Why Pronouns Matter


I was driving in the car the other day with my kids and wife and I said, “kids, you are lucky growing up today, to have so much choice, to have so much freedom of self-expression,” the subject was gender.  Cheery me stepping into a minefield of teenaged angst! 

I had always thought of my children as open-minded, more culturally aware, but that seems to have changed in the past few years as they transition physically themselves from children to adults.  “It’s gone too far,” one said, and I paraphrase, but they were generally critical and making fun of all the variety of pronouns out there.  This line echoed a conversation amongst a group of executives at the office who were bitterly inconvenienced by the pronoun debate.

My response in both cases was broadly similar. 

I agree that it is difficult to keep track of.  And yes, as we feel our way to find a better and more sensitive way to express ourselves, we are bound to overshoot.  But it isn’t hard for anyone to see how the default to male pronouns and concepts in English speech can exclude women, make them feel left out, forgotten, or worse, put down.  Being cut out of language is being denied a voice, denied an identity, and that cannot be nice for the victim.

Pronouns are one of the ways we portray our identities.  When someone asks you to use their pronouns, they are asking you to respect their identity.  

People who take issue with a male-dominant language don’t do it just to make trouble, they do it because it offends them.  It costs us nothing to first seek to understand, and then to adapt.  Deliberately refusing to use someone’s pronouns is disrespectful, particularly if you know it is sensitive and important to them.

The subject then turned to s/he, they, non-binary, and trans.  Okay, if you are here, you know where I am on the spectrum.  A classmate of my youngest is a non-binary AFAB.  The two of them were very close growing up, but s/he (they) have drifted apart in the past year as s/he struggles with his/her identity.

Nobody denies that she was born female, that her body, her sex is/was female.  Start by thinking about how comfortable you are in your own skin.  When you wake up every day, you never question for a second who you are, how you are, what your sex is.  It just fits.  But not everyone is like that.  A small number of people in the world don’t have that feeling.  They have a very different feeling.  The feeling that something is wrong, that their body is not how they feel, does not represent what they are.  Can you imagine anything more fundamental to your self-identity than what sex you are?  Can you imagine how difficult it must be to wake up every day and to see your body, to look at your body and to just feel it is wrong?

These people don’t choose that; they don’t wish that for themselves.  It is a life that gives only pain.  And for those that have the courage to raise their hands and say I am trans and I am going to transition, what follows is a society that largely seeks to crush them—denying them rights, denying their ability to integrate into the workforce and pursue normal careers, negating them as people, embroiling them in debates about bathroom use, pronouns, locker rooms, sports…how denigrating.  Just think instead about what extraordinary courage it takes for such a person to follow that path, especially knowing the hate that will get thrown your way.

And if you don’t think it is difficult, ask yourself why trans people, either those who are pre or post transition, have such high suicide rates.  Because it is a horribly difficult plight to be in.

So please don’t judge, just please try to understand, and if you can’t understand, at least respect them enough to call him/her a they if that is what s/he asks…

Please educate yourself further with GLAAD about the issues facing the trans community.

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