Want to be an ally this Trans Day of Visibility? Start with my pronouns.
By Rakhel Silverman (they/them) | Chapter Engagement Coordinator, Western Region
As a nonbinary person, my day is filled with negotiations.
It happens when I read an email referring to me as “her,” and I worry it will seem aggressive if I correct the sender.
It happens when I dial a customer-service line, knowing I will be called “ma’am” once they hear my voice, and I wonder if saying something is worth it.
People almost always mean well, but the misgendering and mispronouning — using words or personal gender pronouns that do not reflect how someone identifies — still hurt. With every “she” or “ma’am,” I feel like I am being stabbed in the chest. I assess the situation and calculate to whom I should “out” myself: Who am I talking to, and for how long? Is the pain of being misgendered worth not having to explain my identity? Should I risk their misunderstanding or invalidation at best; their insults, refusal of service, or potential threats of danger at worst?
When I tell someone that my personal pronouns are they/them, I am trusting them with a piece of myself. My intention in correcting someone for misgendering or mispronouning me is not to antagonize, but to invest in our relationship; I want them to know and affirm the real me.
Upon meeting me, or even just reading my name, people are likely to assume that I am a woman who uses she/her pronouns. This is because society teaches us to immediately assess and determine someone’s gender with no real information other than a cursory glance at a haircut, an outfit, or a nametag, their brain then struggling with which box to put them into.
We need to train ourselves not to assume anyone’s gender, and to respect the personal gender pronouns people use for themselves. This work involves learning that one’s gender presentation or expression is not the same as their gender identity. People can express themselves in a wide variety of ways, none of which change my internal sense of myself; I am nonbinary when I wear a dress and makeup, and when I wear a men’s shirt and shoes.
This work is hard. It takes time to break out of assuming people’s gender identity. For some, gender-neutral pronouns may be a new concept. And if someone you know changes their pronouns to better reflect who they are, remembering to use these new pronouns can be hard. Yet it’s important to keep trying. Apologize if you get it wrong, and then try again. We are all learning, growing, and improving.
Here are the suggestions I’ve made to people when asked how they can support me:
- Share your own name and pronouns when introduced, which makes space for others to do the same. If they do not give any pronouns, use their name instead. This protects people from having to out themselves if they are not ready. (And some people use their names as their pronouns; read more here).
- Typicalize sharing pronouns. Introduce yourself with your pronouns, and put your pronouns on nametags, both real world and virtual, and in your email signature.
- Try not to assume anyone’s gender or pronouns, and do your best to default to gender-neutral language when referring to someone you do not know (for instance, “that person in the red dress”). Get comfortable asking the question, “What are your pronouns” (not “preferred pronouns”). Practice, practice practice. If your brain isn’t used to someone’s pronouns, find a buddy to practice with, or use a pronoun-practicing tool like this one.
- When you misgender someone and either catch yourself or are corrected, quickly and briefly correct yourself in the moment, apologize, and then move on. For example “You can email her — I mean them. Apologies.”
- If you witness someone being misgendered or mispronouned, kindly and gently step in and correct them. Be a good ally so that trans and nonbinary people don’t have to make the correction, and say, “Just a reminder that [person’s name] uses they/them pronouns.”
I am a staffer at PFLAG National. At PFLAG, we make it a practice to work on using people’s pronouns, and assist our members and supporters in this educational effort. We want to ensure that trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people are welcome and affirmed at PFLAG meetings and programs, as well as anywhere that LGBTQ+ people learn, work, play, pray, and live.
YOU can help make this kind of inclusion possible in your own community, and a great way to do that is to keep the learning and conversation going!
Here are some hopefully helpful pieces to read and share:
- “Normalize Not Knowing: Looking Past Our Assumptions” from the PFLAG National Blog
- “How Do I Use Your Pronouns Correctly?” from MyPronouns.org.
- “Five People Share What It Feels Like To Have Their Pronouns Affirmed” from Jamie LeClaire.
- “What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns” from Sam Dylan Finch (with this graphic to summarize).
- “Agender People Debunk Myths About Their Identities” from Serena Sonoma.
- “Doctors Using a Transgender Patient’s Correct Pronouns is a Life or Death Matter,” from Teen Vogue