Written by: Catkin O.
October 16, 2019 is International Pronouns Day, and the University Writing Center will be celebrating by giving out pronoun tags for people to wear across campus. You may be wondering why the world needs a day for pronouns. Here is the perspective of a non-binary person who works as one of our writing consultants. We hope that their words will help you better understand why pronouns matter.
A year ago, I came out as non-binary/genderqueer. Funny thing is, I hadn’t known until two years ago that there were more than just the male or female genders. At 49 years and one month, I’m older than many people who come out as non-binary or genderqueer. I’m not the only one, but we older Enby (non-binary) folks are definitely a minority. This alone is proof that embracing one’s non-binary gender identity isn’t a fad or a cry for attention. Non-binary people, like binary transgender people, exist. And we are valid and worthy of respect.
For those who haven’t heard of us, non-binary means that a person hovers somewhere on, or outside of, the gender spectrum and that they do not fit neatly into one of the binary genders of male or female. Beyond that simple definition, non-binary people can identify in myriad ways. One example is genderfluid, which can mean many different things depending on the person. Someone might sometimes identify as female and sometimes as male, another person might identify as a mix of the two binary genders, and someone else like an altogether different gender of their own definition. Another example is agender, which means that a person prefers to not be associated with any gender or they are something else altogether.
Others, like myself, have difficulty expressing their gender identity in words. If I were to visualize my gender identity, it would be as a purple winged cat wearing a green bow tie studded with silver spikes. On its head would be a black top hat with a green ribbon, with a thorny red rose and a tiny sword bearing an opal tucked into the band. This cat’s name is Prickle Lavender Gumdrop.
The bottom line is that nobody’s personal gender experience is wrong, and gender identity is as unique as the individual. Many, but not all, non-binary people also identify as transgender, but not all people who identify as transgender actually transition, i.e. get hormonal, surgical, or other treatments to help them look and feel more in line with their gender identity.
For those who wonder how they can express respect to their non-binary friends, family members, classmates, and co-workers, here are a few handy tips:
- If a person asks you to refer to them by a specific set of pronouns, please refer to them by those pronouns. If they don’t tell you their pronouns, and you aren’t sure, respectfully ask them their pronouns and then use those going forward.
- Refer to people as the gender neutral “they” until you know for sure what their pronouns are. You cannot know someone’s gender simply from looking at them, as people present themselves in many ways that may or may not correspond with their gender.
- If you mess up and forget to use a person’s pronouns, don’t make a huge deal out of it. Simply apologize calmly and strive to do better in the future. Don’t make it about you; make it about them.
- If you outright refuse to use a person’s pronouns, prepare to lose that person’s respect, even if you are a close friend or family.
- Never misgender anyone on purpose, even if it’s someone that you don’t like. This sets an abusive pattern and sets you apart as a bully.
Why are pronouns so important? Well, think about your own pronouns. How would you feel if someone called you a “she” when you’re actually a “he”? Would you feel disrespected, hurt, unseen, and diminished? That’s how non-binary, genderqueer, transgender, and agender folks feel when they are misgendered. But on top of that, many of them feel dysphoria. Two forms of dysphoria exist. One is body dysphoria, which is the distress stemming from a mismatch between one’s biological sex and their gender identity. The other, social dysphoria, relates to how society views an individual and how that perception makes the individual feel. Some people experience both forms of dysphoria, while some feel only one, and still others might not have any dysphoria whatsoever. No two people experience dysphoria in exactly the same manner.
Non-binary folks react in multiple ways when they are misgendered. Many non-binary people can feel depressed, anxious, or even suicidal, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes family members or others misgender people as a way of abusing or oppressing non-gender conforming individuals simply because they are different. When someone misgenders me, I feel like I’m getting punched in the gut. The feeling is worse when the person already knows my gender and pronouns. I feel disrespected and unseen. If the misgendering was an honest mistake and the person apologizes, I feel a lot better because they are showing that they respect me and that they are trying. People who misgender others on purpose, due to not agreeing with the person’s gender identity, are only showing how rude and disrespectful they are. Their desire to be right undermines the other person’s need for compassion and dignity. Pronouns matter, and everyone deserves to be treated with empathy and respect!
Happy International Pronouns Day to all!