The Importance of Pronouns

Another essay! What student has time to write anything else?

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Pronouns aren’t a difficult concept for most; however, transgender people have a much more complicated relationship with pronouns than cisgender people. For this reason, sometimes there is a disconnect between the two. Cisgender people often don’t understand the importance of using correct pronouns for their transgender friends and family. Once someone knows which pronouns are expected, it’s extremely important to use correct pronouns for comfort, clarity, safety, trust, and respect.

In English grammar, pronouns are words used to avoid repeating a noun in a sentence. For people, we usually use either she/her or he/him pronouns depending on their sex assigned at birth. Most people don’t think about personal pronouns beyond a brief explanation unless they’re transgender. A transgender person is simply someone who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people often feel the need to change their pronouns when they begin telling their families and friends about transitioning (socially and perhaps physically) from one gender to another. This tends to be one of the hardest parts of transitioning. It’s difficult for people to switch their language around and they might make mistakes with a transgender person’s pronouns long after first being told.

This problem is exacerbated when the person is non-binary and has more complicated pronouns. “Non-binary” is an umbrella term for people who don’t exclusively identify as male or female. Non-binary people can experience a spectrum of genders in varying degrees or they can experience no gender at all. For example, I identify as transgender, non-binary, and as a demiguy. Demiguys (often called demiboys) identify partly as male and often partly something else. I mainly fluctuate between feeling masculine and feeling genderless. There are sometimes debates about whether non-binary people are transgender, but this question should be left up to the individual non-binary person. Since people are not assigned non-binary at birth (non-binary people are not to be confused with intersex people), they can choose whether or not they feel comfortable claiming the transgender label.

Some non-binary people use the common she/her or he/him pronouns, but many find them too restrictive and tightly linked to social expectations of gender. Many languages don’t have gender-neutral pronouns set into them because the cultures in which the languages were built didn’t acknowledge other genders. While some people will argue against the grammatical correctness of it, gender-neutral singular they/them pronouns are the most common in English. This makes the most sense in our language, but non-binary people may create other pronouns for personalization and because they/them pronouns are so hotly debated: per/per/pers; ve/ver/vis; xe/xem/xyr; and ze/hir/hirs are some.

These pronouns become a problem with many cisgender people who don’t like the idea of genders or words which are new to them. Cisgender refers to a person who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth. (In Latin, ‘trans’ means ‘on the other side of’ and ‘cis’ means ‘on this side of.’) As with the new pronouns, many people are actively against using the word ‘cisgender,’ but its use is important for the normalization of transgender people. Not having a word in place as the opposite of ‘trans’ meant that being transgender was abnormal and being not-transgender was normal. Also, saying the word ‘cis’ is much easier than saying ‘not-trans.’

Now, a person learning these new facts about gender and pronouns may be wondering how to know which pronouns to use for whom. This is a very good question to be asking and a slightly difficult one to answer. One might believe it’s best to have everyone state their pronouns at the beginning of every meeting with an unknown person. This would be ideal, but it’s unrealistic. “If a transgender woman, for example, who physically looks like a man has to announce preferred pronouns of “she/her/hers” to the class, then this reveal would put the transgender woman in an uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous, position. She would not only be telling the class her preferred pronouns, but she would also be sharing her identity with the class and making herself vulnerable to the attacks and ridicule faced by many transgender and genderqueer individuals. Asking for preferred pronouns in order to avoid misgendering is well intended, but the outcome could do more harm than good.” (Darr, 2016)

I have mentioned that people disagree about the use of singular they/them pronouns; however, I believe they are the best choice for the purpose of inclusion. “Singular ‘they’ would not only be inclusive of marginalized transgender and [non-binary] individuals, but also be familiar to cisgender people who think of gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘xe/ze’ as exclusive to transgender and genderqueer communities. In this way, students would be relieved of misgendering and avoid having to out themselves as transgender or genderqueer.” (Darr, 2016) There is a risk of confusion if people have never heard the use of singular they/them pronouns and sometimes they/them is difficult to use when talking about one person in a group. In confusing sentences, one could switch back to using the proper noun instead of a pronoun.

This all might seem like too much work for such a small change in vocabulary. One might wonder, “Why can’t trans people just get over it?” Other than safety, there are many reasons why it’s important to use the pronouns transgender people request. For one, there is a huge emotional risk that comes with choosing to misgender someone. It’s extremely disrespectful to refuse to use someone’s pronouns and it displays a lack of care for them or belief that they know what’s best for themself. This shows them that others’ thoughts and feelings are being put far above theirs. The transgender person could stop trusting people who won’t use their pronouns and cut them out of their life.

This is something I have had to do myself. I had a friend who said he couldn’t use any pronouns for me other than she/her because I was assigned female at birth and he’s a Christian. He claimed that it would be condescending since he didn’t believe I could change my gender. It would be like telling a child they can be an airplane when they grow up. I removed him from my life because I don’t think there’s a future for a relationship in which I feel so disrespected. If I can’t trust him with something so important to me, I can’t trust him at all.

When a friend or family member of a transgender person uses the wrong pronouns, it communicates to everyone else that those are the correct pronouns. When others hear the wrong pronouns being used, it leads to more and more people calling the trans person the wrong pronouns and it becomes emotionally exhausting for them. Language is a very powerful tool, which has the ability to build people up and tear them down. After experiencing being misgendered often, many transgender people will feel hopeless and at a loss for how to deal with this hopelessness. Many become depressed, anxious, and/or suicidal. Pronouns might seem like a small matter of little consequence to some people, but the truth is that it can mean the world to a transgender person.

It may not be any one person’s responsibility to stabilize the mental health of their transgender friend or family member, but it’s more considerate and helpful to be careful with pronouns and gendered language. A good step to take in not misgendering strangers is to use they/them pronouns as often as possible. It’s important to use correct pronouns so that respect and trust can thrive. Sometimes using the correct pronouns is a matter of safety as well. It isn’t transgender people’s jobs to explain the importance of their pronouns. They should be able to say their pronouns and be respected enough to be heard.

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Sources:

Pronouns and Thoughts on Neutrality: Gender Concerns in Modern Grammar

What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns

What’s in a pronoun? Why gender-fair language matters

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