The Importance of Pronouns

Ok, truth time. Before this summer, I was really confused about this whole pronouns thing. I thought they were really simple- males are he, females are she, there are grammar rules, and so on. During a workshop on sexual orientation at Brown University, the leader asked us to go around and say our name, where we are from, and our preferred pronoun. I thought “um, ok, I mean I can see who’s a guy and who’s a girl…” But as people went around the table, some people who appeared to be female were saying “he”, while others were saying they preferred “they/them.” I was mentally scratching my head, curious as to this usage of pronouns. Like some of you, I had no idea what these people were talking about.

Let’s start at the beginning. Gender identity is a person’s sense of being a man, a woman, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum. Cisgender individuals like myself are lucky to have been born into a body that we identify with and feel comfortable in. However, others are not as fortunate.

Transgender individuals are those people that weren’t so lucky. Their gender identity, what they feel on the inside, does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. Many of these individuals are dehumanized and invalidated for not conforming to the social norms of a cis-dominated society. To respect them, we have to use the pronouns they want others to refer to them by. For some, this may be “they”/”them”, as this pronoun is gender neutral (and, contrary to popular belief, it is grammatically correct to use they/them as singular pronouns. and even if it wasn’t isn’t making someone feel safe and supported more important than being grammatically correct?) For others, individuals either pre- or post-transition, it may be “he” or “she”. The point is to use the pronoun the individual asks you to use.

It is not ignorant to use the incorrect pronoun if you DO NOT KNOW. However, it is ignorant to continue to use the incorrect pronoun when YOU DO KNOW. The act of purposefully misgendering someone is an act of violence. Transgender people face immense verbal and physical abuse, as well as severe discrimination in employment, housing, and social events. Cisgender individuals often fail to comprehend just how dangerous everyday activities can be for transgender individuals, like using the bathroom. Just look at this case from May: a transgender woman was escorted from the women’s bathroom. Simply for using the bathroom designated for the gender she identified with, she was humiliated in public.

The reason pronouns are being talked about a lot is because we have a lot to learn when it comes to identity. But the major goal we should be interested in achieving is for all individuals, regardless of whether they are cis, trans, or genderfluid, or intersex, or any other identity, to feel comfortable in society. It’s really that simple.

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