As transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people have gained more visibility, more and more cisgender people have come to realize that they cannot know someone’s pronouns simply by looking at someone or knowing their name. For cisgender people who want to use someone’s personal pronouns, they might struggle on how to go about learning someone’s pronouns.
How do I know what is the right pronoun to use for a person?
In a June 2018 piece for Rewire, Katie Moritz talked with Archie Bongiovanni on Bongiovanni’s experience with “they”/”them” pronouns. Bongiovanni explained that there is no way to know what pronouns to use for a person without knowing that person’s personal pronouns:
You can’t assume anyone’s pronouns based on their gender presentation, haircut, clothing, makeup or no makeup, because the truth is anyone who presents any way can use any pronoun… If you’re meeting new people you can’t assume anything about what pronouns to use.
So what should I do when I don’t know what pronoun to use for someone?
This will depend on the context. GLAAD’s tipsheet for allies of transgender people suggests listening at first: “If you’re unsure which pronoun a person uses, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to them. Someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun.”
OK, what if I am in a classroom? Or a business meeting?
Sometimes people have suggested having everyone in the room share their own pronouns, but that can have some unintended consequences. In an essay for The New York Times, professor Elizabeth Reis told the story of how she used to start her classes by having students go around and announce their pronouns. She did this because she thought it would be an exercise that normalized sharing pronouns, reminded students not to assume, and ensured that students would be referred to by their personal pronoun. Except one time, a student confided that she had been horrified and anxious to have to announce her pronouns in front of strangers.
So you’re saying to not have people share their pronouns in a group setting like that?
It will depend on the context. Reis said she later amended that exercise to include the caveat that people shouldn’t feel obligated to share their pronouns. She’s operating in a classroom where the people are ostensibly strangers to each other.
In an April 2018 essay on Medium, E. Price suggested asking yourself a few questions:
- Are you in a space that is safe for trans people?
- Are you in a space that is warm and respectful to trans people?
- Are people in this space well educated on trans issues?
- Will you actually use the person’s pronouns?
- Will you correct misgendering?
- Are there other trans people around?
- Is the person comfortable discussing their pronouns?
These will be hard to gauge in some situations.
OK, but what if it’s a one-on-one situation and it’s just me and that person?
In that situation, GLAAD’s tipsheet suggests that you offer your own pronouns first. “I use ‘he’/’him’ pronouns. What about you?”
So I should just ask?
It depends on the context, but in the Rewire piece by Moritz, cisgender man Brent Dundore said:
I learned that it’s okay to ask people their pronouns, also that everybody has a unique story how they came to use a specific set of pronouns, and that everyone’s story is different… I have learned gradually how little I knew (about gender), even while trying to educate myself.
But what about Reis’s piece? I thought that person was offended by having to share her pronoun?
In that context, it was terrifying for a person share her pronouns in front of strangers. But that’s not going to be the situation every time you are interacting with a person. If you’re a reporter or a teacher or some other professional who will have to refer to another person, you’re going to want to make sure you have their pronoun correct.
I just don’t want to offend.
Understandable. In the right context, more often than not, the person will appreciate you taking the effort to get the right pronoun. Particularly if you are going to be referring to that person in an article, a classroom setting, or some sort of other way.
Think of it the same way you would think of someone named “Meagan,” “Meghan,” or “Megan.” Or “Jonathan,” “Johnathan,” or “Jonathon.” Or “Katherine,” “Catherine,” “Kathryn,” or “Katharine.” If we don’t know the proper way to spell the name, we ask so that we can spell it the way that person spells it. It might help you to think of pronouns in a similar way.
And as the GLAAD tipsheet suggests, offering up your own pronoun first can help put people at ease, and normalize the process of asking over assuming.
What if I am OK with any pronouns?
In a 2016 post for The Body Is Not An Apology, West Anderson wrote:
Not having a pronoun preference is absolutely fine, but when cisgender people say, “I don’t care what pronouns you use for me,” especially in a group with only one or two trans people, that statement can invalidate a trans person’s need for particular pronouns or for pronouns that change from day to day. Cis people don’t often have to deal with the daily discomfort of incorrect pronoun usage the way many trans people do. When cis people say their pronoun choice doesn’t matter in a pronoun round, it can make trans people in the circle feel like their pronouns needs are silly or won’t be taken seriously.
A post on the blog Debunking Cis Privilege echoed that sentiment, saying, “As a tangent, cis people, please do not say you don’t care when you are asked your pronouns. You’re not showing yourself to be cool with trans people, you’re showing that you have no clue what it’s like to be mispronouned all the time.”
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