Perhaps you’ve been noticing in the past year or so that email signatures, introductions, and name tags more frequently include both a person’s name and their pronouns - most commonly she/her, he/him, or they/them.
And perhaps you’ve been wondering what this is about and why it’s important.
For starters, I want to be clear that I am not an expert, and I am a gender conforming, cis, White female who uses she/her pronouns. So, my experience is from the outside, from listening to the experience of family members and friends, who struggle to be understood in a world of binaries and stereotypes.
Before we talk about the pronouns, let’s begin with some definitions that will help the conversation. These definitions were compiled by my daughter, Aurora Pass, who is part of the queer community. She also thought it would be helpful to define gender in relation to other words that are often confused or equated with gender.
Gender vs. Sex: Gender is a person’s social identity. Sex is a person’s physical and genetic make up.
Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation: Gender is a person’s social and personal identity. Sexual Orientation is a person's emotional, physical, and/or romantic attraction to other people often partially based on those people’s gender identity and/or physical sex.
Gender Expression: The way someone expresses their gender through dress and behavior. This does NOT have to match one’s gender identity.
Non-Binary: A gender identity that is neither male or female.
Transgender: Typically this is a term used for people who identify as the opposite gender from the one they were assigned at birth.
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth.
Genderqueer/Gender Non-Conforming: Genderqueer is an umbrella term for all people who do not identify as cisgender.
Two-Spirit: Two-Spirit is a term used only for Indigenous people. Two-Spirit people embody both feminine and masculine spirits.
Queer: An umbrella term for gender identities and sexual orientations other than straight or cisgender.
So, importantly, gender does not refer to a person’s biological sex nor their sexual orientation. This means that gender can be female or male, but it can also be fluid, non-binary, neutral, bi, expansive, etc… The list goes on. Facebook currently has seven gender options beyond female or male. This means that we cannot possibly make an assumption about a person’s gender identity based on how they look. It means that it is possible to mis-gender someone and use the wrong pronouns based on gender stereotypes and assumptions.
According to a recent study, 0.5% of people in America identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, roughly 2 million people. That’s 2 million people whose identity places them at risk for discrimination and abuse and whose anxiety, depression, and suicide rates are almost twice that of the cisgender population. Mis-use of pronouns is one of the many things contributing to that high level of stress. Conversely, using appropriate pronouns validates a person’s identity and shows respect. It acknowledges a person’s experience and demonstrates that they are seen and heard.
Since we cannot simply assume gender/pronouns based on physical appearance or clothing, many of us are using pronouns in signatures and introductions. This does three important things. First, when we ALL do this, we take the pressure off those who need to introduce their pronouns in order to avoid being mis-gendered. Next, it normalizes the fact that gender identity should not be an assumption and is separate from appearance. And, finally (and obviously), it helps prevent mis-gendering, which is stressful and anxiety-provoking.
An important note: When you make a mistake with someone’s pronouns, the most common refrain I’ve heard is that you should correct yourself and move on. You will make mistakes, especially if someone’s pronouns change, and you are learning to use new pronouns. No one wants the conversation interrupted over and over again with your apologies and explanations.
So, there you have it! Introducing your pronouns, if you aren’t already, is one way to be an ally and contribute to the health and wellness of our whole community.
Amy Pass earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Bethel Theological Seminary. But perhaps her greatest lessons have come from raising two children and maintaining a 21-year marriage.