Not Just a Pronoun: How Pride Foundation is Shifting Cultural Normson March 16th, 2015 at 1:59 pm
Pride Foundation recently made the decision to add staff members’ pronouns to our website and our individual email signatures. While this may seem like a small logistical addition, it reinforces key aspects of our vision, values, and social justice philanthropy. Gunner Scott, our Director of Programs (he, him) and Katie Carter, our Director of Strategic Priorities in Oregon (she, her) engaged in a dialogue to further explain why this change is important.
Katie: What prompted you to think of making this change at this particular moment in time?
Gunner: When I saw that the National Center for Transgender Equality added pronouns to the staff bios on their website, I thought it was a great opportunity for Pride Foundation to take action and model our values.
Katie: I know for many that talking about gender pronouns might be a new experience (or it could have the unfortunate effect of giving people flashbacks to elementary school English classes). Do you have tips on how to use gender pronouns appropriately? For example, when to ask someone, when not to ask someone, what to do when you don’t know what pronoun to use, and what to do if you make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun for someone?
Gunner: We cannot always know a person’s gender identity by their physical body, the sound of their voice, or their mannerisms. The practice of asking individuals what pronouns they use for themselves allows us to:
- Not make assumptions about a person’s gender identity;
- Respect the diversity of gender identities;
- Promote awareness of trans*, transgender, gender queer, and gender non-conforming communities (for more on terminology check out the National Center for Transgender Equality’s resource page).
The reality is that gender expression and gender identity is vast, diverse, and falls along a spectrum. Some people are assigned a sex at birth that is congruent with their gender, gender identity, and gender expression. However, not everyone identifies their gender with the sex they were assigned at birth, and for some others their gender expression is not “stereotypical,” or does not fit within the current social expectations of being male or female.
What if you are unsure of a person’s gender identity? It is respectful to ask “What pronoun do you use?” That pronoun could be she/her, or he/him, or gender neutral pronouns such as “they” for individual, ze or hir, and for some, they would rather have folks use their name and no pronouns. If you are unsure and/or cannot ask the person, you can always defer to just using their name instead of any particular pronoun.
What if you make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun? Simply correct yourself and apologize, without a lot of fanfare. The last thing any of us want is to have wide attention drawn to an awkward situation.
Lastly, it is important that you respect and call people what they ask you to call them—whether that is their name, pronoun, or no pronoun at all.
Gunner: As an ally to transgender people, how would you respond if a cisgender (non-transgender) person asked you why it was important to ask “What pronoun do you use?” at the beginning of a meeting or group gathering?
Katie: I would respond by saying:
“Great question—thanks for asking! The reason we ask for people at our meetings to indicate their pronoun is so that nobody has to make assumptions about anyone’s gender identity. Making space for individuals to let other people in the group know what pronoun(s) they use helps ensure that we are creating an environment where we can all be respectful of one another. Since we are often in meetings with people we don’t know that well, getting this information up front (just like we do with someone’s name) helps us make sure we have the language we need to be affirming of everyone in the group.”
It also creates learning opportunities like this one! Many of us who are cisgender (i.e. identify with the sex/gender assigned to us when we were born) have the luxury and privilege of not having to worry about what pronouns people will use for us in our day-to-day lives. For many transgender and non-binary people though, whether or not people use the correct pronouns can be a daily source of anxiety. By asking everyone to indicate their pronouns, we are raising awareness among cis people that using the correct pronouns is a big deal—and that we shouldn’t make assumptions about what pronoun someone uses.
Katie: Do you see adding these words to our website and email signatures as a purely logistical move, or do you think there’s something more symbolic there—perhaps even a political statement?
Gunner: I do see this as a little bit of both—a logistical as well as political statement. As a transgender person myself, I know my voice, especially on the phone, does not always convey my gender expression as masculine. As a result, sometimes callers use the wrong pronoun when talking with me—without the visual cues to reinforce my gender identity as male, people can easily make mistakes. Logistically speaking, this gives those new to Pride Foundation that visual cue about how each of us wishes to be addressed. Making what could be an awkward situation, hopefully not so.
I also see this as an educational opportunity. As more and more transgender people are being open about their gender identity and as more people feel empowered to openly express their gender identity and their pronouns—which could be traditional pronouns like she or he, or using gender neutral pronouns such as ze, hir, or they—Pride Foundation wants to be an example of what it means to respect and celebrate gender diversity. By listing pronouns we each use for ourselves, we are continuing to create a work environment where we can all be our full selves.
Gunner: What is one of your favorite resources—including blogs, movies, books, or websites—that you like to refer people to in order to learn more about gender identity and gender expression?
Katie: Though it’s hard to pick just one, I’m going to suggest the website Everyday Feminism. This is a great starting place for people who might be new these ideas, as it is filled with articles that address almost any question you might have in this arena—and links to other resources so you can deepen your understanding. The article Separating Out Gender Identity from Gender Expression by Wiley Reading is a great starting place and is a great follow-up to learn more about non-binary identities.
They also have some additional resources relating to pronouns; for example, the article 10 Things You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns by Sam Dylan Finch about the impact of choosing not to use the correct pronoun for someone, or What To Do (And Not Do) When Someone Asks for Different Gender Pronouns by Robot Hugs about pronoun etiquette, and 5 Ways Using Correct Gender Pronouns Will Make You a Better Trans* Ally by Laura Kacere.
Also, for folks who love old-fashioned books like me, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us is a great read and resource.
Gunner: I think all of Katie’s books are fantastic resources and I also found this article, Beyond Girls and Boys: Teaching Gender to My Kids by Anoosh Jorjorian, really helpful for those of us with children in our lives.
Gunner: What are one or two ways cisgender people can be allies to trans*, transgender, gender queer, and gender non-conforming youth and adults?
Katie: First, educate yourself! Learn about what it means to be trans*, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and cisgender. Learn about the oppression, discrimination, and barriers that face trans* and non-binary people. Read or watch testimonies by trans* and non-binary people so that you can better understand their experiences. Please remember in this educational process that it is not the job of trans* people to educate cis people about their lives. There are a plethora of resources on the internet and in print that we can use to learn more.
Second, put that education to use! Use the correct names, pronouns, and language when talking to and about trans* people. Speak up when you hear transphobic, hateful, or discriminatory language being used. Help other cis people learn about trans* people and the issues facing trans* communities. Advocate for laws, policies, and regulations that will protect trans* people from discrimination.
To learn more about the work Pride Foundation supports in trans*, transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming communities please see our 2014 Grantees list.
Gunner Scott is Pride Foundation’s Director of Programs. Email Gunner.
Katie Carter is Pride Foundation’s Director of Strategic Priorities. Email Katie.