Language: Pronouns are Power

Pronouns –  the way we refer to one another. She is working on her final paper. He is biking to his doctor’s office.  They are going to their friend’s birthday party.

Language is a powerful tool – it’s used to communicate, to identify, to control, to express, to harm. For Transgender and Gender Nonconforming (T/GNC) individuals, language is used to control and communicate who they are. They choose their pronouns; it helps them define and declare their gender identity. Pronouns seem small, but they are powerful. Using the right ones when addressing someone who is T/GNC affirms and supports their identity. Using the wrong ones (even on accident) can hurt them – potentially making them feel anxious, upset, self-conscious, and dysphoric.

As time progressed, we learned that gender identity is not just the polar options of male and female, but rather a fluid spectrum where identities incorporate varying degrees of masculinity, femininity, or an absence of these. So far we have lived according to a pronoun binary where men are addressed as he/him and women are addressed as she/her. To accommodate these ever-changing concepts of gender, we develop language to continue the conversation around it. Pronouns come in to play based upon the diversity of the identities. An example of this would be  the use of the pronoun “they/them.” It is a common understanding that this pronoun is used to address more than one person, but is can also be used by gender neutral/non-binary individuals as a singular pronoun. There is evidence of this when we examine the works writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens. As the singular use of they/them becomes more visible in society, our language adapts to meet the needs of society. Webster’s dictionary has declared “they/them” is grammatically correct when used in a singular context (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they).

How often do you think about your pronouns? Do you ever wonder how people refer to you when you’re not around? Members of the T/GNC community often worry about this because pronouns are the foundation of their gender identity (both how they express it and how it is perceived). Imagine being a woman and you’re trying your hardest to embody what you believe womanhood is. You might change your name, change your hair, change your clothes, change your voice, even go so far as to change your body. You put in so much effort to be your authentic self and it can be torn down in seconds by someone saying “He’s over there in his office.” Being misgendered eats away at all your hard work because it stems from people’s perceptions of your gender identity.

Misconceptions can occur because of an incorrect perception of one’s physical appearance. Some T/GNC individuals do not want to/are not able to conform to typical gender norms (i.e. men have facial hair, women have breasts). We have to realize these secondary sex characteristics such as hair growth, bone development, shoulder width, and voice are all incredibly difficult, some being impossible to change once puberty has set in. These changes require a great deal of medical interventions, time, money, and support. These characteristics are then assigned to be masculine or feminine, lending to society’s general perception of what a man or woman is.

People claim that “Pronouns are insignificant, they don’t matter! Don’t take it so personally!” But they do matter. They matter a lot. Each time you address someone with their proper pronouns you help build up their confidence piece by piece. Correct pronouns let people know that you see them for who they are and you support their identity.

Unfortunately, there is a possibility that people use language and the wrong pronouns on purpose in order to harm T/GNC individuals. Not acknowledging the importance of pronouns is offensive; what is worse is purposely using the wrong pronouns. This is violent and an attack on someone’s identity. People sometimes use language as a tool to invalidate someone’s life which can displace and discriminate against members of the T/GNC community.

As a society we need to do better in validating everyone’s chosen pronouns and correcting our mistakes when we mess up. A change in pronouns can be difficult to get used to, but there are right and wrong ways to react when you slip up. A small, simple acknowledgement that you used the wrong pronouns and an apology goes a long way. There does not need to be a dramatic explanation/excuse and rant about your mistake – that makes it about you and quite frankly embarrasses everyone involved. An example of what to say if a mistake occurs could be, “He – oops I’m sorry I meant to say she” or “She – sorry I used the wrong pronouns, they” this way you hold yourself accountable, you apologize, and you move on.

It’s time to start declaring our pronouns in conversations. “Hi my name is _____, my pronouns are _______.” By being more conscious of our pronouns we do a few things:

  1. Normalize it in conversation, so when T/GNC individuals need to claim their identity they can do it an a safe and comfortable manner.
  2. By stating our pronouns we work to eliminate assumptions of gender and pronouns based on appearance.
  3. Give agency to individuals to claim their identity.

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