I Assumed My Colleague's Gender Identity, And I Got It Wrong — Here's What I Learned

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I have never, not once, shared my pronouns with anyone. I realized this the other day when responding to an email to one of my editors, a person who has her pronouns stated in her email signature. Why haven’t I ever shared mine? I determined that it’s because I have pronoun privilege.

I go by “she” and “her,” and when I’m out, I’m called ma’am by younger store employees (wow, that makes me feel old). My daughter’s friend politely called me Mrs. Garlinghouse just the other day. The assumption is that my pronouns and titles match what society deems gendered norms, and therefore, I have the privilege of not having to constantly correct (or uncomfortably allow it to slide by) others.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve messed up other people’s pronouns several times in the past year. The first day I met a new colleague, I offered up a friendly, “Hey, lady!” to which they promptly corrected me that their preferred pronouns are they or them, and a “Hey, friend,” would be an appropriate greeting. I was mortified that I’d made such a brisk assumption, especially when trying to make a good impression at my new job. Here’s the thing though: It’s not about me.

That’s what privilege does. It indoctrinates you and can make you oblivious to the needs of others, because you mistakenly and often unconsciously believe that your norm is their norm, and there’s a level playing field. We know there’s not a level playing field, though.

A quick scroll through the news tells us that trans youth are dying by suicide at an alarming rate. The LGBTQ community’s rights are constantly on the proverbial line. There’s a whole lot of threats and dangers–and very few instances of equity. Pronoun privilege may seem minor compared to the bigger picture, but incorrectly assuming and stating someone’s pronouns is absolutely a microaggression. My anti-racism education and activism has taught me that just because an aggression is “micro” doesn’t mean its impact isn’t substantial. Words matter.

I have not previously included my pronouns in my email signature, my social media bios, or in any of my writing, because I’m given the benefit of the doubt. I look like my pronouns, a she, her, Mrs. or Ms., and a ma’am—according to society—and therefore, I don’t have to worry about correcting people. It’s a freedom that many others do not have.

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I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’m former college writing teacher, and for years, I lectured my students on now using “they” and “them” when referring to a single person in their baby. “They” or “them” is plural, I would tell my students. Is it “he,” “she,” “him,” “her,” “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or another title such as “Dr.”)? I would implore them to stop defaulting to the plural when they were referring to the singular. Stop using the generic they or them! Be clear, I would demand. Times have changed, and a pronoun option is they or them.

I admit, I have had a hard time wrapping my teacher-brain around this. But guess what? My teaching background is not a permission slip to continue my old school (pun intended) way of thinking. Just because something has always been, doesn’t mean it always needs to be. We need to be open to changing and learning, especially when it comes to the sake of our neighbor’s well-being.

If you mess up someone’s pronouns, the response is shockingly simple. Offer a sincere apology and then work to do better next time. Don’t get your panties in a wad if someone corrects you when you assume and misstate their pronouns. Just accept that they were brave enough to tell you what’s up, apologize, and vow to self-improve. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, it’s okay to ask, “What are your pronouns?” or “How do you prefer I refer to you?” You can add in your own pronoun preferences into the conversation, too. By stating your pronouns, you’re showing respect for someone else’s (what do they wish to be called?) as well as establishing solidarity.

It’s okay to find pronoun usage confusing or different. Remember, difference isn’t bad. What’s not okay is refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns, misgendering and not apologizing, and disrespecting someone because they, he, or she isn’t like you. It literally doesn’t hurt you one bit to use someone’s correct pronouns and to apologize when you screw up. Your correction and commitment to do better can make a difference in the way the other person feels. Isn’t that what this all boils down to? Respecting another human being?

Remember, they are probably dealing with this issue often. Can you imagine how being misgendered over and over again affects that person’s mental health? Compound that with the potential (or reality) of chronic harassment, policy debates, and lack of protections—simply for being who they are.

While we’re at it, we should probably stop the “son” or “daughter” assumptions, too. This has happened to most moms so many times, and though it’s not the same as screwing up someone’s pronouns, we certainly might consider how our assumptions can build up and cause issues for children. Arguably, we need to ditch the gender reveal parties, too. (I know, I’m going to take some heat for this one.)

I also have a terrible habit of saying “Hey, guys” to anyone and everyone. I’m a work in progress. Part of this work is recognizing my pronoun privilege and making my pronouns clear to others–not for my own benefit, but to establish that by sharing my pronouns, I’m cool with another person’s.

I can’t even promise that I haven’t messed up within this article. I’m learning, too. That’s the point though. If you aren’t learning, it’s very likely that you’re generating harm. I want to believe that most of us are decent people, and we’d like to be the best we can. Being our best often means learning to change for the benefit of our fellow person.

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