Jodie Vanderslot | Staff Writer
Featured illustration: Shattering misconceptions about gender and language starts with making a conscious effort in the pronouns we use. | Jasmine Wiradharma
Language, like many things, is imperfect: constantly changing and fluid. Perhaps this is most evident in how we, as English speakers, are taught to use pronouns. From an early age we’re taught to associate sex with gender, and by extension, associate sex with pronouns as well.
However, sex is biological, while gender is culturally constructed and attributed. It is time to move beyond binary pronouns. Our words hold heavy value and we need to acknowledge this and use it to enhance our dialogue.
Many of us are cisgender, meaning our gender identity coincides with our sex. However, there are also a significant number of individuals who do not feel this way. There are many people whose biological sex does not correlate to their gender, or individuals who may identify as neither male or female. Given this information, we cannot confine people to limiting language such as “he” or “she.” There is a vast spectrum of identities that work outside normative masculine and feminine binaries.
Misgendering demonstrates how language can work in oppressive ways. Hypersensitivity is often used as a cop-out, but it is important to note that there have been reforms in language and how it has been used in the past. Like any other social construction, language too has the ability to be reformed and changed.
Imagine someone calling you by the incorrect pronoun, assuming something about you or calling you by the wrong name. When someone uses incorrect pronouns to address or speak about someone, they are not only invalidating their identity, but they are also misgendering and using pronouns and words that could be very hurtful, regardless if the person intended it to come out derogatorily or not.
More commonly today, pronouns are becoming included as part of introductions. Followed by their name, someone would say the pronouns they prefer to be addressed as. For example, “Hi, my name is _, my pronouns are _.” The first time I encountered this was at a training session through York, and what I learned was that it comes down to a matter of conscious thinking, respect and equity. Using the correct pronouns to address or speak about a person demonstrates a degree of respect. It is necessary and it is the best way to ensure inclusivity.
The goal of pronoun correctness is to establish a more trans-friendly environment that maximizes the individual’s ability to control and express their identity. The point is to listen and learn, rather than assume. Trans and gender fluid people do not all look the same, so listen to how they describe themselves. If you are unsure about someone’s gender identity, simply ask.
It is important to establish a dialogue with the appropriate language. It is not a preferred pronoun: it is your pronoun. Your pronoun is a right, not a preference. It can often be a difficult topic to broach, especially if you’re not familiar with it, but you want to be sensitive to everyone. One way to do this is through gender neutral pronouns. A gender neutral pronoun is a word that refers to someone that does not imply biological sex, such as they, them, ze, and hirs. One can also address the individual by their name, and say “everyone” or “folks” rather than “guys.”
York has begun incorporating this way of speaking in order to make a conscious effort to include and respect everyone. The way we address individuals and groups of people needs to be done consciously until the habit is formed. Incorporating pronouns into introductions is how we will learn about others and how they view themselves. Our words can help foster a supportive and inclusive space socially, politically and culturally. Using the correct pronouns, then, is a significant step toward inclusion and respecting all genders.