In trans and trans-friendly spaces, it’s becoming more common to announce one’s pronouns in a “pronoun round” before a group discussion or event begins. This practice takes the pressure off trans people to announce their pronouns to the rest of the group and makes asking for and sharing pronouns a normal part of introductions. If a space is made for everyone to share their pronouns before discussion begins, it can avoid misgendering a group member unknowingly or putting a trans person on the spot to announce their pronouns to a group alone. It works to create spaces in which we don’t assume someone’s pronouns from their appearance.
I want pronoun rounds to spread, just as I want asking someone’s pronouns when you first meet them to become as common as asking someone’s name. But as these crucial activities spread, there are a few issues that come up that can cause problems and should be addressed.
1. Indifference to preferred pronouns: “I don’t care what pronouns you use for me.”
Not having a pronoun preference is absolutely fine, but when cisgender people say, “I don’t care what pronouns you use for me,” especially in a group with only one or two trans people, that statement can invalidate a trans person’s need for particular pronouns or for pronouns that change from day to day.
Cis people don’t often have to deal with the daily discomfort of incorrect pronoun usage the way many trans people do. When cis people say their pronoun choice doesn’t matter in a pronoun round, it can make trans people in the circle feel like their pronouns needs are silly or won’t be taken seriously. A friend shared this experience with me after they worked at a camp for queer youth:
We would go around saying PGPs [preferred gender pronouns] and several other counselors would say they didn’t have a pronoun preference or said they felt like going by a specific pronoun that day just for fun.
And do you know what happened? The other people in the group then took my (and other non-binary people’s there) neutral pronouns less seriously, because the issue of pronouns was shown by the cis people there to be something that wasn’t that important and that it wouldn’t be hurtful to mess up on/label someone with whatever pronoun you see fit.
There are ways to experiment with pronouns while being sensitive to the needs of trans people. For example, saying “all pronouns are fine,” rather than “I don’t care what pronouns you use” allows cisgender and questioning people to experiment with pronouns without unintentionally communicating that pronoun choice is not important. Additionally, fostering an atmosphere where people can bring up concerns or difficulties with the way something is being addressed, and have those concerns taken seriously, builds understanding and trust that allow for mistakes and growth.
2. Minimizing the issue: “Why is this important?”
For people who have never been misgendered, sharing pronouns can seem silly or boring. Doing it consistently in a group that meets often can seem redundant or time-consuming. Such feelings can lead to cis people not taking pronoun rounds seriously. In such situations, it’s important to remember and explain why pronouns are so important to some. For those people who are automatically called by their correct pronouns, pronouns can seem unimportant. But for those who have to carve out space and constantly work to get people to use their pronouns, the issue of pronoun use is a big deal. The purpose of a pronoun round is to normalize the sharing of pronouns so that everyone can be correctly referred to without “othering” trans people.
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3. Terminology issues: “Male pronouns” and “Female pronouns”
Sometimes, instead of saying “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers,” people might say “male pronouns” or “female pronouns.” This terminology can be an issue because some non-binary people use “he” or “she” but are not male or female. Separating pronouns from gender can be useful to allow people to use certain pronouns without making a connection to their gender identity. The issue of saying “male pronouns” and “female pronouns” can be seen as a minor one, but each group should talk about and discuss it to see what people feel is the most appropriate way to address personal pronouns.
4. Unequal treatment: The concept of “preferred pronouns”
The acronym “PGPs” and the phrase “preferred gender pronouns” have taken hold in many spaces. There are two issues with the use of “preferred pronouns.”
First, cisgender people might not feel they have a preferred pronoun and are not sure what to say in answer to the question. In these cases, it can be helpful to explain that you don’t have to feel strongly about a certain set of pronouns. If there is a set of pronouns most people use for you and that you are comfortable with and don’t want to change, then those are the pronouns being asked for in a pronoun round.
In addition, while many cisgender people don’t feel they have a “preferred” pronoun, trans people’s pronouns are always labelled “preferred” rather than simply their correct pronouns. The concept of “preferred” pronouns can make a trans person’s pronouns seem less than absolutely necessary. The language of preference implies that yeah, I’d prefer if you use these pronouns for me, but it’s not that important. Personally, I’ve excised the language of preference from my introduction of my pronouns. My pronouns are they/them, and that’s the end of the discussion. They’re not preferred; they’re simply my pronouns. And just as I wouldn’t use an incorrect pronoun for someone else once I know the pronouns they use, I expect others to not to use an incorrect pronoun for me.
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5. Being unaware of privilege: “Am I not allowed to experiment with pronouns?”
I absolutely support anyone and everyone’s experimentation with pronouns. Changing pronouns is not the sole realm of transgender and non-binary people, nor should it be. When cis people experiment with pronouns, they not only might be exploring and questioning their gender identity, but they also might be normalizing the experience of playing with gender.
However, it’s important to note one’s position of privilege if one plays with pronouns while identifying as cisgender. How might the way you phrase your pronouns affect trans people in the group? Does it affect you emotionally or socially when someone uses a different pronoun than the one you’ve indicated, or does it roll off your back without impact? Consider the fact that for many trans people, being correctly pronouned is an incredibly important part of feeling safe and respected in a space. If you are going to experiment with pronouns, make sure you are also advocating for the issues around pronouns that affect trans people. Experimentation from a place of respect about the importance of others’ pronouns creates a different atmosphere than exploration that doesn’t take into consideration the possible effects on others.
To practice pronoun sets you might not have heard before, check out the resources in this post. Staying flexible and responsive about pronoun usage helps all of us.
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