Written By: Natalie Hahn (Featured in Issue No. 2)
A personal pronoun, as defined by Merriam Webster, is “a pronoun...that expresses a distinction of person.” These are words such as he, she, they, and them and are how people refer to themselves and others on a day-to-day basis. Most of the time, these pronouns are assumed by others without any negative repercussions. In general, these are not words that people consider important or vital to their self-image. However, this is not the case for members of the transgender and nonbinary communities -- these words are an extension of who they truly are. It is important to understand how an individual/person is affected when the wrong pronoun is used, how to be inclusive, and how to react if you make a mistake.
What happens when you use incorrect pronouns?
For many of us, these words are not thought of frequently or are not viewed as important. However, for individuals who are transgender or nonbinary, these pronouns are vital to their identity.
Chance Hillman (pronouns he/him) states that he gets a “really deep insecure pain” when someone uses the incorrect pronouns because he doesn’t feel “man enough.” For Dodge Riot (pronouns they/them), the feelings are mixed and have changed over time. “Before, I would emotionally shut down and no longer be available. Now it still stings, but I can usually correct people and move on. This response did not come easily, it had to be trained.”
Hillman and Riot aren’t the only ones who feel this way when they are misgendered. In the 2014 study conducted by Kevin McLemore, entitled “Experiences with Misgendering: Identity Misclassification of Transgender Spectrum Individuals,” it was found that transgender individuals dealt with lower self-esteem. Additionally, transgender or nonbinary individuals can deal with more mental health problems than cisgender people. These problems can include but are not limited to anxiety, depression, and even dysphoria, which is a state where a person feels extremely unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.
How to be Inclusive
Although navigating pronouns may seem tricky, there are many ways that an individual can be inclusive. This kind of inclusive behavior should be employed with everyone in society as to not single anyone out.
One easy way to be inclusive is to state your own pronouns when you are introducing yourself to people. In addition, it can be beneficial to directly ask the other person’s pronouns. As Hillman points out, “A simple ‘what are your pronouns?/which pronouns do you prefer?’ goes a long way.”
Riot agrees with this statement. “If you meet someone new, always ask their pronouns! Never assume based on how someone looks.”
This point - not making assumptions based on physical appearance - is extremely important for individuals who are in the process of transitioning. Transitioning is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as when a person “[adopts] permanently the outward and/or physical characteristics of the gender one identifies with, as opposed to those associated with one's birth sex.” For people who are transitioning, the incorrect usage of pronouns can be even more detrimental to their self-esteem and mental health than someone who is not undergoing the transition process.
Another way to be inclusive is to add your personal pronouns to your email signature. With today’s society being primarily digital, it is possible that your first time meeting someone will be through electronic means. By including your pronouns, you are indicating that you recognize their importance. This will help people feel comfortable telling you their pronouns when they initially get to know you.
Finally, inclusivity can also be exercised when you are speaking to a room full of individuals. When you are directing your words to a group of people it is best to avoid any pronouns that are indicative of gender, such as the phrase, “Hey guys!” This can make some uncomfortable. Instead, it is better to use language that is general, such as “everyone.”
When a Mistake is Made
Even if you are consciously trying not to offend anyone, mistakes do happen. Riot says, “It’s best to not make it a big deal! The person you misgendered is probably uncomfortable, as well as yourself, so just move past the moment quickly and repeat what you said with the correct pronouns.”
Hillman adds that “The best thing to do is apologize sincerely and do their best to use the right pronouns next time. Once I tell them [my pronouns] they can respect me by using them or trying their best to.”
In short, it is important to be inclusive to everyone, which extends to their pronouns. Not utilizing the right pronouns is damaging to both a person’s mental health and self-esteem. However, through simple changes in how you introduce yourself, your email signature, and your verbiage, you can make everyone feel included.
This article was previously featured in Reinvented Magazine Issue No.2. We are celebrating Pride Month 2020 by releasing this article to all of our followers so they can learn more about respecting pronouns!