Are You Some Kind of GENDER DETECTIVE? All About Gender/Pronouns

E. Tempesta

You may have heard about “pronouns.” You may be confused about “pronouns.” I’m going to take for granted that you are a well-meaning person who just doesn’t know what’s up; that you care about treating people with consideration and if you heard the talk you’d start walking the walk. So I’m going to explain it to you. But after this, I expect you to hold up your end of the bargain and BE COOL TO PEOPLE. As you’ll see, it’s truly not that hard.

So what is this “pronouns”?

Pronouns are words that refer to a subject or an object: I/me/mine, you/your/yours, she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their, etc. We all use them all the time. What I think you are asking about is what does it mean when someone says “my pronouns are” or “please use the correct pronouns for them”? Well, buddy, I am so glad you asked.

Most of us are raised to identify people on sight as “male” or “female.” And we correspondingly call them by male or female pronouns. If you see a person in the parking lot that you think dresses like a man, with features you associate with men, and that person is also wearing a huge, goofy hat, you will probably turn to your friend and say “his hat is amazing!” Likewise, if you see someone who looks like Betty Boop walking into the library, you will probably say “wow, she so closely resembles a pre-code cartoon!”

But get this: you don’t really know if those people are a man and a woman. Take it in, it’s an important sentence. You don’t know if anyone you see is a man, despite how you might interpret their appearance. So you might meet hat person at a party, and you might say, “hi!” You might then turn to your friend and say, “remember him from the parking lot?” only to have the host of the party take you aside and say “her. Hat’s pronouns are her/hers.” In short:

what you think someone looks like ≠ what words you should use to describe them

Get it? (If not, read through this great resource.)

Why it really fucking matters that you respect pronouns:

I don’t know how to tell you the answer to that one. One answer is about people’s pain, and it goes something like this: “some people have suffered in silence for lots of their lives, being deeply ashamed of being different than people expected them to be, and abused when they tried to live authentically. Using the pronouns people choose for themselves is a way of showing them that you respect and value their authentic existence; refusing those pronouns shows your intention to perpetuate that shame and abuse.”

But that is not my preferred answer. I think it’s way simpler than that, and we don’t need to make anyone dredge up their personal pain in order to understand it. It’s this: excuse me, someone fucking asked you to call them something. Do you want to signal basic acknowledgment, respect and civility towards them? Then call them that thing they asked you to call them. No one’s making you do it, so don’t fucking argue with me about whether you should have to or are obliged to. If you want to be a decent person instead of a fucking Eminem-listening, South Park-quoting, circa 1998 dirtbag, just do it.

But Using the Right Pronouns is Hard

Dope, I guess I’ve convinced you it’s important. Yeah, it can be hard, especially if you’re not used to it. Here’s two easy rules to ease your path into being a great citizen of gendertopia:

1) Assume as little as possible. It’s not just that you don’t know that androgynous person’s gender. Homie, you don’t know ANYONE’S GENDER. So don’t just go throwing gender around like some old wet noodles you’re trying to make stick. That means using someone’s actual name, and more gender-neutral language, until you know what pronouns they want. Look, I already did it! It’ll take a little practice, but you’ll get used to it. Examples:

Instead of: “Oh, your friend Alex is coming? I’m excited to meet him” try

“Oh, your friend Alex is coming? I’m excited to meet Alex.”

Instead of: “The woman who’s leading this workshop intimidates me. It’ll be nice to get a little more comfortable with her.”

“The person who’s leading this workshop intimidates me. It’ll be nice to get a little more comfortable with them.”


Instead of:    “This is Nora. She’s and her sister will be joining us.”

“This is Nora. Nora will be joining us, as will Nora’s sister.”

2) Listen, smile, and do better. Whoops, you fucked up. That’s okay. I’m basically a gender nonconformity native and I fuck up all the time. We are so deeply conditioned to make associations between certain behaviors, appearances, styles, and bodies on the one hand, and genders on the other, that it’s gonna happen. So, say you called your friend Jen “she” when Jen prefers “they.” If you notice right then, just correct yourself:

“Jen is driving her car. Sorry, I mean their car.”

If enough time passes that that would be awkward, then take a minute later and say sincerely and cheerfully, “sorry, Jen, I realized I misgendered you. My bad.” Then listen to what Jen says. It will probably be “that’s okay, thanks for saying something!” Or it might be something else. Listen and respond appropriately, because you care about Jen and want to know how to support them.

Jen might be mad at you, or they might not be. Don’t take it personally if they are. Just listen, understand what they are saying to you, and then use that to do better next time. Because that’s the best anyone can do when they fuck up. Listen, smile, and do better.

3) How do I raise my kids in a world that’s full of #gender? As in anything, I think the most important thing we can do is model how easy it is to listen, admit when we’re wrong, and change (see above). These are

Discuss it. Talk to your kids about gender, about your experience of gender, about people in your lives. Give them the language and tools to understand it early on. It will help them navigate not only other people’s genders, but their own. It can help defuse dangerous ideas about how girls and boys should behave and what’s acceptable.

Push back. If your kids are obviously internalizing rigid social messages about gender, push back against them. If they’re reading books or watching shows with these messages, push back against them. Have a discussion. Share your concerns with them, even if you aren’t sure. They need to hear from a trusted adult that those messages aren’t necessarily right.

Be brave. If other people in their lives are reinforcing these messages, push back against them, too. Politely, but firmly. Not only do your kids need to hear other messages, they also need to see that it’s good and important to speak up. It can feel scary, but how else are we gonna improve the world than by speaking up, and teaching our kids to speak up, for justice?


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