Small changes to our everyday language can make a huge impact
There is a habit among twenty-something college students to point to older generations and abash them for saying something they deem terrible. We’ve all had to tell an uncle or a grandmother that they can’t say something so obviously offensive, even if it was ‘acceptable’ when they were young.
So what will be our generation’s legacy? What will be the behavior we are doing now that will someday leave younger people hanging their heads in shame? Personally, I think it will be poor pronoun usage.
Pronouns are used to describe a person or persons in the third-person. Singular pronouns are gendered and you use them every day: they, them, he, him, she, her, etc… So let’s talk about these parts of our everyday lexicon and how correctly incorporating them into our everyday lives can be an incredible act of compassion.
It’s understandable why so many people struggle to adopt an attitude respectful of pronouns, really. As children, everything we did was gendered; we walked down school hallways in lines of boys and girls, we had sleepovers with peers of the same sex, played with toys assigned to us and were encouraged to compete with members of the opposite sex.
American society is especially gendered, and for most of us, we grew up in a world that socialized us to believe there were only two genders and that those genders were directly linked to our sex at birth. There are beliefs we were raised to believe, and reversing them may feel foreign, or even uncomfortable.
However, the sentiment behind the two-gendered world is no more true now than it was then. The difference is that information is much easier to access today than it was when we were growing up. Science shows that there are more than two genders, and empathy allows us to understand that gender identity and assigned sex at birth are not always one-in-the-same.
Understanding the impact of using someone’s pronouns correctly, or the much more dangerous impact of using them incorrectly, cannot simply be a matter of not knowing any better at this point. Actively working to engage and educate ourselves to be respectful and mindful of others is something anyone with access to Google and some patience can do.
Arden Light, a freshman studying Political Science at Minnesota State University-Moorhead uses they/them and he/him pronouns. They describe what it means to them when others identify them correctly, “When someone uses my pronouns, especially without me having to correct them every time, it shows me that they have some level of respect for who I am and my identity.”
Contrary to what some might think, using pronouns is not a political statement, but a way of acknowledging and validating someone else’s identity. The truth is that misuse of pronouns is a reality for many individuals.
“When someone introduces themselves with their pronouns it tells me that they are a person I am safe around, that I can be myself and not have to worry that they will be mean or aggressive about it,” Light said.
Even if you do use the pronouns associated with your sex at birth, anyone can empathize with the want to feel safe talking with others. In fact, most people can remember an instance where someone forgot their name or called them the wrong name, these may have been small mistakes and yet they can still be hurtful. In making an effort to use the right pronouns, you avoid similar hurtful remarks while also validating someone’s existence. It is a small act with powerful repercussions.
For many individuals, especially transgender individuals, using the correct pronouns is a way to show you reaffirm their identity. A transgender person is an individual whose biological sex and gender identity do not match. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin found that when transgender youth and LGBTQ+ youth were allowed to use their preferred pronouns and chosen names, their rates of suicide and depression significantly dropped.
Actively choosing not to identify someone accurately is not some small, trifling thing, the consequences are real and damaging. The effects are pervasive, as is the increasing likelihood that you will encounter an individual using pronouns not associated with their sex at birth.
The Trevor Project estimates that one in four LGBTQ+ youth use pronouns or pronoun combinations outside the binary construction of gender. Most people know someone who is transgender or someone who uses their own gender pronouns, or if you don’t, you likely do but just don’t know it.
So what can you do to help support your fellow humans and legitimize their identity? A good starting point would be to spend time gathering information on pronoun use.
As Light said, “There is a huge lack of education, which is not entirely the fault of any one person… I think [it would help] if people could just try to listen more and come into conversation with an open mind.”
If you’re looking for a place to start, consider researching why pronouns matter, pronoun guides, transgender allyship and resources discussing the gender spectrum. Importantly though, don’t go to transgender individuals to provide you all the wisdom you could easily find on your own.
“Personally, I enjoy educating people, but I know lots of trans people who don’t,” Light explained, “So expecting transgender people to be your personal teacher is probably not the best way to go. I think asking for resources so you can educate yourself is a safe bet.”
A few key things to remember are to always introduce yourself with your pronouns. Even if you are cisgender, get into the habit of using your pronouns as frequently as possible, it shows that you are an ally and alleviates the pressure from others who may feel its a necessity or a worry to introduce themselves. Incorporate your pronoun into your email signature, your Instagram bio, even your name on Zoom.
Also, try to avoid using gendered language. Even if phrases like ‘guys’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen’ seem harmless, they are undoubtedly gendered. They draw attention to individuals who don’t fall under those gender categories mentioned. Plus, saying ‘y’all’ is much more fun anyway.
If you’re still struggling, if you still don’t think using someone’s pronouns is necessary or right, I have some words for you. If your chief complaint is that it’s too hard, that it’s too confusing to keep track of people’s pronouns, I would counter that most people can handle learning someone’s new name after marriage, learning names of strangers, knowing who J-Lo is or Ri-Ri are, or even what the newest slang on TikTok is.
At some point in time, if you ever incorporated the phrases ‘yolo,’ ‘lit’ or ‘you’re a g’ into your vocabulary, you’re certainly capable of adopting an attitude that is more inclusive.
Now, if you have some sort of objection morally or religiously to using someone’s pronouns, I would ask what morality would be without kindness and affinity? Because a morality lacking in compassion, for that is all acknowledging someone’s identity is, is not one that shines positively on its owner.
But let’s say you don’t object, that you choose the route of kindness, you can expect to mess up. You might forget to say your pronouns now and then, you might be too shy to ask someone theirs or you might use the wrong name or pronouns of someone else. This is alright. It is not your mess-up that defines you, but how you recover and do better next time.
Finally, if you are considering using different pronouns, Light has some advice for you, “Find one person who you really trust and try it with them first. Have them use the pronoun for you when it’s just the two of you and see how it feels.”
Making the decision to be your true self, especially in a world where so many were raised unconsciously of the gender binary always present in their life, is a wonderfully brave decision. Choosing to educate ourselves, use our own pronouns and respecting others’ is the least we can do to honor that bravery.