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Open for Debate

Confessions, intersectionality and personal pronouns

24 June 2024

In the past decade or so, great achievements have been made in the emancipation of genderqueer persons. Not only has there been increased visibility of these individuals in politics and media, but more and more often, practices are instated that aim to include, respect and do justice to genderqueer individuals and experiences. In tandem with this, analytic philosophers have also increasingly been working on topics of gender and genderqueerness, including on questions of the metaphysics of gender, but also on political topics of the injustices that genderqueer persons may have to endure.

The increased attention and awareness of justice for genderqueer folks is incredibly important, and a step in the direction towards a more emancipated and equal social world. In this brief entry, I want to reflect on one practice that is now often instated in order to create a safe and welcoming space for genderqueer persons: sharing personal pronouns. This practice, of course, aims to both normalize and give room for the use of trans or nonbinary pronouns, thus creating social situations that are explicitly welcoming to genderqueer and trans persons. It is part of an attempt to limit what Katharine Jenkins (2023) might call an act of ontic injustice, where an individual is wronged by being socially constructed as a member of a certain social kind (for example when the gender identity of a genderqueer of nonbinary person is misrecognized or denied). Additionally, the practice of sharing personal pronouns can be understood as a way to ensure diverse deliberative contexts where all participants feel recognized, and where varied experiences can be shared. In that way, it may be seen as a practice of epistemic diversity, if we were to follow Hélène Landemore’s (2020) suggestion that we are epistemically better off when we include a broad range of different forms of knowledge into our deliberative and decision-making processes.

Despite these many benefits of the practice of sharing pronouns, I here wish to argue that it is important that we enact this practice in a way that does not create unintended harmful effects by being (sometimes accidently) posed as a requirement or an immediate expectation. In a similar vein, Neil Levy (2023) has argued previously why he prefers not to share his personal pronouns extensively online, stating that it feels inauthentic to him because he feels his gender identity is culturally imposed, and does not truly feel like part of his individual identity. I add a different argument: I want to ensure that, in our wish to create inclusive, respectful and welcoming (deliberative) spaces, we do not unintentionally harm genderqueer or trans persons who may have legitimate reasons not to share their personal pronouns. I will provide two arguments – one that is based on a Foucauldian understanding of the confession as a way to hold individuals accountable to certain effects of their identities in institutional settings, and one that is based on the importance of taking intersectional identities into consideration. While different, Levy’s argument and my own do share something: we both wish to suggest that there are situations or contexts where it may be more appropriate and even more inclusive to not assume or require that all participants share their personal pronouns.

Being mindful of intersectional gender confessions

In considering the potential harmful effects of expecting or requiring individuals to share their pronouns, I am mostly thinking about institutional settings, such as work or school, where individuals have interests that are not necessarily connected to their gender identity and where pre-existing hierarchical relations may be in effect. I am thinking of university classrooms, for example, where well-meaning professors might require students to include their personal pronouns in a round of introductions, or of academic or professional conferences where the selection of personal pronouns are a requirement for the registration form. Again, while the intentions of these practices may be commendable and aimed precisely at inclusion and respect, unintended harmful effects may arise, especially for those who take up a more junior and less influential position.

First, I worry that, despite good intentions, requiring individuals to share personal pronouns may take on qualities of asking for confessions in the Foucauldian sense. As Daniele Lorenzini (2023) describes, Foucault describes a historical confessional practice that serves as an obligation to tell the truth about oneself in a particular institutional setting. Here, a person is required to confess something about oneself to another, to whom she stands in an asymmetrical hierarchical relation, where the other can then exercise power over her. This process not only places the confessant in a position of dependence (where she may now be availed or cured of her ‘sins’, for example with regard to her own previous ‘misconduct’), but also forces the confessant to relate to her ‘confessions’ in a new light, modifying her relationship to herself in terms of the person or institution that she confesses to (Lorenzini 2023, 93). In the Foucauldian tradition, this would then allow the confessant to be somehow modified to fit more neatly into the pre-existing norms of whatever institution she exists in – famously, Foucault has written about madness or homosexuality as topics where confessions are often extracted, all with the goal of ensuring that those who defy behavioral norms be set right.

