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Opinion: The Do's and Don'ts of Pronouns

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Image courtesy of NPR

Everyone has pronouns. At a historically women’s college, the pronouns she and her are often used universally for every student, under the assumption that every student is a woman. In addition to their verbal usage, she/her pronouns are also found in the core documents of the school, like the Honor Code. In the past, this was acceptable. She/her pronouns have always been used to refer to individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB), so it makes sense that a school designed for those people would use those terms when referring to its students, but times have changed. We now live in a world that has recognized, for the most part, the difference between sex and gender, and assuming pronouns is no longer acceptable. More and more often, we see individuals introducing themselves with their pronouns to avoid misgendering. You can also find preferred pronouns in social media bios, email signatures and online biographies. As sharing one’s pronouns has become more accepted and acknowledged, ignorance on the subject has become a choice. As an individual who identifies under the non-binary umbrella and uses they/she as my preferred pronouns, there are things I have noticed that cisgender persons — those who identify with their assigned gender — may not have.

First, normalization of sharing pronouns needs to become a priority for everyone who desires understanding or respect amongst others. Transgender individuals are constantly singled out after providing their preferred pronouns to those they meet. The elimination of this begins when cisgender people do the same. This stigma is coupled with the wrongness of assuming pronouns. Even on a historically women’s campus, not every student uses she/her pronouns. Assuming they do is harmful and disrespectful. A false assumption either implies that they don’t belong here or that they don’t pass as their gender as well as they’d like to.

A great way to be an ally and normalize sharing pronouns is by introducing yourself with your own and asking for the other individual’s as easily as you’d ask their name. Saying “Hi, my name is Rae and my pronouns are they/she, what are yours?” immediately creates a more welcoming space and makes the other person more comfortable with the interaction. In settings where introductions are done differently, you can get creative. Adding your pronouns to your Zoom name (e.g. “Rae (they/she)”) or at the end of an email (e.g. “Sincerely, Rae Hargis (they/she)”) are straightforward ways of providing correct information and creating a safe space. As a trans person, seeing professors and other students with their pronouns visible creates an almost giddy feeling and eliminates the direct attention that myself and others feel if we are the only ones who do so. Representation is so important for making a space accessible to all. Show your support and share your pronouns.

Here are a few “don’ts” regarding pronouns that make transgender persons very uncomfortable and should be avoided.

1. Using someone’s dead name. A “dead name” is the name someone was given at birth and no longer uses. If someone introduces themselves to you with a name that is different than what they were given, use the name they told you. Dead naming someone can bring up discomfort, dysphoria and past trauma. If you make a mistake, apologize and correct yourself. We know everyone’s not perfect.

2. Misgendering them. If you know a person’s preferred pronouns, use them. If you don’t know them, ask. Misgendering can cause the same effects as dead naming. Intentionally misgendering someone is transphobic and disrespectful.

3. Using honorifics that make them uncomfortable. Terms like “ladies,” “girls” and “miss” are associated with the female gender. Using these terms to refer to someone who doesn’t associate that way may make them uncomfortable (the way you wouldn’t refer to girls as “gentlemen” or a man as “ma’am” in a serious manner). This is especially prevalent on Meredith’s campus. Referring to a group of students as “ladies” isolates any student that doesn’t identify as a woman. Some non-binary persons prefer the term Mx. (pronounced “mix” or “mux”) instead of Ms. or Mr. Be mindful of the terminology you use.

4. Making a big deal about different pronouns. Everyone has pronouns: your mom, brother, boss and best friend all have pronouns that they prefer. Ostracising your classmates because of their choice of pronouns is rude. In a different light, though, repeatedly highlighting the distinction can also make others uncomfortable. Telling a trans woman that “SHE’s very pretty!” or “HER name is CLAIRE and SHE is…” (with the intentional emphasis on her pronouns and name) is unnecessarily bringing attention to her. Treat us the way you treat cisgender persons. If you wouldn’t say it to someone who is cis, don’t say it to someone who’s trans.

5. Making fun of neo-pronouns. Some people experience gender differently and prefer pronouns like ze/zem. Ask zem what honorifics ze may be comfortable with and respect zeir answer.

The beginning of the new semester has already brought so much noticeable change that has created a more accepting environment. We’ve noticed professors with pronouns in their emails and Zoom names. We’ve noticed professors asking students to introduce themselves with their pronouns. We’ve noticed the emphasis on respecting each other’s pronouns. We’ve noticed and we feel so much more welcome. Thank you for your efforts and we look forward to more. If you have questions, ask. It’s okay to be confused, as long as you don’t make it uncomfortable or disrespectful. If you don’t have anyone you can personally ask, message The Herald on Instagram (@meredith_herald) and we’ll do our best to answer in an article!

By Rae Hargis, Staff Writer



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