Oh, Behave!

Has Justin Vivian Bond Gone Too Far With Trans-Pronoun Correctness?

In his new Queerty feature, etiquette writer Charles Purdy discusses matters related (either directly or peripherally) to social behavior, etiquette, social media and modern manners. This is his first post.

I adore performance artist and songwriter Justin Vivian Bond. I am, unabashedly, a fan. I don’t think the words “genius” and “revolutionary” are hyperbolic in Bond’s case. If you haven’t seen Bond perform live, do; it’s transformational.

However, I have a small bone to pick with Bond, and that is the way Bond (who is trans) disparages writers who don’t use the pronoun v (instead of he or she), which Bond has devised to refer to vself. V wants v’s own unique pronoun.

As v explains:

“Since my name is Justin Vivian Bond and since Vivian begins with a V and visually a V is two even sides which meet in the middle I would like v to be my pronoun.

“For example: Justin Vivian Bond was described in The New Yorker as ‘a bar of gold in the new depression.’ V’s latest eponymous show at Joe’s Pub will be Saturday January 8th at 11:30. […]

“In the future if I see or hear the words he or she, her or him, hers or his, in reference to me, I will take it either as a personal insult, a weak mind (easily forgivable), or (worst case scenario) sloppy journalism.”

As a longtime wordsmith, I think a lot about pronouns. (See my recent blog post on the limitations of he and she.) As an etiquette-advice writer, I’m concerned with treating people respectfully. And as a queer person, I applaud the statement Bond is making about gender labeling and the struggle many queer people have to be, truly, themselves. I understand Bond to be saying also that language can be a blunt descriptive tool, and to be commenting on how language informs the way we think.

And of course Bond can refer to vself however v likes in v’s own writing. But I don’t like seeing the New Yorker’s Hilton Als, who describes Bond as “the best cabaret artist of his generation” (italics mine), accused of weakness of mind.

Maybe Bond’s tongue is in v’s cheek, but I didn’t read it that way: We queers can be altogether too quick to take offense. Yes, there are many people trying to insult us (and worse). So it’s up to us highly evolved queer people to stop seeking out insults in the simple limitations of language or in well-meaning people’s innocent faux pas. That means hearing what’s said, not obsessing about exactly how it’s said.

Sometimes it means being the bigger person.

I’m not a trans person, so I can’t know what that interior landscape looks like. But I do sometimes find cultural assumptions of masculinity oppressive, and I’m way beyond the standard binary view of genders, including my own. May I, too, insist on my own pronoun? (“Charles is wonderful, isn’t chee? Let’s give chim a present.”) Mightn’t everyone? It would sort of defeat the purpose of pronouns. And what if one wants to talk about me in French (as one very well might)? How do we translate?

Gay men, in particular, are playful with pronouns. A gay man using she to refer to another gay man can be a sign of affection (“She’s a mess”) or a sign of disdain (well … also, “she’s a mess,” actually).

So maybe I don’ t get it. But I hear Bond saying that gender is an individual experience. With this, I wholeheartedly agree.

And perhaps we can be gender revolutionaries by not fussing quite so much with grammar, but rather reading — and listening — for intent. Call me he or call me she. Within each of us are elements of “masculine” and “feminine,” so either is accurate enough for a pronoun’s purpose (say, composing a complimentary sentence or planning to buy a gift), and neither is an insult.

Anyway. Enough about that. Check out Bond’s latest album, Dendrophile.

Charles Purdy is the author of the book Urban Etiquette: Modern Manners for the Modern Metropolis and a longtime manners-advice columnist. In this new column, he will be addressing issues related to social behavior. Find him on Twitter: @charlesqueerty

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