It’s 2018 and while many people still react to gender diversity in a negative way, the fear and ignorance is slowly but steadily falling away. Everyone can be a part of that process by being respectful of a person’s gender pronouns. Personally, it makes me really happy to know that we are living in a time where gender diverse people can let people know how they should be addressed or referred to. They can make decisions about their bodies and lifestyles to make living in their own skin more joyful and less painful or traumatic.
I won’t pretend that I know what it’s like to be gender diverse or non-binary. I’m cis-gendered, meaning my gender identity is female, as is my biological sex. So, my pronouns are her and she. I know what it’s like to be addressed incorrectly, though. It’s not the same, of course, but just an example:
I am not Mrs Ahearn. That’s my mother-in-law.
I am often addressed by my married name. By married name, I mean my husband’s name. I have even received correspondence from the bank addressed to “Mrs C. Ahearn” which is really strange. It’s strange because I have never used the name Ahearn on any form or documentation to do with the bank. That’s because, when we got married, I never changed my name. Not on anything official. According to law, I can use my husband’s surname if I want to, and I do for certain things, but officially? My name has never changed. But the assumption is that I have. And addressing me as Mrs C. Ahearn is really irritating. I am no longer an individual, unique person. My identity is erased and I am just a feminine extension of my husband.
If it bothers me to be addressed incorrectly in this manner, I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to have to constantly correct friends, family and colleagues who use incorrect gender pronouns and names. I’ve seen posts and discussions all over social media from people concerned about gender pronouns. The whole idea of addressing someone by the pronoun or title they identify with is, for some people, far too much trouble.
But that mix of ignorance and fear is a strong cocktail. The idea of learning something new, adapting to it or just plain old change is terrifying to many people. We hide behind this phrase:
“I just don’t understand it!”
Here’s the good news! The way someone identifies is not something that you or anyone else is required to really understand. If someone is born biologically male but identifies as female, you aren’t expected to actually grasp completely what that is like for them. It is, however, helpful to try to imagine what that is like. Opening your mind and trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes leads to this other wonderful thing called empathy. Empathy makes it even easier to be respectful towards a fellow human.
Our language is evolving to include words like “ze” (considered a neutral pronoun) or some people use “they” instead of he, she or ze. It’s slowly becoming easier for gender diverse people to express their identity and for everyone that knows them to address them appropriately. This is a great thing!
What to do if your friend/loved one tells you they prefer a certain name or gender pronoun
Imagine your best friend decided to change their name legally to something other than what you’re used to calling them.
Perhaps their name holds a poor association; maybe they were named after a relative they didn’t like or they were bullied mercilessly because of their name. If your bestie changes their name from Bertha to Jenny, you call them Jenny. When someone you care about asks to be referred to as he, she, they, ze or whatever, it’s no different. As their friend or loved one, you just do it. Whether it’s a name change or a gender pronoun, go with what your mate is asking you to use. Very simple!
We have always lived with gender diversity; it is not a new phenomenon by any stretch. You will not change anyone’s gender identity by refusing to address them by their correct name or pronoun. You’ll just look like a disrespectful asshat. And you may well lose a relationship. If someone you know and care for tells you their gender is not what you thought it was, believe them. Trust in the fact that they know more about their identity than you do.
How are you supposed to know?
This is more good news. You aren’t. No one expects you to be a mind reader. Most of the time, you can probably (quite accurately) assume someone’s gender identity. But sometimes, you will be wrong.
There is a very easy way to avoid this situation: Ask! I don’t mean that you should march up to strangers and demand to know how they identify. But if you meet a new person, it’s not rude to ask which pronouns they want to be addressed by. If someone offers the information to you or corrects you, that’s cool. Don’t get defensive, they’re just letting you know. Take it on board.
But what if you accidentally stuff up and use the wrong gender pronouns?
Old habits die hard, amirite? I’ve been there, said the wrong thing, tried to correct myself and felt all flustered. Learn from my awkwardness, friends. This is what you do if you accidentally use the wrong pronoun:
You apologise, genuinely and without a fuss. Then you correct yourself and move on with your conversation. You try hard not to do it again. That’s all.
Don’t make a big production out of your apology. Keep it simple and keep trying. If you make a fuss out of apologising and beating yourself up (“I can’t believe I said that!” etc) you’re effectively asking your friend to comfort you over your error. That’s not their job!
It’s hard to break a habit of possibly many years, when your friend changes their name and/or lets you know their appropriate gender pronouns. Like any habit, though, you can let it go and form a new one. Don’t complain to your friend about how difficult it is to remember anything along those lines.
In short, don’t make your slip-ups their burden to bear.
The idea of different gender pronouns, perhaps new words to learn altogether, might seem pretty overwhelming to some people. That’s okay, new stuff can be overwhelming. But it’s really very simple. Ask people which pronouns they like and file that info away in your brain with the other things you know about them.
Compared to being transgender or otherwise gender diverse, a little change in language isn’t that overwhelming at all.
Special thanks to my friend of more than two decades (😲), Dr Andy Kaladelfos, for generously sharing their thoughts and experiences and helping me put this piece together!
#IBOT @ Capturing Life.