What They Are and Why They’re Important
Jessica Ross, Pride Central Coordinator
Pronouns have become such a hot button topic these days, but other than the term being thrown around, few of us understand what the word means and even fewer know why pronouns are important. In the ever changing and evolving social climate, people are becoming less attached to the old or “binary” way of identifying themselves. So, let’s start there.
What is this gender binary everyone keeps talking about? Quite simply, the gender binary refers to the apparent spectrum of gender. On the one end is male and on the other, female. Until recently, people have been essentially forced to be one or the other. What we’ve learned in recent history is that, in fact, gender is quite fluid and there are many different gender identities and gender expressions that vary on an individual basis.
Transgender or Trans* is a term almost everybody is familiar with. Trans people live with a condition called gender dysphoria, in which the gender they were assigned at birth based on the appearance of their genitalia differs from the gender that they identify with. Trans* is most often the umbrella term used for anybody with a non-binary gender identity or expression. That’s not to say that all non-binary people will call themselves trans*, in fact most won’t, but at this point in history that is where we are. This is where it can get confusing as a person’s gender identity does not always match their gender expression, and both identity and expression may not match sexual orientation or romantic attraction or biological sex. Let’s unpack some of those terms.
Biological sex is the easiest to understand, as it’s simply the sex characteristics you’re born with and develop, including genitalia, body shape, voice pitch, body hair, hormones, chromosomes, etc. Interestingly, there is chromosomally a third gender called intersex, but most doctors will assign one of the two sexes at birth based on genitalia. Sometimes corrective surgeries are needed throughout childhood to affirm the assigned sex.
Gender expression is the way you present your gender through actions, dress, demeanor and how those presentations are interpreted based on gender norms. For example, a person may be biologically female but dress in a more “masculine” way or vice versa.
Gender identity is how you, in your head, define your gender based on how much or little you identify with the binary gender options – where you place yourself on the spectrum.
A person who does not identify exactly with either end of the binary may prefer a different pronoun. It’s most often “they/them/their” as opposed to he/him or she/her. It’s important to know and to use a person’s preferred pronoun for many reasons. It is also important to note that while the term “preferred pronoun” is tossed about, more often than not, a pronoun is not preferred – it’s mandatory. Mistaking someone’s pronouns is essentially mistaking their gender and by misgendering someone you can inadvertently cause them to feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated and even dysphoric. This can be extremely damaging to a person’s mental health and can even be considered an act of violence if a person is purposely misgendering another person.
Ok that was a lot. Let’s breathe for a minute and just remember that while this topic carries some weight, it’s not that heavy. There are simple things that we all can do to ensure that every person we encounter feels respected and safe in our presence. Asking a person what their pronouns are when you meet them is am easy place to start. Or, if you’re uncomfortable asking, tell them what yours are. “Hi, my name is Jessica, I use she/her pronouns.” This allows space for the other person to volunteer their pronouns so you don’t have to ask, or worse, guess!
If you’re talking with someone or about someone and you accidentally misgender them, don’t panic. Simply correct yourself and move on. The worst thing you can do is cause a big scene and draw attention to them, causing them to explain or try to apologize for who they are. “This is my new friend Alex, he – sorry they – are in my book club.” Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Just remember, as long as you put in an effort and don’t dismiss someone because you don’t understand them, you’ll be showing them respect by trying and they will undoubtedly respect you for your effort.
My hope in writing this article is to bring us all a few steps closer to the inclusion of and respect for all people. As a disclaimer, these are all very basic examples and definitions meant to ease people into the discussion and journey along the gender spectrum and is by no means the be all and end all of the gender binary system. There’s a lot to learn and many, many ways to define one’s self. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes and do some of their own research, or ask for help if you’re struggling with a person in your life who uses non-binary pronouns. My personal contact information is included at the bottom and I would be more than happy to answer any questions or direct you to websites or mental health professionals in your area to help.
Jessica Ross is the coordinator at Pride Central with Lakehead University Student Union and can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org phone 807 343 8813 or in the office at UC-0019 955 Oliver Rd Thunder Bay.