I detest that people rarely invoke childhood or schooling when talking about freedom. As kids, when our parents restricted us from going to movies or we negotiated with them for a lenient curfew are universal examples of how our younger selves learned to negotiate for our freedoms.
When I was in sixth grade, I told my teacher that if I want to wear pants and shirt with a tie, instead of a churidar as uniform, that I should be allowed to do so. I was not allowed. Freedom from a churidar never became a reality for me. Freedom to express my gender queerness remains a dream. Of course, back then I didn’t know the concept of ‘gender queerness’ existed. I thought I was a freak, trying to ascertain something, having no idea what that something is.
The unfortunate thing is that this dream still haunts me. I have gone from studying at a conservative school to studying at India’s most celebrated and “liberal” universities. And yet, the freedom to express my gender at the University and in front of my family is still a dream.
On the very second day of an internship at a prestigious Indian institution, I told my boss that I was writing a research paper on queer people. The immediate response was, why should queer people even use the word “they” as a pronoun as it ‘spoils’ the grammar of the language. He suggested that queer people should go for some “new words”. When I added that the concept of neopronouns already existed, he made a confused face and asked me “how are we even going to use those?”. Of course, he did not know that I too use the pronouns they/them. After this incident, I made sure I am known only by a “she/her” in that workplace.
People are okay with queerness until it transforms their reality. Those who are okay with letting queers into their lives do it on terms acceptable to them. The fact that one’s queerness and their freedom to be open about it, is based on others being “okay” with it, undermines any notion of freedom.
Miniscule dominant populations have historically sacrificed the freedoms of the vast majority. This discomfort in addressing people for who they are, is nothing but a form of aggrieved entitlement. When queers talk about pronouns, we are dealing with a drop from an ocean of abuse, restrictions, pressures and humiliation.
Often these people are lazy, unoriginal and uninformed in their critiques, worrying about how it can be confusing across generations or centering their own anxieties regarding the usage of language over someone’s lived experience. Language is always confusing irrespective of pronouns. It is an ever-evolving process that is anyway perceived differently by different generations. We don’t stop using LOL in our communications thinking our grandmothers might not understand such slang. It would be equally bewildering if we expect our upcoming generations to stick to the set of words we use.
For example, within the wildly diverse corpus of Indian languages one can find languages that use ‘they’ similarly as it is used in English when one doesn’t know the gender of the third person. There are some languages that have room for people gendered outside strictly masculine and feminine and others with no gendered pronouns at all!
Not respecting how someone wants to be addressed, given their historical marginalisation amounts to violence too.
As a people living in India, we have a fundamental right to expression. Can my gender expression be read into this right by extension? Unfortunately, India as a political state and the Indian judicial system, have not had constructive debates about this. However, internationally in countries like Canada, the debate about gender expression being protected under right to expression has been structurally established by various entities, both governmental and otherwise.
In India, the debates on freedom of expression have been restricted to broadcasting, divulging of information (Union of India vs. Association for Democratic Reforms, 2002 SCC 5 294), right to criticize (S. Rangarajan vs. P. Jagjivan Ram, 1989 SCC 2 574) and even the right to remain silent (Bijoe Emmanuel vs. State of Kerala, 1986 SCC 3 615).
The phrase “expression” in this context, has been interpreted majorly to be expression of opinions, written or verbal information divulging or not divulging it thereof. The behavioral and emotional aspects of expression have not been concretely considered either by courts or by Parliament. A free society is also a collaborative effort. It requires a commitment to co-existing on terms that allow all individuals to feel self-respected. I wish people would commit to a better world, but that’s a tall order. Till then, not calling me with their pronouns would do.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Don’t Call Me By Your Pronouns")
Liked the story? Do you or your friends have a similar story to share about 'ordinary' Indians making a difference to the community? Write to us. If your story is as compelling, we'll feature it online. Click here to submit.