About Trans editor, Ian Townsley, schools us on the importance of pronouns and names for transgender and non-binary folks.
I know; you’ve heard this one a hundred times. “Use the pronoun and name a person uses for themselves!” At some point, we all get tired of hearing it. Trust me, as a trans person, I get tired of saying it, if I’m being honest.However, most people don’t understand why we need to refer to people using the gender identification that they use. So, why is this so important?
When a person is misgendered — whether trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, or cis (though less so with cis people) — they are being told that their identity does not matter. By choosing to use the wrong words to identify another person, an invalidation of their identity is created in a fundamental way. Trust me, as a trans man, I can attest to how much it hurts when someone calls you by a pronoun that does not align with your gender. To put it into perspective for yourself, think about any bully from high school that made a joke out of your name or teased something about you that you identified closely with — whether it have been the clothes you wore, your culture, or where you lived. And while it can be hard to keep up with the way things are changing, by making an effort to correct this behavior just a little bit each day, it can ultimately help unlearn bad, predisposed habits and create better, more open-minded ones.
Let’s break it down.
Let’s start with the basics of pronouns and their rules. If you aren’t entirely familiar with all the words we learned in English class back in school to identify parts of speech, you may be asking, “What on earth does Ian mean by ‘pronouns’?” That one is easy to explain. By definition, pronouns are “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context.” These pronouns for people who identify as female are she, hers, and her. For people who identify as male, these pronouns are he, his, and him. Lastly, and maybe the more difficult to relearn and understand, are the pronouns who identify as gender nonbinary/nonconforming, or as neither male or female. These pronouns often also can apply to any person who identifies as gender fluid (sometimes male, sometimes female), and are they, them, their, or something different entirely. The reason I say that this may be “more difficult” to wrap your head around is because, at least for most of us, K-12 schooling always categorized they/them/their as pronouns used to describe a group of two or more person or things. And even if it isn’t that way for us, we all know that one person who’s like:
That’s right. Some people argue this point that they/them/their are strictly plural versions, but the definition of these pronouns is not limited to a plural sense, and dictionaries do not state that they must be strictly plural. And if you stop to think about it, you actually use it in its non-plural form all the time. Think about when you spoke to a friend who was getting into a new relationship, but weren’t sure of the sex of the person your friend had begun dating. You may have asked, “What’s their name?”. Or when you meet a new person who tells you they have one younger sibling. You might ask, “What are they like?” See? This is because the dictionary actually also defines they/them/their as pronouns for a person whose gender is unknown or not expressly male or female. So if a person tells you that they use they/them pronouns, just go with the flow. It may take some practice, but I believe in you!
Let us say that your neighbor recently got a puppy. When you first meet the dog, you refer to it as ‘he’. The neighbor then corrects you, saying that the dog is actually a girl. So, you make a point of switching the pronouns you’re using when referring to the puppy. See what I’m getting at here? When a person tells you that they are, in fact, not the gender you assumed, trust that they know themselves better than you do. I promise, the world will not end because you call someone by a new pronoun. Besides, it’s probably only new to you.
What to do when you misgender.
Now let’s say that you accidentally do misgender someone. It can be embarrassing, and you may feel the need to apologize so that they know it was unintentional. Repeatedly, even. It is important that I stress here that when this happens, don’t call overzealous attention to the mistake, as you risk making the slip-up so much worse. If you use the wrong pronouns for someone (or even accidentally deadname them) the best course of action is to quickly correct yourself, then keep the conversation flowing as if nothing has happened. It isn’t necessary to draw superfluous attention to the mistake at all, and I promise that the person you misgendered or deadnamed will thank you for it — internally, of course.
In the English language — although less so than in Latin based languages — there are many words that are gender-specific that are not pronouns, such as titles. Brother or sister, aunt or uncle, feminine or masculine, actor or actress, hero or heroine — the list goes on! Keep in mind that when a person comes out to you, it is important to not only change the pronouns you are using, but to also change the ways you refer to them in these many other aspects. Not all words are gender-neutral like ‘doctor’ or ‘writer’. And while it may take some time to get used to doing this and to make a habit of it, most of us that are trans or nonbinary are willing to overlook mistakes as long as we’re treated with respect. We see that you’re trying; and it means more to us than you know. You’re unlearning a lifetime of ingrained habits and sometimes a relationship’s-length of what you believed to be true before a person has come out to you.
What is a rose by any other name?
Let’s take a moment to talk about names. Tell me, how many of you use the full name you were given at birth? First, middle, and last exactly as they are spelled out on your birth certificate at the time of your grand entrance into the world? How about famous artists or actors? How many of us call them by their full names — Adele, Madonna, Cher — or even the names they were assigned at birth — Lil Wayne was born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. and Mindy Kaling was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam. We don’t insist on having the name Adele Laurie Blue Adkins printed on the cover of every copy of 25 at Walmart. The point I’m trying to make here is that you should anyone else that same respect and just use the name someone tells you belongs to them, even if they change it later or have had it changed. You might mess up, and that’s ok; but making the switch to a new name isn’t too hard if you really try.
In the event of uncertainty …
The last, and maybe the most important, thing to know is about handling confusion. When you meet someone, you may make assumptions about their gender based on centuries-old societal constructions that attribute certain physical attributes and behaviors to be inherently feminine or masculine, and in turn assign femininity and masculinity to a particular gender. Most of the time, you’d probably be correct in these assumptions as trans and nonbinary people are not the majority. After all, we are only approximately 1.4 percent of the world population.
Every now and then, you may not be sure which pronouns to use. There may be a lot of questions you can’t ask that person as they may be too personal or seem intrusive, but there is one you always can. If you aren’t sure about a person’s gender, just ask them! Please don’t ask what pronouns we “prefer”, but what pronouns we use. They aren’t preferred; they’re ours. Our pronouns, just like yours, are a fundamental part of our identity and we know ourselves better than anyone else. Most transgender people have gone through a lot to get to where we are, and verifying our identity is a way to show you are an ally and someone we can trust to show us respect and kindness.
But these very few, very simple points are the basics; and hopefully this has helped you to understand why you should always do your best to afford transgender people the same dignity you would show anyone else. In the end, we’re all people and we all deserve the same courtesies, regardless of who or what gender we are.
For questions about names, pronouns, or any transgender topics, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.