I think of myself as an open-minded and welcoming person—or, at least, I try very hard to be. Sometimes I still battle against my conservative upbringing, and I’m always worried some of my unconscious biases will creep in.
Which brings us (of course?) to pronouns. Understanding how and when (and why) to use nonbinary pronouns has not been intuitive for me. I’m always terrified I’ll mess up and blurt out the wrong thing, and end up making someone feel even worse than before.
When should I open a group discussion encouraging people to mention their pronouns? Is it okay to ask what pronouns someone uses? What happens if you ever slip up?
I have a ton of respect for everyone out there doing the hard work of educating their friends and families on how to use terms respectfully, but I also know it can be an uphill battle. I don’t want to put an additional burden on someone who is already blazing a trail to answer all of my dumb questions.
Luckily, there’s a book (there’s always a book!) that answers all of my questions and then some, offering advice in scenarios I hadn’t even considered.
A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson, published last month by Oni Press, is the first in a series of “Quick & Easy Guides” addressing gender and sexuality. (Awesome! Give me more!)
The graphic novel, which is indeed quick and easy to follow, breaks down the usage of they/them pronouns in particular, but it really applies to all respectful pronouns a person might use—he/him, she/her, ze/hir, and so on.
So, here are the lessons I learned. You might already know this stuff, and if so—wonderful! Keep on being an excellent human!
1. You wouldn’t assume by looking at someone that they are named Bob or Lucy or Avery. So why would you assume their pronouns?
I’ve long known it’s important to respect people and use the right pronouns, but I’d never heard it broken down quite this way. It’s really just logical. Many people assume that because they see a person and interpret their appearance a certain way, they know something about them. But no one knows a stranger.
It really helped me get my head around the “why” of using correct pronouns—and it will certainly come in handy if I ever need to explain pronoun use to others.
2. Start off group discussions with an introduction: “Let’s all go around and say our names, followed by our pronouns.”
3. Don’t ask what “preferred pronouns” a person uses; doing so might indicate that gender is a preference or a choice.
4. Do introduce yourself, say your pronouns, and ask for another’s in return.
5. When you mess up—and you almost inevitably will—don’t apologize profusely. Dwelling too long on your mistake can make the person feel uncomfortable, and it also brings all the attention back to you, you, you. Instead, simply say “I’m so sorry,” move on, and—most importantly—do better next time.
6. When you see someone being misgendered, speak up for them. It’s hard to wage this battle all on your own.
7. But communicate with your friends! Make sure that they want you to step in; the last thing you want is to speak over them or embarrass them. As in all things, communication is key.
I also really want to emphasize that I’m no expert; I’m just a girl with a lot of dumb questions who read a book. If your friends, loved ones, and acquaintances have a different way of doing things, listen to them! (Unless their way of doing things is hurtful to someone else.)
8. Try out a few scripts before you find yourself fumbling through an awkward conversation. “Hi, I’m Melody, and I use she/her pronouns. What about you?”
9. Start replacing some of your gendered habits—if you work in the service industry, do away with “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
One of the big things I need to work on is referring to groups of people as “you guys.” Instead, I can say “y’all” or “folks,” which has more personality anyway.
This also resolved an email etiquette question I had: when emailing someone I don’t know, should I say “Mr.” or “Ms.” or just their name? Now I know—I use only their first name, unless their pronouns are available.
10. It’s really important to have these discussions at work and in the classroom. The times are a’changing, and we need to make sure our institutions change with them.
11. You’re never too socially progressive to read a book like this; it’s great for anyone to use as a refresher on how to be polite and considerate in the 21st century. Even for the staunchest allies, it’s still great to know the arguments inside and out so you can engage with anyone on the topic.
Using a person’s correct pronouns isn’t just about accepting their identities exactly as they are and making sure they feel as comfortable as anyone else—which they deserve to be. It’s also a way to be a polite, thoughtful human. And we all want that, right?