Why pronouns matter

Co-written by Maxine Muller and Sazi Bongwe

One of the biggest questions that we’ve been asked to answer over the past few months is how we navigate allyship. How do we ensure that we’re not only allies to the marginalised groups who need us to be, but that our allyship is meaningful, productive, and visible; and not merely performative? We’re being shown that words like activism and allyship are verbs, and that they require our consistent attention and action. Allyship means steps, both big and small, aimed at breaking away from systems, norms and notions that oppress and devalue individuals in society. A struggle that persists is the combatting of transphobia and homophobia. Transgender and non-binary people are continually facing agressions on a macro and micro scale as a result of a society that continues to other them. As two cisgender people writing this, we understand that we can never begin to understand the trauma or everyday experiences that come with this. We are, however, committed to acts that affirm our allyship and support. One of those is taking steps to normalise the sharing of pronouns in all our spheres. One method with which we can aim to achieve this is as simple as putting your gender pronouns in your Instagram bio.

It is important to note that as a society our concept and definition of gender is inherently flawed. Gender can be defined very broadly and is a social construct, therefore the notion cannot be limited to male and female. Gender is a form of self identity, which lends itself to a personal conception of oneself. Considering that gender lies on a spectrum and is not restricted to male and female, it is critical to conclude that there are a variety of pronouns people are entitled to claim. The transgender and non-binary community are at a high risk of being misgendered. Misgendering someone can be described as referring to a person using a pronoun or language that does not align with their affirmed gender. Whether misgendering is intentional or unintentional, it is considered harmful and has a negative effect on one’s self-confidence and mental health. When misgendering is carried out intentionally, it is very much an act that incites violence, hatred and insensitivity. By consciously misgendering someone you are asserting that you know the person better than them-self, that you are no longer a trustworthy ally and that you have sorted the person into a category based on your own assumptions. The above actions result in robbing someone of their identity and are regarded as invalidating and dehumanising. It is, however, completely understandable for somebody to slip up, especially around conversations that aren’t taking place on a large scale. In that case, it is important to correct your mistake if you accidentally misgender someone: calmly apologise, acknowledge your mistake and express gratitude for the correction. It is up to you to learn your peer’s and colleague’s pronouns in order to establish a comfortable environment. Aim to introduce yourself by sharing your own pronouns and inviting others to share their pronouns in the process. Putting your pronouns in your social media biographies is one of the means to normalise and destigmatize pronouns, in the hopes to reduce the misgendering of the non-binary and transgender community.

We live in a society guilty of heteronormativity — the attitude that heterosexuality is the only “default” and “normal” expression of sexual orientation. Heterosexuality being the romantic and sexual attraction between persons of the opposite sex or gender. This narrative creates an extremely volatile and excluding environment for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Heteronormativity aims to stigmatise and ostracise, by labelling those who wouldn’t “fit” into the portrayal as “abnormal” or “unusual.” In order to achieve a more inclusive society it is essential that we aim to deprogram our “norm” brains in the hopes to create a more embracing environment. In our current world pronoun sharing is seen as limited to nonconforming people; as a cis-person I have never experienced being misgendered or had to share my pronouns because I benefit from the heteronormative notion. We need to break away from the sharing of pronouns limited to nonconforming people and aim to normalise pronoun sharing. Social media is an effective means of sharing information and reaching a large number of people, therefore putting pronouns in one’s biography strives to destigmatize and normalise the use of pronouns within the social media space.

Even though you may never have found yourself in a situation where you’ve had to state your pronouns in a public or personal context, it’s still incredibly important that you do so. In fact, as a cisgender individual there’s added reasons why you should. Normalising telling people your pronouns and asking people for their pronouns sets a precedent - it moves away from some of the many harmful notions within heteronormativity and helps us move toward the normal we ought to embrace. The act of sharing your pronouns is not even entirely about you as a cisgender person. The openness that surrounds it helps avoid misgendering as a whole, regardless of whether you’re cisgender or not. Normalising asking people what their pronouns are is one way in which we can foster more inclusive and embracing interaction as a whole - removing the burden from transgender or non-binary people to have to step out and initiate conversations around pronouns. Undoing the harms that our society inflicts upon non-cisgender people and perpetuates through what is maintained as ‘normal’ should not be a battle that transgender people have to fight alone - and as a cisgender person, sharing your pronouns can be a tiny yet meaningful part of forming apart of that. Having your pronouns in your bio sends a message that you recognise other people’s identities and that you’re committed to taking the steps to ensure other people do too.

In the same way that we’re recognising that it is not up to people of colour to explain to or educate those who call themselves allies, transgender people shouldn’t bear this burden either. As an ally, taking your own time to do research, educating yourself and engaging in small acts like putting your pronouns in your bio are visible and active ways to show your support, while not fully. Gender is an individualised experience and no one person can educate you on the entirety of gender; which is why it’s so important that as allies we commit to a lifetime of learning. When we’re better educated, we can utilise our privilege to make the world safer for trans people on a macro and micro scale. Part of the work of being an ally is mutually teaching and educating other allies, in turn creating communities that are persistently committed to allyship.

Conceptual ideas around the sharing of pronouns and bigger conversations around identity need to be underpinned by a sense of respect and thoughtfulness. Not all transgender people use ‘they/them’ pronouns - some may use she, her, he, him or even neopronouns such as xe, xem, ze, zir and so many more. Some people will use multiple pronouns and some will just use one. Some people might choose to not share their pronouns entirely. It’s important that we recognise that the only indicator that someone is nonbinary or transgender is if they identify as nonbinary or transgender - and that gender and identity are extremely personal things. Navigating pronouns is continual work that takes many shapes and forms, and sharing yours to your bio is one of them. Correcting other people’s usage of pronouns sets a useful precedent too, generally lifting the burden off of transgender or nonbinary people and making the conversations easier and better as a whole.

Pronouns, like many other things, are a choice. Some people may not be out as transgender or non binary yet and they may still be working out their pronouns. Instead of forcing people to put their pronouns in their bio, we can make sure that they feel supported when they choose to. Part of that support can be achieved by cis-gender people through something as easy as putting your pronouns in your bio. Putting your pronouns in your bio is one means within a number of goals - one of which is the broader normalisation of interaction being prefaced by the exchanging of pronouns. These are all intimate and necessary conversations that need to be navigated in whatever way feels comfortable. Allyship is not one size fits all - and our privilege can sometimes cause us to forget that. Creating safe spaces is incredibly nuanced, and we can achieve that nuance by regarding each and every person in the way in which they would like to be.