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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  • Chely

    Since it’s a relevant conversation in many trans circles right now, I’d just like to point out that most trans people identify with binary pronouns (he or she). Gender expression and choice of pronoun are topics that are independent of transitioning or someone’s trans nature. Not saying you’re making assumptions, but just making sure you get that being trans doesn’t necessarily mean the person uses different pronouns.

  • KD108

    I think making pronouns that personal kinda defeats the purpose of pronouns… especially when gender neutral pronouns such as ze, s/he, and hir already exist. I think v’s preference can be useful for when someone doesn’t want to type Justin Vivian Bond repeatedly in an article and “v” could function as an abbreviation specifically for v. I do appreciate the visibility this brings to how our current language standards can cause erasure of some people’s gender though.

    I think it would be a better practice to give visibility to the gender neutral pronouns already available so that more people can be familiar with the terms overall. That way, the next time a cis-person meets someone who doesn’t identify as “him”. “her”, or “v” she or he can know how to refer to that person respectfully.

  • zio ledeux

    not everyone will know to address this person as such. it is far from a common term

  • Fitz

    KD is exactly right. Pronouns take the place of personal identifies. How amazingly narcissistic of Justin to want the world to learn her nickname. (or of you to call yourself a wordsmith… you work for Queerty). I’m also a Justin fan– esp the stuff with Herb. And I saw her roaming around the Eagle early this spring, looking amazing.

  • missanthrope

    Is it so hard to ask someone to use the pronoun that someone else request? It’s not any more “narcissistic” than wanting someone to spell your name right or pronounce it right.

    Of course, it’s okay that you may not know beforehand, but once you’re told that a person likes to be refereed to as a different pronoun, simple respect for other human beings dictates that you should use that.

    If this is such a burden for people to bare that they’ll make a big business out of disrespecting Justin about it, then they have bigger problems than a pronoun.

  • Shannon1981

    I respect anyone’s right to be referred to anyway they like. That being said though, there are much more pressing things to worry about without this person trying to confuse people further on an issue that is already super confusing for anyone who isn’t trans, including LGB’s.

  • Fitz

    @missanthrope: For a formal name– it’s my obligation to call someone exactly what they ask to be called. For a pronoun, no— that’s the whole freakin point of having pronouns. There is a time for PC and there is a time for practical.

  • Jeffree

    Gender-neutral pronoun can work: they’re useful, polite + necessary for those who identify as genderqueer (etc.) — & for those of us who have friends/colleagues who identitfy that way.

    Person-specific pronouns (e.g. V or J or. Ø) seem to me like an unnecessary and unhelpful affectation.

    Will a personal “vanity pronoun” help clarify the indiviual’s gender identity or just confuse the bigger issue?

  • Shannon1981

    @Jeffree: I identify genderqueer, but to keep down confusion, and because I do not need to be that pc, I am just fine with female pronouns. If I were FTM, I’d, of course, insist on male pronouns. I’ve been referred to as both, and both are fine. I think this person is making an already very confusing issue even more so by insisting upon this person specific pronoun.

  • SteveC

    I respect someone’s wish to be referred to as they like specifically.

    Just as they should respect my right not to care too much how they want to be referred to.

    Justin Vivian Bond is incredibly narcissistic.

  • Pocket

    As has already been said, the whole point of a pronoun is that it is impersonal and we already have pronouns that aren’t restricted to binary gender. People have every right to be referred to by whatever names or nick names they wish but if we ALL adopted personal pronouns the whole concept would be rendered meaningless. Once again, gender neutral pronouns are already in existence and perhaps Justin should get used to using one. Also, this new writer is good. :)

  • Stiggidy7

    “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?”

    i agree wholeheartedly on this statement. it just would start getting too confusing if we all insisted on our own individual pronouns. besides, pronouns are supposed to be all encompassing, blanket terms, correct?

    i understand how a transperson could take offense to the wrong use of pronouns; not even identifying as trans myself. sometimes, its willful ignorance, but usually, i feel that most people are just ignorant to trans issues in general. once educated, if one still chooses to refer to them in the wrong gender, then by all means, take offense. otherwise, take the oppurtunity to correct them and shed a little light on their limited perspectives.

  • misssanthrope


    “Just as they should respect my right not to care too much how they want to be referred to.”

    Oh, you mean your right to be an asshole. Of course you can exercise that right as freely as you want. Just don’t expect many people to respect you in the world.

  • Fitz

    @misssanthrope: Your melting all over the place. You quoted someone else with my name. And there are at least three other problems. The content: people like you not knowing the difference between a name and a pronoun. The Process: you can’t tolerate a difference of opinion without resorting to childish name calling and finally: The Judgement: not being able to know who your enemies and allies are, and to pick your battles.

  • gina

    Ms Bond isn’t really all that fussy about which pronoun is used, but is mad when snarky non-trans writers try to disrespect hir as a trans person. To whit, this blog post by hir:


  • Ruhlmann

    I hate it when the rules change. I am always two rule changes behind.

  • ait10101

    H/she has hir grammar wrong: the way ze is using it v is a name, not a pronoun. Use determines part of speech, not declarations. Some things you can change, and some things you can’t. Get over it.

  • StrayPuma

    I think I’m correct in saying that New Yorker’s Hilton Als, wrote about Justin Vivian Bond as “the best cabaret artist of [V’s] generation,” BEFORE Justin’s pronoun announcement. No?

  • Andrew

    I agree wholeheartedly with Charles’ post. I’m an FTM (and a “he”), and I don’t think transgendered people should go out of their way to court ridicule. Sadly, there isn’t a genderless pronoun out there that rolls off everyone’s tongue. Maybe “they” will catch on — grammaticians have suggested this. Until then, it looks like letting genderqueer people freely choose “he” or “she” is the best we can all agree on.

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