Ahead of International Pronouns Day, Emma Stewart from LCR Pride Foundation outlines the importance of using the correct pronouns – a simple act key to self-determination and validation.
Has anyone ever got your name even just a little bit wrong? Maybe your name is Stephen with a ‘ph’ and someone emails you and calls you Steven with a ‘v’? Or you’re mistakenly called Anna by someone who misheard your name, Hannah, in conversation. So, you correct them, and they correct themselves and apologise – life goes on. No one asks why it’s so important to you that someone says your name right. But you know the people going around calling you Anna, especially within your hearing, makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable because that name isn’t your name.
Now apply the same logic to pronouns. It doesn’t sound hard does it? But why are pronouns so important?
Let’s continue the example above. Every day you must interact with someone who insists on calling you the wrong name. They say, “But you look like an Anna to me, and I don’t really like to use the name Hannah, so I’m going to continue to call you Anna.”
Every day you’re erased a little by that one person who does not respect the way you choose to identify yourself. Only pronouns hold so much more about a person’s identity within them. You can inadvertently out someone, erase part of their history or make them feel uncomfortable, unheard. That is the power of a single word when we are talking about pronouns.
Before I go any further, I guess I should introduce myself properly. My name is Emma, I identify as non-binary and my pronouns are they/ them.
My ‘story’ does not have a definite beginning. I didn’t wake up one day and realise the people calling me ‘she’ made my skin feel too tight around my identity. I just knew that it didn’t fit any more. Like a T-shirt with a hole or a worn pair of shoes, ‘she’ was not fit for purpose. So, at the ripe old age of 33 (and a half) I found myself coming out again.
The first time I came out of the closet it was to let my family, friends and the world at large know I was a lesbian, a part of me I had kept hidden for a long time. This time it was to let people in my world see a new part of me, a part I was just learning about as well.
I’ll be honest, I was terrified.
Changing my pronouns publicly came with a lot of internal and external challenges for me. If I’m non-binary, can I still be a lesbian? Will I have to explain that to people? What will my wife say? What about my family? Does it really matter what people call me? Am I just making a big fuss about nothing?
For me, it was pretty anticlimactic. I live in a privileged place in society and have surrounded myself with friends and family who are willing to learn new ways of describing the world around them to make sure I have a place in it. But it really is not that easy for so many people.
(Photo: Emma Stewart)
Official governmental data on non-binary and trans people’s lives in the UK is a disheartening read. Non-binary and trans people come out at the bottom in almost every category including life satisfaction, safety, educational experience and health, according to the national LGBT survey summary report. It’s worth mentioning as well that these statistics are from 2017 and since then the reported levels of crime against trans and non-binary people has risen by an estimated 81 per cent. People from this community are also more likely to be kicked out of their childhood homes, experience transphobia, violence and abuse. If you throw race into the mix these statistics get infinitely worse. And these are just the reported cases, the people we can count.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen people forced back into the closet, into dangerous situations and places where their identity is being further erased every day. But, Emma, what has this got to do with pronouns? Surely calling someone the wrong word has nothing to do with that? Except it does. Follow me once more into the hypothetical land where someone refuses to call you the right name.
Now, imagine it is not one person, but every person in your life. You’ve asked them to change, to correct themselves, but they stay firmly and vocally resolute that you might ‘feel’ like a Hannah, but you look like an Anna and your body is that of an Anna. This is where this world falls apart. Because this isn’t about a first name any more. It’s about a word that creates a space in the world for people. It’s about respect, about boundaries and about acknowledging that in this changing world we have some solidarity and pride. It is about self-determination and validation. Using the pronouns someone asks you to can be life-changing, for them and for you.
In this world, the one I live in, I spend my life correcting people, because it is important for me to use my privilege to normalise my difference. And some days you meet people who refuse, who tell me that there are men, and there are women and that is all there is. On days like that it is difficult, but I will always have the argument, because if I do not then it could fall to my trans and non-binary siblings with less privilege to wield. On the good days, which can outnumber the bad, I meet someone and tell them my pronoun is ‘they’, and this person doesn’t look at me like I’m strange, or insist that ‘they is a plural and not a singular’, or ask why. They just say, “OK. Sounds good. Thanks for telling me. If I mess up, feel free to correct me.” The weight of all those people misgendering and mis-pronouning me is eased in that moment. It will come back; it never really disappears.
There is work being done to normalise pronouns and avoid this misgendering. In 2019, activist Imogen Christie (she/her), of Liverpool Trans Day of Visibility (TDoV), organised a campaign for International Pronouns Day, which takes place this year on Wednesday 21st October. Around 20 organisations across the city region, including Merseyside Police, LCR Pride Foundation and the Museum of Liverpool, participated in working groups and utilised slides and badges in their workplaces to allow people to clearly and openly communicate their preferred pronouns. A film by Thinking Film, commissioned to mark the day, received 70,000 hits in the first 24 hours it was published. All of these small steps help trans and non-binary people to feel safer and seen as people, supporting their right to identify as they wish.
There are also some structural changes being made to the way data is collected about gender by national agencies. The Census, which is due to be conducted for the whole of the UK in 2021, will for the first time have open-ended questions regarding sex and gender.
But every person I correct and who uses the right pronoun, every person that learns that gender isn’t sex, doesn’t rely on the flesh on your chest or between your legs, every person that learns about pronouns and their power is another person that makes space in the world for us and another person who will stand in solidarity.
Respecting and normalising pronouns in five easy steps:
- Introduce yourself by your name and pronoun to normalise the use of pronouns
- If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, ask them
- If you accidentally misgender someone, apologise and continue using their correct pronoun
- Don’t use gendered language when speaking to groups, replace “ladies and gentlemen” with “everyone”, for example
- Put your pronouns on your email signature, social media profiles and business cards