Using correct pronouns is one way to communicate to gender non-conforming and nonbinary people that you understand their identities as legitimate and meaningful. Using incorrect pronouns (or constantly saying you are “working on it” or “learning” – with little change), 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” when 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 sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender people). These types of slights are called microaggressions.
Sonny Nordmarken has written an extensive definition of how microaggressions apply to transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. You can access the full definiton at this link. Here are some excerpts from Nordmarken’s description
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). They might apply the ‘‘wrong body’’ narrative to those who do not experience their gender in such a way (Nordmarken and Kelly, forthcoming).
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 pronoun preference puts you in the position to reveal whether or not you deserve that trust. It is not a burden, but an opportunity for learning and growth.
But What About Grammar?
A common microaggression that occurs for individuals who use singular “they” pronouns is that others express despair at a perceived adulteration of the English language. In this scenario, individuals expressing that “they” is 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 happen despite the fact that gender neutral “they” was the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year.
In reality, gender non-conforming and nonbinary people have been around for a long time, and have used a variety of terms to refer to themselves. The lack of information about gender neutral forms of address or identities is part of systemic oppression and erasure.
If you want more information on the use of they pronouns, listen to a an NPR piece about the common usage of singular ‘they’ –
If you’re still feeling unsatisfied, check out this blog post detailing the long history of they.
A Brief Note on Honorifics
Honorifics (“Mr.”, “Ms.”, or “Mrs.”) don’t present much of a problem outside of professional situations (due to transphobia and conventional binary perceptions of gender, it is fairly uncommon for trans and gender non-conforming people to be “out” in the workplace, when they are hired). If you are wondering about what honorific to use for someone – just ask if there is one they prefer! (The same goes for pronouns!). If at a loss or unable to ask, you may want to use the honorific “Mx.”.