The subject of pronouns has been a hot topic. The premise of the ask is simple; when referring to someone, we should be using the language that is appropriate to that person’s gender identity, rather than defaulting to our assumptions. While this does mean we may need to change some of our thoughts and habits, it is a worthwhile step to take towards being inclusive of all LGBTQ+ identities.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of pronouns to trans and non-binary people. A big part of what it even means to be a man or a woman is how others perceive us, what social roles we get to play and what language others use to describe us. When someone refers to us with the wrong pronouns, we instinctually understand it as an admission that the speaker does not see us as the gender that we are, and that can be quite a painful thing to realise. The level of discomfort this evokes varies, but for many trans people it is a sadly common source of dysphoria.
For non-binary people, the subject can become even more complex. Many non-binary people are uncomfortable with ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns being used to describe them, and prefer the singular ‘they’ and ‘them’, while others prefer neo-pronouns, such as ‘xe’ and ‘xem’. Because these pronouns are sparsely, if ever, used in regular speech, it can be harder for our friends and loved ones to adapt. Which is unfortunate, since the use of correct pronouns can be even more important for the non-binary community.
‘Passing’ – presenting as cis – is often not an option for us, since there isn’t a cis non-binary gender for us to pass as, at least not in the public consciousness. While many non-binary people present their gender as ambiguous or androgynous, this is not an option available for all bodies, nor is it even something every non-binary person wants. This leaves the use of correct pronouns as one of the few ways for us to assert our gender identity in public.
That being said, ‘non-binary’ is an umbrella term for a diverse range of gender identities, and different members of the community have different attitudes towards pronouns. Many non-binary people, for various reasons, are comfortable with ‘he’ or ‘she’, as well as ‘they’ and ‘them’, whether for simplicity, or because they want to acknowledge the gender assigned to them at birth as remaining a part of their identity. Many are indifferent to gendered language, comfortable with all and any pronouns being used for them.
An interesting side-note is that this phenomenon is not exclusive to English. Trans and non-binary people who are multilingual may have a different experiences with gender pronouns in different languages.
While I personally prefer ‘they’ and ‘them’ pronouns, I am largely indifferent to English gendered language, because I am not a native English speaker. Since I did not grow up with the language and it did not form the basis of my gender identity, it simply does not cut too deep when the wrong words are being used to describe me. This is only true of English, however. In Russian, my first language, masculine terms being applied to me evoke a strong feeling of disgust, dread and dysphoria. Now bear in mind that, similar to French, every single word in Russian is assigned a gender, and there is no true singular ‘they’. This means that honouring my gender identity in Russian would be tricky at best.
Because the use of correct pronouns requires concentrated effort, it can be a difficult subject even with LGBTQ+ allies, let alone our detractors. Best advice I can give to an ally is to do your best, and to conceal your effort if you can. Don’t take being corrected as a slight, rather take it on-board and try again next time. If you make a mistake, correct yourself quickly, do not acknowledge your mistake, and carry on as if nothing happened. Remember that it’s okay to make these mistakes, and it’s okay if it takes time.
While I am non-binary myself, I also grew up in the same cis-normative environment as everyone else, so I am not exempt from misgendering others. As long as you give it your honest best, your trans and non-binary friends will appreciate it.
Words and thoughts written by Rowan Fox.