LIVING YOUR TRUTH: It’s the little things – the importance of pronouns
Let’s talk about pronouns.
You remember pronouns, right? I, me, he, she, you, it, that, they, miss, ma’am, lady, dude, bro, bruh, cuz, homie, bae, boo, etc. Those are pronouns, and some of them have genders. Some are feminine, and some are masculine. And it’s really important that people get them right. I mean, this should be common sense, but because there’s a good chance there are people out there who have been referring to everyone as, simply, “dude” or “bro” most of their lives, they’re probably due for a refresher course. So, here we go…
Women, generally, prefer to be referred to as “she” or “her.” Men, generally, prefer “he” or “him.” For example, as a woman, I am correctly addressed with feminine pronouns. Do not address me as “sir” or refer to me as “he” or “him.” You can call me “miss” or “ma’am” and refer to me as “she” or “her,” but never “sir.” And this is retroactive. Even if you knew me way back when, I would still be referred to and addressed with feminine pronouns. Got it?
Now, either this is much more complicated than it would appear on the surface, or some folks just seem to have a severe lack of respect for others. In the case of the latter, those people are, in fact, jerks. And as jerks are wont to do, they will continuously gender a person incorrectly on purpose to reinforce their beliefs about our gender on us, which is a problem and needs correcting. Regardless of those people’s opinion or belief on the matter, they’re wrong. A person’s gender is not a matter of opinion, and it’s not up to anyone else to decide or enforce it even if they think it is. Never refer to a trans person as a “she-he,” a “shim,” or a “whatever.” The person in question is not an “it,” either. And especially do not use the word “tranny.” No matter what the thought process or belief may be, the only person who gets to decide what gender someone is is that person.
Being misgendered – that is, being addressed with the wrong pronoun – hurts. It hurts me when it happens because it makes me feel like I don’t “pass” for female. It makes me feel bad to think I spent a large portion of my morning getting everything just right and it was all for naught because they just see me as a guy wearing a dress, and that’s not what I am. Also, try as I might to avoid it, I can be a little vain. I want to look beautiful. When I don’t pass, I don’t feel beautiful – I just feel pain.
Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake. I offer a polite correction, they apologize, and everything is simpatico. Other times, they continue to do it. I’ve seen it referred to as “an act of violence,” and while I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at first, I sure get it now. When it’s not a mistake, when it absolutely is not just a slip of the tongue, it is a vile, transphobic attack that subtly plays on the victim’s own internal feelings of fear, anxiety, and self-loathing. What’s more, this behavior encourages an environment of disrespect from the people around them. It leads others to believe that it’s OK to treat someone as less than a person simply for being transgender, and the results are absolutely devastating.
Hopefully, we’re raising kids to be better than this. We’re teaching them that it’s not OK to bully and intimidate other kids. We’re telling them that everyone deserves respect. Unfortunately, there seems to be some kind of disconnect; something gets lost, and some people end up being bullies their whole lives. They are so miserable that the only way they can feel better is to tear into someone who is different and rip them to shreds in a show of utter contempt and disrespect. It’s disgusting. This kind of behavior says a lot more about the person engaging in it than it does about the person it is targeting, because the target is usually someone who is already afraid and emotionally tortured enough as it is. This is a person who struggles each day to simply summon the courage they need to live their truth. They’re an easy target, and it takes a weak, cowardly individual to prey on someone like that.
Now, hold on a sec, because we do need to discuss non-conforming, non-binary individuals. These are people who either identify as gender queer, gender fluid, gender neutral, or agender. These are happy folks who either identify as both genders, switch back and forth, or don’t identify as any gender at all. Which seems pretty… rad, doesn’t it? And, sometimes, these people like to use pronouns such as “they” or “them,” which can actually be used as a singular pronoun. Some cultures and languages actually account for this, and they have a set of pronouns specifically to address those people by. Think about that, for a moment… If they can do it, why can’t we? And, sure, perhaps it’s a bit awkward if you’ve never encountered it before, but this is how it is. They don’t want to be referred to as she or he. And while this probably sounds a bit like someone who is just confused or can’t make up their mind, that’s not what it is. They are just as valid and should be accepted with arms wide-open, regardless. And, as in any case, don’t be offended if you are corrected; simply accept what they have to say and use it from then on.
So, what have we learned today? We’ve learned that the gender spectrum is wide and varied, not narrow and binary, like we might have thought before. Each person is beautiful and valid and completely normal. We also learned that addressing someone by their proper pronoun costs you nothing. It’s such a little act of kindness, but it can be the difference between encouraging someone to feel better about themselves or devastating them to the point where they may actually wish to take their own life. You see, it’s the little things that actually do matter the most.
Bottom line: Don’t be a jerk. And for those out there who really just can’t tell what gender a person is, here’s a radical idea – ask them. Or, avoid using gendered pronouns altogether. If you genuinely want to be a kind, helpful ally who finds ways to shed a little bit of kindness and understanding into the life of a transgender person, using the right pronouns is a great way to start.
by Dee Culp
Dee Culp is a transgender woman, which means she often has to order herself to get in the kitchen to make her a sandwich. She enjoys long bike rides, smashing the patriarchy and breaking down gender barriers. She loves thinking about the big questions, such as, "Do I open this door for myself, or do I wait for a man to do it for me?"
Jason Alan McLain