By Sunjum Jhaj (she/her), Editor, Teacher magazine
The concept of pronouns never seemed very complex to me. You refer to people by the pronouns they choose. Period.
I now know that this is a superficial and incomplete under-standing of pronouns. Over the past several months, I’ve been reading and learning about creating safe, gender-inclusive spaces. In reality, there is a lot more complexity surrounding pronouns than I previously recognized.
Reading articles and blog posts by teachers and trans and non-binary writers and activists helped me identify key mistakes I have been making in my approach to pronouns. Mistakes inevitably happen, but they shouldn’t dissuade us from trying to engage in meaningful allyship. Continual learning helps us identify and address mistakes and prevent future mistakes.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Mistake 1: Asking for preferred pronouns
Pronouns are not a preference. They are correct or they are incorrect. By asking for preferred pronouns, I was implying that pronoun choice is based only on preference rather than deeply intertwined with identity.
Mistake 2: Asking people to share their pronouns without creating an opportunity to opt out
For the last edition of the magazine, I sent an email to all authors asking them to send me their pronouns to include in their byline. I didn’t offer an alternative for people who may not be comfortable sharing their pronouns with me or publicly in the magazine. My email may also have erroneously implied that sharing pronouns was a requirement for publishing an article in the magazine. Pronouns are personal and complex; not everyone wants to share this with strangers.
I’ve also learned that pronoun requests can be traumatic for some. People who are questioning their gender identity may feel uncomfortable and forced to choose a pronoun when they are not ready to do so. People whose gender identity does not match their gender expression may be forced to lie or out themselves when asked for pronouns. Providing an opportunity to opt out of sharing pronouns without drawing attention is just as important as creating space to share pronouns.
Mistake 3: Believing you’re in an inclusive space where people feel safe sharing their pronouns
Just because one person feels safe, does not mean others will. It takes a lot more than just sharing pronouns to create safe spaces. We need to be aware of potential reactions or pushback people may experience after sharing their pronouns. And most importantly, we need to be prepared to call out and stand against discrimination.
Mistake 4: Assuming you know someone’s gender identity based on their pronouns
Pronouns alone don’t encompass all gender identities. Further, gender identity is not static for many people, and their use of pronouns may vary over time.
Mistake 5: Acting before learning
We all want to take action to help create a safe, equitable, and inclusive environment; however, if we try to act before engaging in meaningful learning, our actions may do more harm than good. Asking for pronouns without learning about the complexity surrounding this practice is just one example of this.
True allyship requires us to educate ourselves. Read, listen, and learn. Then take informed actions accordingly.
Finally, allyship with trans and non-binary people should not start and end with sharing pronouns. While pronouns can certainly be a useful strategy to signal solidarity, our allyship must extend beyond this.