The pronoun lowdown

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

By respecting someone’s pronouns, writes transgender rights activist Nevo Zisin, you’re validating their gender identity.

My pronouns are not the result of a deep connection with the words they/them, but rather an absence of (or less) discomfort than other pronouns I’ve had. Sometimes that’s how it feels to be trans — you don’t always know what you want, but usually you know what you really don’t want.

People who are indifferent to their own pronouns often don’t understand why it matters so much. Especially when speaking in English, which, structurally, isn’t a heavily gendered language. It’s easy enough to maintain conversation without gendering someone you’re chatting to. It’s only when someone else comes along, and you start speaking in the third person, that pronouns enter the equation.

Having your pronouns in email signatures and on nametags is becoming a common practice. As a non-binary person this is a great thing to see, as I experience dysphoria from being seen or read as cisgender. But, if you don’t follow through and use someone’s correct pronouns, or at least try, then what’s the point? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard: “Oh, he uses they/them pronouns,” or “She’s a they/them,” I’d still be pissed off — but at least I’d be rich.

When you start respecting someone’s pronouns, you’re also expanding the way you view that person. The more you validate their gender identity in your mind — thinking of them as they are — the more naturally their pronouns will come to you in conversation. I had family who still referred to me using she/her pronouns years after my transition. As in, after I’d grown a beard. I truly believe that’s because they never actually did any work to change the way they saw me inside their own minds.

Oh, and FYI: the term “preferred pronouns” is outdated now. These pronouns aren’t our preferred ones. They just are our pronouns. So just ask for someone’s pronouns, not for their preference. I have made a practice now of introducing myself with my pronouns. (Clears throat.) “Hi, I’m Nevo. I use they/ them pronouns. What about you?” Yes, I mostly do this with cisgender people. But that’s because they may have never had that kind of interaction before.

I want to normalise this, and have cis folk be just as explicit about their own pronouns. It sure would make things a lot easier for trans and gender-diverse people if this salutation became a standard. Whether it’s intentional or not, misgendering happens when someone sees another person as different from their actual gender. Mistakes happen, of course, no matter how hard you’re trying or how good your intentions are. But — even if you mean incredibly well — the impact of your actions can still create harm.

Being misgendered can feel like a death by a thousand papercuts. The first cut is annoying and stings a little, but it’s manageable. But it happens again and again. Perhaps you’ve misgendered someone and they’ve seemingly flown off the handle. Their rage isn’t really directed at you. It was just their 1,001st papercut. So, if someone gets angry with you, just be empathetic. Understand how this may be something they deal with constantly. Try your best to be a plaster for the wound, rather than just another paper cut.

  • An extract from The Pronoun Lowdown by Nevo Zisin, out now from Smith Street Books, RRP$19.99
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