The third Wednesday in October is International Pronouns Day, when the importance of respecting peoples pronouns is championed and celebrated. It is an important cause, as they say on the IPD website;
Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people’s multiple, intersecting identities.
However there are some things which, whilst often well intentioned, are encouraged around pronoun use which often have the a detrimental or negative imapct. In this post I will look at three of the most common.
1.THe creeping circle of pronoun death
I am sure its a scene which will be familiar to many of you, before the meeting, seminar, class or coven can commence, the facilitator announces that we will all go around the room, and give our name, pronouns and one fact about ourselves (other icebreakers are available upon request).
Just like those badges which allow us to write our pronouns in, it sounds like a great idea, after all, what we all need to do is stop assuming we can tell someone’s pronouns just from looking. However, the issue here is when it is mandatory. Cisgenderism means that often people facilitating have never considered what it actually means to disclose your pronouns to a group of strangers – you are being asked to out yourself, which can feel especially unsafe if your pronouns do not “match” your gender presentation at that time.
It is also the case that exploring gender identity is not a lightbulb moment for many people. The established narrative of always knowing, of certainty, is often instead one of fluidity and movement. People wonder if they are trans, or non- binary, or gender non-conforming. One day “she” might feel right, another day “he” or “they”. This is perfectly normal, but cisgenderism prioritises those for whom gender is fixed and binary. The request to announce your pronouns, when you are still trying to work out for yourself which ones feel right can be incredibly stressful..
Luckily the solution is quite simple. Inviting people to share their pronouns, if they wish, creates space for those who feel able, and want to, whilst respecting those for whom it is not the right time or space to do so.
2. No ones pronouns are “whatever”
So, forgive me if your pronouns are whatever, I fully accepted that I am not the god of pronouns, and I may be wrong in the headline. This section is aimed at those cis people, who, usually during the creeping circle of pronoun death, laugh and say “he, she, they, whatever”
I have to emphasise here I am not talking about gender fluid people, or those who use more than one set of pronouns for whatever reasons. Again, cast your mind back to the last space you were in where people were invited to share pronouns. I have lost count of the times where a cis person laughingly says their pronouns are “whatever”. Unconscious and internalised cisgenderism means they may not even realise that by making light of the sharing of pronouns they are demonstrating cis privilege. To not have experienced having the wrong pronouns used, being misgendered, is a position of privilege. Making light of what for many trans/non-binary people is a huge, often dangerous step, is neither kind nor helpful. If you really don’t care which pronouns people use for you, great, say that. I suspect though, if you usually use he/him, and I spend the day referring to you as she/her you will soon discover that actually, you do care. It’s rather like the incredibly stale attack helicopter “gag”, If you do identify as an attack helicopter, fine, it affects me in no way, and let me know how I can best respect your identity. If you think you are being funny, please be quiet until the grown ups have finished talking.
3. No, they are not my preferred pronouns.
If there is one phrase that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history it is “preferred pronouns”. Again it is cisgenderism at play. If you describe some pronouns are preferred, whilst other people just use pronouns, it is creating a hierarchy, a structure which puts some pronouns as more real, or more acceptable than others. A non-binary person is not expressing a preference when they ask you to use they./them or any other gender neutral pronouns. To paraphrase a common meme, preferences are for whether pineapple belongs on pizza, not for respecting basic human rights.
A good rule of thumb in identifying cisgenderism, is to ask yourself whether you would phrase something in the same way about a cis person. If you wouldn’t, then perhaps you need to find another way to say it.
I am aware that a post based on what not to do can sometimes feel a little negative, so here is a wonderful, upbeat, video from Australia. Happy International Pronouns Day Folx!