Respecting Someone's Pronouns Is Not Hard (And Not Optional)

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Oliver Rossi/GETTY

We get it: unless you’re about ten, you probably didn’t grow up understanding that people could use pronouns other than “he” or “she.” And the older you are, the harder that idea may be to accept — especially as you move from the third-person “they” to things like “zhe” and “tey” or “zie” or “sie” (here’s a list of some). Pronouns take up so much of our language, and when we ask you to change several of them to something unfamiliar, it can be difficult and uncomfortable.

We get that difficult part. We don’t get the uncomfortable part.

Because if you’re uncomfortable with the pronoun shift, you’re uncomfortable with the idea behind the pronoun shift: that is, that people have a right to their own gender identity, that the gender they identify with can be fluid, and that the gender they identify with can be something other than the gender they were born with, the gender they present, or the traditionally binary male/female.

If your head just exploded, please go home to your bubble so all the nonbinary, agender, gender-nonconforming people don’t have to deal with you.

It’s the polite thing to do.

Look, no one’s asking you to hack off a limb or sacrifice your firstborn. We’re asking you to change the way you talk in certain circumstances. Not under all circumstances. Just certain ones. Like when I talk about one of my friends, instead of saying “him” or “her,” I should say “them,” whether or not they’re around. They prefer that I use the third-person pronoun when I refer to them, because they’re gender-nonconforming, and don’t feel like either “she” or “he” fits. I don’t do this because some monster will come eat me if I don’t. I do it because the friend asked me to, and it’s polite to respect other people’s choices.

My brother is transgender. Yes, in a previous life, he was known as my sister. But he was never really my sister, not to him, and I need to respect his pronouns, as weird as it feels to me when I talk about my childhood to say “he” rather than “she” (it’s hard to remember to correctly gender him in the past, for some reason — I have no problem with it in the present, but the past seems immutable, and talking about him when we were small seems to make my brain short-circuit). But I do my very fucking best not to screw it up. Like my friend, my brother prefers to be called him. So I call him by male pronouns. It’s only polite and kind and right.

Just like you wouldn’t gossip about someone behind their back, don’t misgender them behind their back — and yes, using the wrong pronoun is a form of misgendering, Karen, whether it’s he or she or zhe or they.

It’s scary to take the pronoun leap: respect it.

It’s frightening to go out into the world and say, “Hello, world at large. I do not identify as male/female/the gender I was assigned at birth. I instead identify as [insert gender identity here]. Therefore, I assert that identity and ask that you act accordingly by using these pronouns.” Can you fucking imagine basically giving that speech every goddamn day of your life, or every time you meet a new person? That’s what happens when you use pronouns that differ from the ones people might generally choose to assign you.

What an act of bravery. How frightening that must be, especially the first few times, and even the next, and the next, and in certain places, and in certain situations! Don’t you want to be the person that grabs someone’s hand when they make that speech? Don’t you want to be the one who gives them the thumbs-up; who says, yes, we’re with you; yes, this is scary but I’m here; yes, I’ll stand up for you?

Just thinking about someone saying those things makes me want to hug [insert preferred pronoun].

The best way to give that hug? Use their goddamn pronouns right, use them loudly, and use them often. Make them part of the scenery. Make them acceptable and normal and right. Make people know that you’re an ally and a supporter.

Nicole De Khors/Burst

You will screw it up.

I screw up and call my brother my sister. That’s how I ended up having to explain “transgender” to my six-year-old again when I was telling a story about how my brother bashed a kid upside the head with a metal Care Bears lunch box for teasing me when we were kids (go, Emmett!). Except I accidentally said “sister” — because I’ll admit I have trouble properly gendering my brother during our childhood. “You have a SISTER?!” my six-year-old gasped.

Ooops. Nope. Only Uncle Emmett, sorry, kid. No aunts hiding somewhere. My ten-year-old huffed. “She means Uncle Emmett.”

Yeah, it sucks to get called out for misgendering someone (even when the person doing the calling out is your ten-year-old. Maybe especially then). You feel stupid. You feel impolite. You feel like you’re not an ally. And yes, you did something impolite. But you can apologize, do better and the world moves on.

Look, it costs you nothing to respect someone’s pronouns. Literally nothing. It’s a sideways movement of the tongue. It’s a glottal stop, a trick of the lips. Just do it. You polite people who do are those upon whom civilization turns.

The rest of you are assholes.

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