In recent years we’ve seen growing acceptance for people outside the gender binary. In 2017, the federal government passed Bill C-16, adding gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Still, gender marginalized people often have to specify their pronouns—whether it’s he, she, they, etc.— to avoid being misgendered. Recently we saw Canadian actor Elliot Page come out as trans, and specify that his pronouns are both he and they. This has sparked a larger conversation around respecting trans identities, specifically when people use multiple pronouns. If you are cisgender (someone who identifies with your gender assigned at birth), one of the ways to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people is by stating your pronouns. Here’s why many people are choosing to do so publicly.
In 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced its word of the year to be the non-binary pronoun “they,” for people who do not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. They/them are the most commonly used gender-neutral pronouns, says Lee Airton, an assistant professor at Queen’s University and author of the book Gender: Your Guide. Airton is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. In the English language, we’ve used they/them as singular pronouns to refer to someone whose gender is unknown for hundreds of years. “The thing that has changed in about the past 10 years is shifting from using ‘they are’ to refer to one person who you don't know… to using it for someone you do know because their gender is not man or woman,” says Airton.
“It can be a relatively risk-free way for cisgender people to show they're aware of the importance of pronouns, [and] to remind their cis peers that they should be thinking about how people choose to be referred to,” says Margaret Robinson, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. Robinson is a Two-Spirit person from Eski’kewaq, and a member of Lennox Island First Nation, whose pronouns are she/her.
It also shows gender-marginalized people that you are an ally, says Airton. “[If] has pronouns on the sign with their name that sits on their desk, that is tremendously significant to me, as I have to offer information about myself to that person in order to receive health care.” According to a study by Trans PULSE Canada, 45 percent of trans people reported having one or more unmet healthcare needs in 2019, and 12 percent had avoided going to the emergency room, despite needing care, because of their identity. By displaying your pronouns, it shows trans and non-binary people that they’re in a safe space.
Purposely referring to someone with the wrong pronouns, or misgendering them, is a transphobic tactic used to deny peoples’ identities. “It's usually about not recognizing the category in which people live. It’s to say, ‘I refuse to acknowledge that you are a man or a woman,’” says Robinson. This makes trans people less likely to return to spaces where they fear they may be misgendered, Airton says. Trans PULSE Canada found that 64 percent of trans people reported avoiding three or more public spaces out of fear of being harassed or outed. When trans people feel unsafe in public spaces, this further marginalizes them from participating in society.
If you do mess up someone’s pronouns, the best thing to do is simply apologize, rephrase and move on. “The important thing is to move on with no drama,” says Airton. “Don't dissolve into a state of devastation and awkwardness because what that does is it requires the person you misgendered to take care of you.”
You shouldn’t force anyone to offer up their pronouns, as this can make gender marginalized people feel singled out. “It can sometimes be used as a covert way to interrogate people, and demand that they conform to some sort of gender binary by telling us your pronouns,” says Robinson.
If you’re unsure about someone’s pronouns, Airton says you can usually find that information online. “Folks like me, who know that people might need a bit of a helping hand with our pronouns, we have that information in our [social] bio, for example,” they say. You can also pay attention to the pronouns other people use when describing this person. These approaches save the person from having to explain themselves when sharing their pronouns.
If you do need to ask for someone's pronouns, the best way to do so is by sharing your own pronouns first, says Airton. “Volunteering that about yourself first is quite respectful,” they say. When asking someone what their pronouns are, you should generally avoid saying “preferred” pronouns, because the word “preferred” in this context insinuates that there are other acceptable pronouns for this person, when there aren’t.
There are lots of ways to casually incorporate sharing your pronouns into your everyday life. In online spaces, you can put them in your email signature, your social media profile, and update your Zoom name to include them. Airton also recommends practising stating your pronouns when introducing yourself to new people. These small but significant actions help normalize pronoun usage, and create a more accepting world for everyone.
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