Social and cultural Miscellaneous

The importance of pronouns

hand LGBT

To non-transgender individuals, this might seem completely anodyne. If someone were to ask you what pronouns you use, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Special collaboration: Alex Simon is an American-born and Montreal-based student interested in LGBTQ+ and trans realities. They themselves being non-binary, they proposed the idea to GrS Montreal of writing articles on their blog TransAvenue.

Pronouns: something we often use, but don’t often refer to by name. On an everyday basis, we use pronouns to refer to someone in the third person. For instance, if we want to tell our friend that the person across the street has a nice dress, and said person looks feminine, we might tend to use “she” and “her” pronouns. If you want a short haircut similar to the client sitting next to you, you might say “I want the same style that he has”.

To non-transgender individuals, this might seem completely anodyne. If someone were to ask you what pronouns you use, you wouldn’t give it a second thought. You might even say, “Well, I use feminine pronouns obviously”, or “I just use normal pronouns, like any other guy”.

However, these generalizations are problematic in more ways than one. First, it demonstrates how pronouns are generally associated with someone’s esthetic or physical attributes. Having short hair doesn’t automatically mean that you are masculine aligned, nor does wearing a dress make you inherently use feminine pronouns.

Second, it makes any divergence from said norms seem like an abnormality. By stating that one’s pronouns should be “obvious” or “normal”, it discredits any individual or pronouns that are non-conforming. This can be the case for transgender and cisgender people alike. Whether it be in the outside world or in the performance world (take drag, for instance), expression of one’s self has so many more nuances and shades than ever before.

Third, the strict usage of she and he pronouns in such scenarios erases the use of gender-neutral pronouns and neopronouns by the transgender and non-binary communities. The pronoun they, named by Mirriam-Webster as the Word of 2019, is a pronoun often used by individuals whose gender is not within the gender binary. Neopronouns, while perhaps not as known to people outside of the LGBTQ+ community, are new pronouns developed by trans and non-binary individuals who feel that the currently existing terms do not correlate with their sense of self. Examples of these include “ze/hir” (pronounced zee and here, respectively) and “xe/xem” (pronounced zee and zem respectively). While these might seem like a new concept entirely, these examples in particular date back to the early 1970’s (xe/xem) and late 1990’s (ze/hir)!

Singular they with a singular antecedent can be traced back all the way to the 1300’s, where a Middle English text by the name of William the Werewolf was published. Although its popularity wavered throughout the following centuries, contemporary usage of said neutral pronoun rose from the 1990’s and onward. We even use singular they unbeknownst to us, in situations where we do not know a person’s gender. For instance, we say “someone lost their phone”, or “someone called my number, but they didn’t leave a message”. They is much more fluid in speech and in writing than using alternatives like he/she. So how do you use this pronoun when referring to someone in the third person? It’s quite simple: you replace the person’s name by the pronoun they, and you conjugate the verb as usual (ex. They are, and not they is).

Aside from pronouns themselves, connotations to the adjectives we use can also differ from person to person. For instance, someone might prefer being called handsome as supposed to beautiful or might rather use neutral terms such as “attractive”. Keep in mind however that just because someone might use pronouns that are masculine, feminine or neutral in nature, that doesn’t mean that the adjectives referring to them are of the same alignment.

On a day-to-day basis, one of the ways that we can normalize having differing pronouns from our appearance or assumed pronouns is sharing them when introducing ourselves. This is something that non-transgender individuals can do as well, as will benefit society as a whole. Typically, transgender and non-binary individuals are the sole people who might possibly share their pronouns in a direct manner, possibly outing themselves. This burden might prevent gender non-conforming people from expressing their identity and thus tend to be misgendered by those around them. Cisgender people can help relieve this pressure by taking part in sharing their pronouns as well. That way, by having everyone share their respective pronouns, the possibility of being involuntarily outed decreases tenfold.

From a more systemic point of view, public and private institutions can make steps to be more inclusive of the pronouns that their clients use. This includes the prefix and pronoun options in documents and forms. Regardless of whether or not the person has undergone a legal transition, being able to express oneself in a basic conversation with a health provider, staff member or otherwise facilitates the professional relationship between both parties and decreases the likelihood that transgender and non-binary individuals avoid those services altogether (this is particularly the case for healthcare services that can be particularly cisnormative). For example, transmasculine individuals might feel more at ease with undergoing gynecological care or mammograms if the service provided to them wasn’t exclusively targeted as for being “for women” and possibly being misgendered by staff members.

Therefore, having pronouns that differ from what people might expect you to use doesn’t make your existence less valid, the problem is the current lens that society has on gender nonconformity. We all can take steps to ensure that everyone is respected equally for who they are and how they express themselves. From both individual and societal standpoints, changing pronouns for someone we love (or a complete stranger) might initially be a challenge, but using them will be one less burden on that person’s shoulders, one less obstacle they have to overcome, and it results in one more person in the world who feels seen, loved and validated.

Alex Simon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *