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Pride Month: The Importance of Pronouns
28 June 2022
Happy Pride Month, everyone!
We wanted to make a continued effort with being an INCLUSIVE business. Therefore, myself and Gemma have written pieces on different topics around the LGBTQIA+ community, so be sure to have a read of hers here!
My chosen topic as an Ally of the community’s the topic of ‘pronouns’. I wanted to focus this article as an opportunity for education, because even as someone who’s always been in support of the community, I’ve (and admittedly, still do) lack knowledge in certain areas and wanted to learn more about the importance/significance of particular topics. Something I’d done over a year ago was display my pronouns on my LinkedIn and social media accounts, something which is becoming more and more common, as a way of showing support and inclusivity for the community.
So, what are Pronouns?
We all have pronouns! Whether it’s in first person (e.g. I, Me, Mine, Myself), second person (e.g. You, Yours, Yourself), or third person (which’ll be the main focus of this piece). It’s the way that we refer to people (or yourself). Whilst most people do use she/her/hers or he/him/his, in line with the gender they’re assigned at birth (i.e. female or male) – by assuming the gender of a person based on their appearance or their name, it isn’t always correct, accurate, or helpful.
Everyone has the right to decide what pronouns they go by, and it’s everyone else’s responsibility to use those pronouns correctly. We all want, and deserve, to feel seen.
Using someone’s correct pronouns creates an INCLUSIVE environment where respect’s shown and care’s demonstrated. The closest example for someone who’s never been ‘misgendered’ (the official term for using the wrong pronouns) is to perhaps think of a time where you’ve repeatedly been called the wrong name, or been given a nickname that you don’t like. It’s part of your identity and is disrespectful to knowingly (or unknowingly) refer to someone using incorrect pronouns.
How do I use Pronouns?
Pronouns commonly have a gendered association, and most people will generally fall within the gender binary e.g. men using he/him/his, and women using she/her/hers. Most of us were only taught these pronouns when we learnt English at school, and then not taught anything further on the topic. However, gender neutral pronouns can exist and are used – the most common being ‘they’ (but also others such as ‘ze’, ‘xe’), and are often used by non-binary people. These are individuals who don’t ‘fit’ within the constraints of a set binary gender of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.
The misconception around ‘they/them/their pronouns’ often is that it’s grammatically incorrect to refer to a singular person. This isn’t true. Gender neutral pronouns are useful for when someone perhaps doesn’t know the gender of the person they’re speaking about (e.g. “Sam’s a really nice person, I like them a lot”).
It’s also worth noting, some people may have more than one set of pronouns (e.g. using specific pronouns at work compared to at home). This can be for a variety of reasons, for example some people make this choice for their own safety, or because they don’t feel comfortable being ‘out’ in certain settings.
What if I don’t know what Pronouns someone uses?
You can do one of three things:
- Use ‘They’: Using singular they/them/theirs until you’ve the opportunity to ask about their pronouns.
- Ask: It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone what pronouns they use, as it’s important to address them correctly.
- Use their name: As easy as it may seem, usually using someone’s name is often accompanied by also using pronouns, often without realising. So it’s easy to make that mistake.
If you use the wrong pronouns for someone in a conversation and you immediately recognise it, correct yourself, apologise, and move on in the conversation. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes: they’re inevitable, but be aware of them, learn from them and, most importantly, keep trying.
What’s important here isn’t to make the situation about yourself, your intention, or make excuses about the mistake.
Equally, when others make a mistake – correct them with the right pronouns that person goes by (if you know) and carry on with the conversation. This is the most effective way to make using correct pronouns a standard practice in day-to-day life.
Let’s also address some common terms:
Sex: Sex is a label – male, female, or intersex – that’s assigned at birth by a medical professional based on the sexual organs a person’s born with and the chromosomes they have. This doesn’t necessarily match up with someone’s gender/gender identity.
Gender: Gender’s a bit more complex. It’s a legal and social position which includes the behaviours, characteristics, and thoughts that come from the expectations of society (e.g. dresses and skirts are associated with being clothes belonging to ‘women’ and ‘girls’). However, most gendered stereotypes are damaging and also not applicable to many individuals.
