23 Aug 4 Easy Steps to Becoming Gender Inclusive
Pronouns are used when people are referring to us without using our name. They’re often associated with gender, such as “she” or “her” when we’re speaking of a woman or a girl, and “he” or “him” when we’re referring to a man or a boy, and, “they” or “them” when addressing somebody who’s gender-neutral.
People will often make assumptions about another person’s gender based on their name or their appearance and choose a personal pronoun based on their guess. When we make these assumptions, especially when we’re wrong, it sends a harmful message to that person that they’ve either: failed to look a certain way, aren’t passing as their gender, aren’t respected, or aren’t wanted or accepted.
Why do pronouns matter?
Have you ever experienced a moment where another person wrongly assumed something about you or judged you for your appearance? Perhaps you’ve been misgendered or treated unfairly. How did that feel? Imagine now, how that might feel if you were to live this moment over and over again or in addition to other forms of discrimination you may already face.
From a very early age, we learn that it’s harmful to call somebody names, but it’s just as harmful to ignore or guess someone’s pronouns or to refer to them using pronouns that don’t reflect how they wish to be known. It can be incredibly stressful to continually be told that your identity doesn’t matter or to feel as though you’re being erased. For some, they may feel insecure or unsafe when their pronouns aren’t used properly. For example, if in public, a passerby was to call a trans woman who’s presenting as feminine, “he,” this could be overhead and could lead to this woman being verbally or physically assaulted. Although this could seem like an unlikely event, research in Ontario has found that trans people experience high rates of violence and discrimination every day (Trans PULSE). It’s for this reason that the province of Ontario and now Canada, have laws in place to protect people from gender-based discrimination (Bill C-16).
Instead, when we ask and use someone’s correct pronouns, we show respect for them and create an inclusive and welcoming space. This is one very small act of kindness that can make a profound difference, especially for those who may feel vulnerable when they enter a new environment. With a few minutes and a little extra effort, we can set a tone of allyship and provide a safer space for all people.
Here are 4 steps that will support you in becoming more gender-inclusive:
1. Introduce Your Pronouns
We may find ourselves in a situation where we haven’t learned a person’s name and pronouns from their email signature or a name badge. So, one way that you can open up the conversation about pronouns is by introducing yourself and your own personal pronouns.
“Hi, my name is Jess. I use they/them pronouns.”
By doing this, you’re demonstrating openness to experiences and an understanding of how gender-based assumptions are harmful. This could also create a more comfortable environment for the other person to also share their pronouns.
“I recently learned about personal pronouns and I realized I’ve always used he and him pronouns to refer to you. Are you okay with me using he and him or should I be using another set of pronouns?”
You may also ask another person to share their pronouns with you. Avoid asking what their “preferred” pronouns may be and other intrusive questions related to their experiences of gender. Remember to also share your own pronouns and to ask in a gentle and kind way, that respects their privacy.
“How should I refer to you?”
“Would you mind sharing the pronouns you use?”
It’s important to invite people to share their pronouns, rather than force them. This becomes especially relevant when you’re part of a group discussion.
“Hi, my name is Logan. I use she/her pronouns. Before we begin today’s discussion, could we go around the room and share our names and pronouns? For example, she/her, he/him, they/them, etc. This isn’t about sharing your gender or any private information. I’m only asking that you share your pronouns so we can make sure that we are referring to you in the right way. If you feel uncomfortable sharing this information, you can just share your name. Does anyone have any questions before we begin?”
2. Using Pronouns Properly
They/them pronouns are often the most accepted personal pronoun to use when you’re unsure how someone identifies.
“They really are amazing! I truly appreciate them and everything they do to support me.”
Some people feel that using the singular “they” is difficult to do because it’s grammatically incorrect. But did you know we have been using the singular “they” for centuries? Since at least the 1300s. Some of the most famous historical writers to use the singular “they” have been: Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Jane Austen (Singular “They”). Even today, when we don’t know a person we will often default to using the singular they.
“Somebody called for you, while you were out.”
“Oh! Did they leave a message?”
It’s also possible to avoid using pronouns altogether and to only use the person’s name.
“Chris is a photographer who often goes to the lake when doing a shoot.”
People may use other pronouns such as, ze/hir, ze/zir, ey/em, ve/ver, xe/xem, etc. In these instances, it may be best to check with the person who uses these pronouns and to read online resources to learn the proper way to pronounce and use them in a sentence (Pronoun Activities).
“Jay is a writer. Ze wrote that book about zirself. Even the photos in the book are from zir life.”
Some people may also use multiple sets of pronouns. This usually means that they’re comfortable with you using any one of these pronouns — but it’s always best to ask about their preferences before making any of these assumptions.
3. How to Overcome Mistakes
If you make a mistake: be accountable, make the correction, and move on.
“He plays baseball — I’m sorry, I meant to say they play baseball with some of my friends, so we met after one of their games.”
You don’t have to draw a lot of attention to it and you certainly don’t need to heavily criticize yourself for fumbling. If you make it about you and your intent, it’s not supportive of the other person and could be perceived as even more harmful. It’s important to then apologize and move forward. Be gentle with yourself. Keep practicing and learning.
“I’m really sorry I used the wrong pronouns during our session. I know you use they/them and I’ll use these next time.”
People may not be open with everyone about the pronouns they use. Somebody may ask you to use one set of pronouns but haven’t had the same conversation with others yet. For this reason, it’s best not to correct others who may be using the wrong pronouns (unless you have permission to do so).
“Jo came by last weekend to talk about his new job.”
“Jo isn’t using he/him pronouns anymore.”
If you now they are public about their pronouns, you could provide a gentle reminder by responding to the conversation with the pronouns you understand to be correct. If you are unsure, try a gender neutral pronoun like “they.”
“Jo came by last weekend to talk about his new job.”
“Oh? What are they doing now?”
When you’re with a new group of people, it may be difficult for everyone to remember each other’s pronouns. One way to respond to another person making this mistake is by talking about it after the discussion or by addressing the room and then bringing the conversation back to the topic.
“Marley has asked that we use they pronouns when we are speaking about them. I know this may be a new concept for folks and that we have all just met and it is easy to forget and revert back to the assumptions we’ve been programmed to make, but it’s really important we continue using the right pronouns for everyone. If you have any questions about pronouns or if you’d like to practice, I’m happy to provide that kind of support. Thanks for validating Marley’s comment. I agree it was a really important point to highlight! Do others have thoughts they’d like to share?”
4. Continue Learning
People experience their gender and pronouns in so many different, unique, and wonderful ways, but this makes it difficult to offer one comprehensive resource. Since there may be excellent information missing from this blog, we encourage you to look at as many resources as possible and get to know people whose lives are impacted by pronouns more profoundly. It is not other people’s responsibility to answer your questions, so a good way to learn more about these experiences is to check out the following resources and to share what you’ve learned with others:
Human Rights in Ontario and Canada: Gender Identity and Expression
Written by: Jess Boulé-Lyttle, Pronouns: they, them, theirs / she, her, hers
Jess is our office strategist at Bliss Counselling. Jess is a Master’s graduate from the University of Guelph. During their degree, they focused on aging and end-of-life, communication, human sexuality, LGBTQI2S+ health, inclusive practice and policies, knowledge mobilization strategies, research methods, and program evaluation.