Using correct pronouns is one way to communicate to gender non-conforming and nonbinary people (and, honestly, all people) that you understand their identities as legitimate and meaningful.
Using incorrect pronouns, saying you are “working on it” with little change over time, using deliberately gendered language (grouping nonbinary people into terms such as “women” or “men”, “females” or “males” or calling a nonbinary person “sir” or “ma’am” if they do not want to be placed in these groups), and using incorrect honorifics (“Mr.”, “Ms.”, or “Mrs.”) convey to gender non-conforming and nonbinary people that you do not see their identities as legitimate or that they are not worth the effort of making changes in your language.
These types of communication happen many times a day to gender non-conforming and nonbinary people, accumulating over time to communicate that nonbinary people do not belong or should not have access to spaces or are considered unequal to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (cisgender people). These are called microaggressions.
Sonny Nordmarken has written an extensive definition of how microaggressions apply to transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. Here are some excerpts from Nordmarken’s definition:
Besides manifesting stereotypes, many microaggressions targeting trans and gender-nonconforming people are active manifestations of conventional ways of thinking about gender. Due to the dearth of accurate information on transgender phenomena in public circulation, microaggressors misunderstand or misinterpret trans and gender-nonconforming people’s gender identities, invalidating their experiences of reality and at times conflating sexual nonnormativity with gender nonnormativity. Microaggressors address trans people with incorrect gender pronouns, call them by former names, inquire about their ‘‘real’’ identity, ask them to explain their gender identity, and deny or fail to acknowledge their pronouns, name, or identity (Nadal, Skolnik, and Wong 2012; Nordmarken 2012; Nordmarken and Kelly, forthcoming).
This ‘‘misgendering’’ takes place because microaggressors assume that they have the ability to know a trans person’s ‘‘true’’ identity and that their perception of a trans person is more valid than the trans person’s own self-knowledge —what Julia Serano calls ‘‘gender entitlement’’ (2007: 9). Gender entitlement and the cultural conflation of sexed anatomy and gender identity result in a rhetoric of deception, where microaggressors cast trans people as ‘‘deceivers’’ or ‘‘pretenders’’ who ‘‘hide’’ what microaggressors imagine are trans people’s ‘‘true selves’’ (Bettcher 2007). Some microaggressors intend to legitimate trans people’s identities but, problematically, assume that all trans people are the same (Nadal, Skolnik, and Wong 2012).
Nordmarken notes the differences and overlaps between institutional transphobia, conventional binary perceptions of gender, and oppression and microaggressions, making clear that microaggressions can occur along multiple lines of identity and oppression (including race, class, ability, etc.).
Remember: you cannot know someone’s experience without a great deal of effort from both the speaker and the listener. Being trusted with information about someone’s gender or pronouns puts you in the position to reveal whether or not you deserve that trust. As is evident in Wren Sanders’ reflection on coming out about their pronouns and other people’s experiences with pronoun usage, pronouns reflect broad and complex experiences. Being asked to use a person’s correct pronouns is an opportunity for learning and growth.
But What About Grammar?
A common microaggression that occurs for individuals who use they/them pronouns is that others express despair at a perceived adulteration of the English language. In this scenario, individuals expressing that they/them pronouns are incorrect are privileging their understandings of language over a gender non-conforming person’s experience. These expressions of faith in the stability of the English language can be held against recent formal recognition of the legitimacy of they/them pronouns. The singular they was the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year and they pronouns for nonbinary people were lauded as a Merriam-Webster Word of the Year in 2019.
The lack of information about gender neutral forms of address or identities is part of systemic oppression and erasure. Ebo Barton addresses this in a powerful poem on identity and experiencing microaggressions:
Even staunch grammarians have come around to they/them pronouns. Listen to linguist Geoff Nunberg’s reflections on using they/them pronouns for nonbinary people in this clip from NPR‘s Fresh Air.
A Brief Note on Honorifics
Honorifics are utilized in numerous circumstances that involve formal address and may be part of how people express respect for others. Common honorifics, like Mr., Ms., or Mrs., often reflect a binary understanding of gender. These typically do not suffice when addressing people who exclusively utilize they/them pronouns or are gender non-conforming or nonbinary.
If you are wondering about what honorific to use for someone, just ask if there is one they want to have used when you address them! (The same goes for pronouns!) If at a loss or unable to ask, you may want to use the honorific “Mx.”
To continue to the next and final exercise, click through to the next page — Gender Reflection.