Gender identity focuses on internal perception and how much they align, or don’t align, with what they understand their options for gender to be (e.g. gender conforming, or non-conforming). Therefore, sex and gender are not the same thing – gender is much more about the individuals thoughts and ‘feelings’ (influenced by wider societal expectations), rather than the biological element of sex.
Cisgender: Refers to someone whose gender matches their ‘assigned’ sex at birth. For example, I was born as female and I also identify as a ‘woman’ as my gender. My pronouns are also reflective of my gender; so I go by she/her/hers. But again, this isn’t the case for everyone!
Transgender: Refers to someone whose gender is different from their ‘assigned’ sex at birth.
Non-binary: A spectrum of gender identities that aren’t exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine. Typically, these identities lie outside of the gender binary of male and female.
Genderfluid: Refers to a person’s gender identity changing overtime, or changes at different times.
Whilst ‘sexual orientation’ is the emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. Whether that be of the same gender, different gender, or multiple genders.
What does correct Pronoun use achieve?
When we ask others what pronouns they use, we’re conveying respect and inclusivity. For people who aren’t cisgender, this’s particularly important. If you’re a cisgender person, you likely haven’t ever experienced the stress of not being perceived as the gender you are. But for anyone who isn’t cisgender, this’s an all too common occurrence. People who’re transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and/or genderfluid experience a disproportionate amount of adversity and hardship on the subject of their gender.
Additionally, and importantly, incorrect pronoun use can increase that person’s dysphoria (the discomfort felt when a person’s assigned gender doesn’t match their gender identity), further complicating and even potentially harming their relationship with their body.
An easy way to ensure that you don’t assume someone’s pronouns is by using ‘they/them’, by default, when you don’t explicitly know a person’s gender. By using gender-neutral pronouns (and language), we can avoid making assumptions about another person’s gender, as well as avoid making any stereotypical assumptions about that person’s lifestyle.
In the same way, it’s important that all of us, where comfortable, make steps to be aware about pronouns. I mentioned that as an Ally of the community, I’ve chosen to disclose my pronouns despite being cisgender. This is because if it’s just people that don’t appear to ‘match’ their sex to their gender that specify their pronouns, they’re still being singled out. By making the ‘pronoun question’ a common one, we’re offering a space to those who too often have been unable to truly disclose who they are without singling them out for being different.
However, it should be noted that this isn’t the only act of allyship you can demonstrate, so if you’re not comfortable sharing your pronouns publicly, this doesn’t mean you don’t support inclusivity. Indicating your own pronouns is ultimately a personal choice.
We have a long way to go as a society to make non-cis people feel as safe moving through life as cisgendered people feel. Using the correct pronouns for trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and genderfluid people’s the easiest first step in this direction that cis people can take. The act of using correct pronouns serves to show others that you see them for who they are, and creates safety for them.
Mastering correct pronoun usage’s a great first step to understanding more about gender identity. The best way to overcome this hurdle’s simply to practice doing it. Like any new skill, within a short amount of time you’ll have made progress! Eventually it’ll be second nature and won’t feel daunting at all.
It’s an important move towards real inclusivity in the workplace and wider society. It creates a healthier, safe space so everyone can bring their ‘whole self’ to work and be respected for it.
Below are a list of useful resources relating to pronouns, that should help anyone who wants to know more, or those who want to start getting ready for International Pronouns Day which is the third Wednesday in October every year – this year being Wednesday October 19th 2022:
- Pronouns: A How-To – The Diversity Center (diversitycenterneo.org)
- Understanding Pronouns – LGBT Life Center
- Why Pronoun Use Matters (verywellmind.com)
- The importance of pronouns – Creased Puddle
- Using pronouns in the workplace | The Law Society
- Why we should start using pronouns | Prospect
- Using Pronouns in Our Email Signature | Inclusive Employers
- Should employers mandate the use of gender pronouns in the workplace? | theHRD (thehrdirector.com)
- What are gender pronouns and why is it important to use the right ones? (theconversation.com)
- Gender Dysphoria: Definition, Symptoms, Traits, Causes, Treatment (verywellmind.com)