meds, but there’s also helping you get up and make it to the bathroom, or making sure you’re at a comfortable temperature when you can’t dress yourself, or making sure you’re hydrated and fed. Care work in the capitalist US context is especially devalued and feminized (because more women are in the care professions, and structural misogyny is a thing). 

Care work is a concept from disability justice and liberation movements; there is a large and interesting overlap between disabled people and trans people. It’s almost like constant societal abuse and gaslighting hurts bodyminds long-term or something, isn’t that weird? But even otherwise-nondisabled trans people have to move through the world like disabled people in certain ways. Our commonalities: we have to go to the doctor a lot; doctors tend to disbelieve our reports of our experiences and bodies; we often have to beg insurance companies to cover stuff that allows us to live our lives; our bodies are frequently paraded in normie spaces as dangerous, illogical, bad. Sometimes it is hard to move our bodies through normie spaces. These similarities are not accidental: white supremacy and structural ableism and transphobia and heteropatriarchy are all systems of power that share weapons, and whose underlying logic  is sustained through the regulation of what kinds of bodies are permitted to exist, and how. Care work is one of the many tools that can be used to defend against those weapons: it is one part of a community’s refusal to be obliterated. 

Outside of the strict capitalist context of exchanging labor for money, care work is a deeply important standard of mutual aid, particularly in circles with many disabled people. Mutual aid in the form of care work can be something like a group of friends getting together to cook and deliver groceries for a disabled friend when their partner is out of town. It can look like rearranging my furniture to make sure my friend who’s part-time in a wheelchair can still come to events. It can look like checking the vaccination status and mask and ventilation plans before inviting our friend to a social event. It can look like my friend sharing a googledoc of our mutual friend’s several complicated food allergies when I was going to host a holiday friendsgiving dinner. It can look like my friends having a specific lighting setup in their house so the lights won’t make me go into sensory overload every time I come over. Care work in a community is fundamentally about knowing our friends’ and family’s access-needs, limits, and desires, making a space where we can do fun and joyful shit together. 

Linguistic care work

Right, that’s all super cool, but this is a linguistics blog post. I promised pronoun stuff, even! So what is linguistic care work? It is, essentially, the same goal and underlying mechanism: members of a community taking care of each other by way of knowing each others’ needs, limits, and desires, and using that information to create joyful ways of relating to each other. Here, I’ll give some numbered examples, because numbered examples can be a love language among some linguists, and I want you to feel included. 

  1. Lauren uses she or they. Their relationship to cis- or transness is complicated, and they feel solidly nonbinary but don’t want to claim a trans or cis label. Many strangers opt for she upon seeing them; they’re kind of short and cute in a way that gets someone she’d by strangers. So to balance it out, I relentlessly they them; I they them throughout a conversation where a colleague is consistently sheing them. Every they I attach to Lauren is balancing out four or five shes from (mostly) cis people, and theying them makes me feel warm and close to them. They’re a pretty similar gender to me in some ways, but different in others, and I like gathering them close to me and saying, they are one of mine, they’re on my team, you can only have them if you can abide sharing them with me and mine. I love affirming their queerness, and pronouns are but one of the ways I like to do so. 
  2. Kate uses she or they. She has a very particular relationship to womanhood that many butches have; hers is from the trans woman direction, but I find a lot of love and warm fuzzy feelings at seeing how butches converge on a no-man’s-land from many directions. She’s very close to the same gender as me in some ways; a ring-of-keys on the belt loop gender. Tattoos, short hair, sometimes tucks a shirt into jeans gender. I relentlessly use she when talking to cis people; they only allow her any adjacency to womanhood contingently, and try to confiscate it constantly. So I will give it back to her constantly, over and over, whenever I am talking to someone who is trying to kick her out of the big tent of womanhood. Women who don’t shave their body hair and who like to hold doors open for people and who are really into being union members are women; moreover they are beloved and handsome and desirable as women. I would be able to instantly tell if someone theyed Kate out of a desire to cut her out of that space, rather than theying her as a way of embracing and praising her butchness—it’s extremely easy to tell which one you’re trying to do. 
  3. Vagrant uses xe/xem/xyrsthey only if xe is truly not possible. Xe has a really cool gender that I admire; xe’s younger than me, and is figuring out a bunch of gender and neurotype and related stuff all at once. Xe’s really into birds (xyr name is a birding term) and very particular kinds of math and likes prime numbers a lot. I think of xyr pronouns as kind of like a prime number, in a way that gives me brain spikes. I find brain spikes (like N400 and P600) pleasurable, like how a child enjoys giving themself static shocks when they discover balloons. Vagrant’s pronouns are ones that no one else I’m close with uses, and for some reason my brain really wants to give this set of pronouns plural agreement, like “xe are” instead of “xe is.” My current theory is that I’ve essentially internalized the xe series as a very specific phonological filter on the they series, and also I think this is probably an interim state and that my grammar is going to keep evolving past this. Xeing Vagrant feels ecstatic because xe loves brain spikes, loves the feeling of zappy surprisal the same way I do, to the point where I’m honestly constantly baffled that xe’s not a syntactician. Xeing xem is a way of saying, I will play this joyous game with you, that we both adore, that we have both oriented our entire lives around, because being trans and queer is part of the same thing we’re doing when we get a syntax PhD or look at a bird with binoculars. It feels good similarly on our brains, and I love sharing that feeling with xem in a way that’s tied deeply to our shared membership in the gender squad. 

Okay, there are your numbered examples. What I want you to notice: 

  • the motivation of each of these is that I love these people; the way I like to show my love is by knowing my people closely, and knowing their needs and desires
  • I care about how other people relate to my people as well; I am not only trying to anticipate what they need from me, but what they might not be getting from someone else 

None of this is predicated on “trying not to misgender someone” or even “trying not to mess up pronouns accidentally and get yelled at.” Linguistic care work, like any care work truly based in principles of a loving community, cannot run on shame-based fuel. Avoiding shame and harm are only the barest, most basic bar to clear—they do not constitute showing affection. Failing to abuse someone isn’t the same as loving them. 

So, to you, my linguists—you are also my loving community! I also do linguistic care work that might be for the benefit of even cishet linguists! I am not prescribing a damn thing. I am not correcting you, I am not giving advice, I am not suggesting that you should try harder to do a thing if you find it difficult or uncomfortable or distasteful in any way. I am doing what a social scientist does: I am reporting on the way we are doing things. I’m just letting you know what’s up. Genderweird communities are loving families who take care of each other, and linguistic care work is one of the many ways we show that love.