I remember during one of our first class discussions on Dawn, Dr. McCoy admitted that she had always experienced problems in trying to read the “ooloi” species within the novel as neither male nor female but sexless—she caught herself having implicitly assigned a gender to the ooloi even as they were constantly referred to as “it.” Similarly, I found myself in a battle against my own unconscious inclination to read Gan from Bloodchild as female, even though he is described as a male and referred to as “he.” I’m not sure whether this had to do with the fact that throughout the semester, a great deal of protagonists in Octavia Butler novels we’ve encountered thus far have been female, such as Anyanwu, Mary, Shori, and so on, and that that guided my assumptions. It’s also possible that, within Bloodchild, given that the story involves a pregnancy, I unconsciously assumed that Gan was a female, since according to the logic of the “real” world only females can become pregnant (as far as I know).
Yet after having self-consciously trained myself to try as hard as I could to read Gan as a male, I was affected in an entirely different way by the story. Who knew that the seemingly space-alien idea of a male pregnancy could make me feel, for lack of a better word, so uncomfortably weird? Anyway, the main reason I bring these issues up is to discuss the importance of pronouns, and how the way they are read affects identity formation. For instance, at the talk given yesterday by Black and Pink organizers kyem brown and Julia Sáenz on Queer/Trans Incarceration and Black Communities,” one of the discriminatory practices pertaining to the incarceration of trans folk concerned the fact that, as they noted (and whose source I cannot dig up at the moment), New York prison law regulations dictate that transmen and transwomen must be filed and processed according to the name and gender assigned at birth. This is despite the fact that such a practice disregards the name and gender with which these prisoners identify. So as far as I understand if a transwoman refers to herself or has changed her name to “Jane,” as an inmate in prison she will still be forcibly referred to as, say, “John” and “he/him” if that was the name and gender assigned at birth. There can no doubt be some traumatic consequences in having your identity so easily effaced and disavowed simply by the use of a pronoun or name.
Now admittedly, given my own positionality, this is not an example to which I can closely relate. Yet its essence rings true in other, albeit “lighter” circumstances. For instance, as someone with a name commonly associated and read as a “girl’s name”—I have heard numerous times how Nikita is a relatively common name for Indian girls—I have experienced my share of instances in which someone has mistaken me or assumed that I must be a female simply because of my name. The most recent iteration of this occurred just yesterday. This Friday, I have to attend a conference and will therefore have to miss class, so I emailed one of the people in charge so that she may provide me an official notice that I can give it to my Friday teachers. (And to be honest I really can’t afford another unexcused absence.) So anyway, she agreed, and sent me a formal excusal from my Friday classes. Here is one of the lines:
“Though Nikita will be missing classes on April 10, please know that she will be representing SUNY Geneseo, sharing her research experience and interacting with students from 21 other SUNY institutions.”
This kind of thing happens so frequently that at this point I usually don’t bother to correct anyone unless it becomes necessary in my opinion. I don’t want to cast blame, but rather show how easy it is to misread and presume someone’s gender identity from a name, or how such a miniscule thing as the use of a pronoun can profoundly alter or disavow someone’s identity. Although for me it is just annoying and even slightly humorous, I’m sure that for others, for whom these kinds of linguistic offenses are part of their daily lives, the consequences can be much more profound.