With the names Caitlyn Jenner and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox on everyone’s lips, the transgender community is finally having its moment in the sun. As a counselor at Gender Health Center, Sacramento’s only community mental health center for trans individuals, I encountered a lot of people curious about how to respectfully talk about (and to) trans people. If you’re thinking, “I don’t know any trans people, so this doesn’t apply to me,” think again. Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably already met a trans person, and you will almost certainly meet another trans person in the future. So get prepared now.
I have one tip for you: Get people’s pronouns right. When it comes to trans people and personal pronouns, here’s what you need to know:
1. Let go of assumptions.
Bunyan doesn’t mean this person identifies as a man or uses he/him/his pronouns. If you want to respectfully ascertain how a person identifies, the best way is to introduce yourself and your pronouns. “Hi, I’m Diana, and my pronouns are she/her/hers” helps open up space for transgender people to express their authentic selves (if they so choose). You may feel a little self-conscious the first time or two you say it, but it gets easier with practice.
2. It’s not as simple as he and she.
They/them/theirs is popular among people who don’t identify completely with either gender, as is ze/zir/zirs. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A friend and colleague of mine uses she/her/hers as her pronouns but jokingly admits that in an ideal world, she’d rather her pronouns be David Bowie/David Bowie’s/David Bowieself. (How would that work? “David Bowie did it all by David Bowieself.”) Her humor speaks to the reality that for her and for many others, she and he are restrictive, inaccurate or uncomfortable expressions of the self. If someone tells you their pronouns are e/em/eir, it’s OK to be confused or to ask for clarification. But then it’s time to get on board. It’s eir life, and e gets to choose how e identifies.
3. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns and don’t have the opportunity to ask, use they/them/theirs or only refer to the person by name. Better safe than sorry.
Misgendering someone, even if your intentions are pure, generally doesn’t feel good for the person being misgendered. It may be confusing or hard to stay consistent with at first, but it’s considered best practice and with time becomes second nature.
4. Pronouns can change, sometimes rapidly, because the experience of gender is not necessarily static or fixed.
At Gender Health Center staff meetings, we always checked in with our pronouns because expressions of gender identity can change from week to week, day to day or minute to minute. If you know someone is questioning their gender identity or feeling things out, they’ll probably appreciate you occasionally asking them what pronoun they would like you to use.
5. Embrace ambiguities.
In my line of work, we believe that every person has the right to define their bodies and their stories. You don’t have to get it—you just have to go with it.