August 21, 2018
My amazing friend G’s seven month-old gets he-ed and she-ed all the time. Usually, G doesn’t correct the strangers, because who knows what pronouns baby will choose to use. Sometimes, though, during a longer interaction, something will happen to alert the stranger to baby’s genitalia, and the stranger will devolve into apologies: “I didn’t know,” “I’m so sorry…”
When we grow up, though, these apologies go the way of baby teeth and not needing haircuts. Suddenly, we are all expected to know each other’s pronouns without asking, and if corrected, many of us are stunned into silence, apologies or edits swallowed into our confused or embarrassed guts.
Recently (and I know this because of Teen Vogue), a Kardashian messed up when talking about actor Asia Kate Dillon on Twitter. Asia tweeted back, “As a non-binary person, I use…,” and the Kardashian, very suavely, said, “Oh my goodness! My sincerest apologies!” and edited the original tweet. This very public display is a wonderful script for non-tweeted interactions as well.
We all mess up when we are learning, and not knowing each other’s pronouns is new for most people. We can use the analogy of starting a new job: there are a ton of names to learn on top of everything else. One way to handle that is to avoid using anyone’s name so that you don’t mess up. Another way is to “study,” asking over and over again, being upfront about your need to practice. The former usually ends in some deeper embarrassment later on, and the latter sounds like, “Good morning–wait–it’s Mitsy, right? MISTY! Sorry! I’ll get it, I promise. Have a good day, Misty.”
We can do the same with pronouns. 101-level is to avoid pronouns altogether. Use a person’s name as much as you can, and when it gets sticky, use second person pronouns, whether they are in the room or not. This sounds like:
Hey Misty. I was thinking of you last night. I saw that book you recommended at the library and tried to check it out. I remembered you said the beach scenes make you feel like you don’t need to go on vacation.
Hey, Jake. I have this new coworker, Misty, who likes that author you recommended to me years ago. On our first day at work together, Misty told me how great those beach scenes are. I’ve been thinking you and Misty could really bond over your love for beach scenes.
The next level (and the final, I think), is to acknowledge that pronouns--including singular they–exist and that you aren’t infallible. You practice, whether the person is in the room or not. (This makes it easier when they are in the room…) It might sound like:
Hey Misty. Last night at the library, when I tried to check out the book you recommended, it was on hold. I told the librarian, “My coworker, Misty, said this book has the best beach scenes they ever read.” (Pause, wondering if I said it right.) I said, “They are going to be so disappointed when I tell them the book wasn’t available.”
Hey Misty! Last night at the library, I told the librarian, “My coworker said this book has the best beach scenes he–oh, sorry, I’m learning–they ever read.
Me: Hey, Jake. Can I introduce you to my new coworker, Misty? (Pause, thinking about how to continue.) Misty–Misty uses they/them/their pronouns, and I am always nervous I’m going to mess it up, so I just usually use their name–Misty loves that author you recommended to me years ago.
J: Oh, wow! Yeah, make that introduction, please. Also, I have a new student who uses they/them pronouns, too, and I’m always so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing. I feel like since I’m queer, I should “get it,” and I don’t want to embarrass them. Or myself. Want to practice together?
Kellen spent years thinking about whether they could live with the pronouns they had been raised to use. When they got up the guts to tell the world that their pronouns needed to match their identity–human–they got a lot of congratulations and support. Their parents and relatives use–with effort–the new-to-them pronouns. More than hearing them get it right, Kellen loves when someone says, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry! I meant they! I said it in my head first but then it came out wrong!” Kellen is the first to point out that their family members used different pronouns for over three decades, so getting used to this will take time.
We can all give ourselves that same cushion: most of us, including trans folks, were raised to believe we could match a pronoun to a name or to an appearance. Unlearning that will take time. And practice.
This week, when you mess up someone’s pronouns, whether they are in the room or not, apologize and edit before moving the conversation forward. Advanced practice: try using they when you are talking about an individual whose pronouns you don’t know yet, like the cashier at the grocery or the driver in front of you.