And Your Pronouns?

The weekend of March 8-10 I attended FOGCon in Walnut Creek, CA. I caught up with friends, met new people, helped out setting up the ConSuite and worked the registration desk, and observed some interesting panels. I participated on two of them. I sat in on several readings and I enjoyed every one of them. In short, I had a good time. I’m leading with that because I’m going to write about the one small — well, medium-sized — thing that got under my skin and itched, and is still itching, and it had to do with the behavior of a particular moderator, who, unfortunately for me — or for them, depending on how you look at it — I saw twice, moderating two separate panels, on the same day.

This is about language. It is mostly about pronouns, and it’s also about behavior, especially the behavior one uses when moderating a panel.

FOGCon, like many speculative fiction conventions,values inclusion and respect. One way they demonstrate that value is by putting a place on each participant’s name badge for “Your pronouns.” If you are what’s called cis-het (self-identifying as your current biological sex, and drawn to the opposite sex), you might be saying, “What’s the deal with pronouns?” The deal is for people who are transgendered or gender non-binary. Some people don’t want to be boxed in by a pronoun that denotes sex. Those people might prefer “they/their.” Some people may currently present as one gender and be in transition. They might prefer the pronoun of the gender to which they are transiting. And some cis-het people might want to help push the habit of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

I think honoring people’s choices is polite and respectful, and putting a pronoun choice on a name badge makes it easier for me to know what to call someone. This way, I won’t accidentally offend them. I’m good with this idea.

Now. That moderator.

This moderator is well-known and highly respected in the convention community, not just in California. They are politically active. I had met them before at FOGCon and been impressed. I’d even say I liked them. I’ll call the moderator L. L. presents as female. They prefer “they.”

The first panel L. moderated, they spent the first three minutes or so directing us, the audience, in how we would behave. We would not ask questions during the panel because there was time left at the end. There was an exception; clarifying questions would be allowed, “for those of you who do not have the internet in your pocket.” When L. was calling upon audience members, L would describe them by what they were wearing, “Because we can’t tell gender by appearance.” Okay. School-marmish, but fair enough, or at least, on the continuum of reasonable.

After L introduced themselves and gave their pronouns, they said, “And now I’d like the panelists to introduce themselves and give their pronouns.”


(Two of the panelists did not give their pronouns. I don’t think this was rebellion. I think they forgot.)

The panel went on and pronouns became less interesting. When one of the panelists, who I’ll call M, started to speak, L leaned forward immediately, cutting her off. “M, please speak more loudly.” A note about M.; she is short, and the microphone was on a stand. Even with it tipped down, it was hard for her to reach it. Secondly, M is soft spoken. M. uses “she/her” and so will I.

M. started again and spoke more loudly. The panel continued.

This was a panel on short fiction, and later in the discussion it emerged that no one on the panel could remember offhand, what the word lengths were for short stories, novelettes (an SF designation I think), novella and novels. In the context of the panel, these categories mattered. While the panelist to the left of L. was speaking, the panelist to the left of her pulled out her phone and murmured “Siri, what is short story length?” Sadly, the microphone picked it up.

“Can we please not do that? It’s disruptive,” said L, publicly embarrassing the panelist who probably thought that a) she had the internet in her pocket and b) she was gathering helpful information.

Moments later, when M. started to voice an opinion, L. cut her off again, directing her to speak more slowly.

Here’s what I think was going on. I believe the panelist to L’s left has a hearing loss. I think the Siri request was a distraction for her, and I think M was genuinely hard for her to hear. L. probably thought she was advocating for her. I think it could have been done better.

That’s Panel One. I looked at my notes and saw I’d written two things, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “pronoun police.” Plainly, I had an attitude.

That afternoon, L. moderated a panel on villains and their friends. They began with the same mini-lecture about how we would behave and about how they would call on us. Then they directed the panelists to introduce themselves and their pronouns. Two panelists didn’t. Again, it didn’t look like rebellion.

The microphone returned to L. They turned to the two panelists, held out the microphone and said, “And your pronouns?”

Still later, one panelist brought up Draco Malfoy. His point (his pronouns are he/him) was that if Draco is a villain at all, he is a cut-rate knockoff villain who would really need to step up his game. “And those two kids who hang around with him, Goyle and Crabbe, they think they’re his friends but they’re just…”

The panelist next to him said a word that the mic didn’t pick up.

“Yeah, henchmen. Just henchmen.”

L. extended their hand immediately for the microphone. When it was surrendered to them, they said, “Because I like to model the kind of behavior I want to see, I request that we not use words like ‘henchmen.’ Because not all henchmen are, well, men. Can’t we say minions?”

“Sorry, sorry. Minions,” said the panelist.

And, I was done.

My main take-away from these observations is that I never want to be on a panel that L. moderates. One of the pleasures of a panel is that you get to explore ideas and toss out arguments, and for me any chance of doing that would be ruined by the nagging fear that L. would publicly shame me if I mis-spoke. And the odds are good, even though I’m working hard on making this habit change, that I would mis-speak. Twice, while writing this, I’ve used the wrong pronoun for L. and had to go back and change it. This isn’t me being subtly hostile; it’s me making a mistake because I’m applying new behavior.

Every one of L’s points, or the probable philosophy underlying her actions, is good but it could be handled in a way that doesn’t shame people. I’m always startled when those who speak openly about what a venomous, debilitating effect shame has had on them in their lives resort to public shaming without a second thought.

And I blame the internet. Okay, not really, or not completely, but this confrontational, in-your-face, don’t allow for the benefit of the doubt behavior describes Twitter and Tumblr pretty thoroughly. I wonder if L, trying to make and model changes in their own daily life, has carried that model forward.

And certainly, some of this is generational. I’m old; I’ve had sixty years of thinking of gender and language in a certain way. I try to make the change, but changing a habit is not easy.

Apart from the “and your pronouns” moments, interrupting a speaker twice to tell them to speak differently just seems rude. If L was concerned that her follow panelist couldn’t hear M after the first time, why didn’t they say, as the microphone moved to M, “M, you’re soft-spoken, I just want to remind you to speak up?” It’s still calling her out, but it does not interrupt her or disrupt the panel. It does not make it seem as though M’s comments are less important and therefore okay to interrupt.

And, in a case where two subordinate characters are both male, and therefore “henchmen” is accurate, could you, maybe, just once, live with “henchmen?” Honestly. I want to know.

This seems like a lot of complaining for three hours out of a three-day convention. And really, it’s pretty minor. L. did not engage in ethnic, racial, gendered or homophobic slurs; they were not inebriated, they did not interrupt many people on their panels. As an audience member, it made for two uncomfortable sessions, and, as I said, it crystalized for me the fact that I don’t want to have to interact with someone this directive and doctrinaire in a panel setting. That means the ball’s in my court for next year. I’ve been warned.

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