By Joanna C. Valente
What we call someone is defining. How we choose to label and categorize and name is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and others. Words matter – and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Because if you call someone by the wrong name, even unintentionally, it’s just not the right name.
The same, of course, goes for pronouns.
For trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming people, using the right pronouns is essential to being seen. Mistakes do happen, on all sides. Sometimes non-binary people misgender by accident (we’re all learning all the time), but we can find ways to remedy the situation – and of course, prevent it from happening the more we find ways to rethink our ideas of pronouns in the first place.
We don’t have to invalidate anyone, or cause alienation and isolation, especially when it comes to something that should be simple. Whether it’s someone you’ve known for years who has recently come out, or someone you’ve just met, the same rules apply. For many people, it can be especially difficult to remember to say “they” when referring to non-binary people, since so many aren’t used to it.
Yes, it can be hard to remember, especially when you have a previous idea of someone, but we all change and it’s important to keep challenging our perceptions and views of people as they evolve. Just as we evolve. Because misgendering just downright sucks. And it sucks when you don’t intend to misgender but do – and then everyone feels bad. Let’s stop feeling bad and start feeling good about our bodies, ourselves, our words.
So, here are some ways to check ourselves and be more cognizant of our language:
1. Don’t assume someone’s pronouns. Appearance doesn’t dictate gender or pronoun usage.
Just because someone looks like a woman or a man doesn’t mean they are. And also, there’s more than the binary. So, you know, just ask. It’s the only way you’ll know.
When you introduce yourself, say what pronouns you prefer if you feel comfortable.
Of course, you should only feel compelled to do this if you are in a safe space to do so (like you’re at a friend’s place or hosting a party and guests you don’t know well arrive). It can help ease tension and also create a dialogue—and normalize it.
2. When referring to people whose pronoun preferences you don’t know for sure, use their name instead of a pronoun.
It may sound awkward at first, but this way, you aren’t assuming anything—and are merely identifying them in a way you know is correct. While this may not always be ideal, it’s better than assuming.
When referring to transgender people, always refer to them as their preferred pronoun and proper names.
For instance, if you know C identifies as a woman, they’re a woman. It doesn’t matter where they are in transition, or if they are officially transitioning, or any of the details that don’t involve you. If D is a transgender man, and you’re talking about their past for whatever reason, D was always a man. This may take some practice, like writing it down several times or practicing aloud alone.
3. Put your pronouns/name on your social media and/or in your email signature.
Again, this is only if you are OK publicly announcing this information, which may not be possible for you (and you don’t need to feel bad or guilty about this). If you are, it could be helpful, so people you don’t know well (or even at all) will understand how to address you. In a world where the line between friends and colleagues and social media acquaintances is blurred, this can be especially helpful.
4. Don’t use gender-specific language.
It’s so easy to call everyone “guys” or “ladies” or say “girl” to your friend in a funny way, but it’s always best to use gender-neutral terms. This way, you'll never unintentionally isolate someone. Often times, I’ll use words like “people,” “y’all,” “humans,” and “folks.” For something more endearing, I go with “friends,” “darlings” or “loves,” since terms of endearment can be used for everyone, and can be more intimate. When I write my Tiny Letters, for instance, I always use “darlings.”
5. Put reminders in your phone, as notes or contacts.
It can be so useful to see on a regular basis, which will help normalize the language for you, especially when you’re getting used to something new. I also personally use emojis too, because I love associating people with my favorite emojis, but that's something else entirely...
6. Learn gender non-conforming pronouns and terms.
Because, you know, understanding what to use beyond he/she is important if you go outside and interact with people.
Some common gender fluid pronouns and/or titles:
They/Their/Them (self explanatory)
Zie (pronounced “z”) is subjective and is used instead of “she” or “he.”
Hir (pronounced “here”) is both objective and possessive and is used instead of “him,” “his,” “her,” and “hers.”
Mx. instead of Ms/Mr
Below is card developed by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center in 2011 that has been widely distributed.
Some common gender fluid terms:
To learn about terms, pronouns, and more when it comes to gender fluidity, go here.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.