Now, I do not wish to claim that those who aim to respect genderqueer persons by asking for their personal pronouns have the intention to enforce existing behavioral norms – of course, the intention is quite the contrary! However, an important part of Foucault’s confessional structure is that the confessant also becomes accountable to what she has confessed, because she now has to adhere to existing norms. Despite the fact that these norms are explicitly aimed at welcoming genderqueer persons, my worry arises precisely in relation to these well-intentioned norms. Robin Dembroff (2020) argues that genderqueer identities may be understood as being critical gender kinds, that explicitly work to collectively destabilize elements of the dominant gender ideology in a society. When we take this definition onboard, a situation emerges where an individual, upon being required to share their personal pronouns, becomes accountable to the destabilization of existing dominant gender norms upon their ‘confession’. The sharing of pronouns then becomes a political act, where the ‘confessant’ may be held to act according to these genderqueer norms of destabilizing gender structures. While I agree that this political destabilizing is an important aspect of genderqueer identities, I also feel that not every context is necessarily fitting to require participants to position themselves in such a political manner, potentially opening them up to challenges to their gender identity. Especially when one is at work or at school, or in a relatively junior position, we cannot expect that all genderqueer individuals want to engage in this kind of destabilizing or political project. This may simply be too much to ask and incur significant social costs, especially when additional intersecting identities are at stake that may already create similar accountability in that person.

This brings me to my second worry in requiring individuals to share personal pronouns. I fear that, despite respectful intentions, such a practice may overlook important intersectional elements that may spur individuals to prefer not to share their personal pronouns, despite feeling an existential wish (in Dembroff’s terms) to express their felt genderqueer identity. Intersectionality is a term that was, of course, coined by the activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). Crenshaw criticized existing white feminist traditions in being insufficiently aware of the subordination that women of color experience in their day-to-day lives. An intersectional approach would acknowledge that the combination of racist and sexist discrimination leads to something that goes beyond the sum of its parts, leading to particular forms of oppression that must be addressed as such, and that goes beyond the analysis and calls to action of white feminism.

In requiring individuals to share their personal pronouns it is important to acknowledge that this may have differing consequences for genderqueer persons with intersecting identities. If the announcement of genderqueer personal pronouns brings along a kind of political accountability (as I argued above), this accountability may also incur greater social costs for those genderqueer individuals who have intersecting identities that may have led to experiences of racism, sexism, classism, disablism or other forms of discrimination. Especially in these cases, it may be simply too much to ask for genderqueer persons with these intersecting identities to make themselves accountable to destabilizing dominant gender norms. I believe that this is the case especially in institutional settings where individuals may already take up a junior and dependent position, such as work or school contexts. Dembroff discusses the question of social costs explicitly in Beyond Binary (2020), and acknowledges that genderqueer persons may opt out of using personal pronouns in work contexts (Dembroff 2020). However, Dembroff does believe that some kind of external expression of genderqueer identification (such as offering genderqueer pronouns) is required for a person to be genderqueer (Dembroff 2020, 20). While this argument is understandable from an emancipatory perspective (Dembroff emphasizes that they believe that being a closeted genderqueer person is, in the end, a harmful lack of freedom that hinders self-realization), I believe that the requirement to announce one’s personal pronouns in all settings may have significantly higher costs for some individuals, due to intersecting forms of discrimination. Because of this, it is important to acknowledge that there may be situations where a genderqueer person legitimately chooses not to share one’s pronouns, and that a requirement to do so may lead to harmful effects that are insufficiently sensitive to intersectional experiences of oppression.

In short, I fear that, despite good intentions, the requirement to share personal pronouns in certain institutional settings creates a form of political accountability to destabilize the gender norms that we ought not to request of every individual. For some, especially those with intersectional experiences of discrimination and the not unrealistic expectation that these discriminatory acts may again occur, the social costs may simply be too high. For this reason, I think that the option to share personal pronouns is an important and valuable practice to create an open, welcoming and respectful space towards genderqueer persons, but that a requirement to do so may cause unintended harmful effects. Of course, one might worry that not requiring participants to share pronouns would not create the normalization that is needed to truly create welcoming spaces. An answer to this may be that those who are in a position of power or authority in the institutional settings that I have described choose to invite and to model the practice of sharing their personal pronouns – as is already the standard in many places. While this may feel inadequate to ensure properly welcoming, respectful and open spaces for genderqueer persons, I believe that it is at least preferable to the practice of requiring individuals to share their personal pronouns.



Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8).

Dembroff, Robin (2020) ‘Beyond Binary‘ Philosopher’s Imprint 20(9).

Jenkins, Katharine (2023) Ontology and Oppression: Race, Gender and Social Reality (Oxford University Press).

Landemore, Hélène (2020) Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press).

Levy, Neil (2023) ‘Why I don’t have pronouns in my bio‘ Practical Ethics.

Lorenzini, Daniele (2023) The Force of Truth. Critique, Genealogy and Truth-telling in Michel Foucault (The University of Chicago Press).


Image attribution and information: Fondazione Cariplo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. Molteni Giuseppe, La Confessione (1838). Adjusted to black and white.