When we go to schools we always do one thing: at the beginning of every discussion with students, we introduce ourselves with our names and preferred gender pronouns. Then, we ask our audiences and students to do the same. “Hi, I’m Catherine. She, her, hers,” I might say.
The practice of introducing ourselves with not only our names, but also with our pronouns is something that Speak About It believes is essential to building a safer space. We want people to be seen and validated, and we understand that what we may visually see or interpret about a person's gender may not actually be true for them. Gender pronouns are also at the center of a conversation about consent, which is why it is so important for us as educators to model introducing and respecting preferred pronouns in our work.
So what exactly does gender identity have to do with consent? As it turns out, a lot. It is imperative, especially in a romantic or sexual relationship of any kind to be considerate and honor a partner’s preferred pronouns. If someone can’t respect another person’s gender identity, pronouns, or other aspect of their identity or sexuality, a safe, healthy environment where consent can be given comfortably is not possible. Respecting someone’s gender identity, whatever it may be, is key to a healthy relationship.
Preferred gender pronouns go beyond just wanting to be called by the right word. They are an important opportunity for people to claim the gender(s) they identify as publicly, or to claim no gender at all. Gender carries so many associations, burdens, weight, notions--it is a huge part of how someone is treated and moves about the world. It’s arguably as--if not more--important to call someone by the right pronouns as it is to call them by the right name. Using myself as an example, I want people to call me “Catherine” not “Susan,” because I don’t know myself as Susan. Likewise, I want people to call me “she” because that is an important part of who I know myself to be. Someone else may not feel like they associate with any gender, or they may feel that they identify more fluidly, and having that acknowledged with non-gendered pronouns could be essential to them.
Obviously gender is complicated, and we all make mistakes, especially when learning new language, terms, or ideas. Sometimes it can be extra effort to remember a friend or partner’s pronouns if they’ve recently changed, but it is an important and necessary step to take.
Says Executive Director, Shane Diamond, “I get it, it’s kinda hard, it’s like if I told you that the color you know as green is actually purple. It’d take a little getting used to, you might mix it up once or twice, but if you put in a little effort you can get it right.” When it comes to pronouns, that little effort can make all the difference to someone. Forgetting someone’s pronouns is one thing—apologize and work to do better next time—but intentionally ignoring someone’s pronouns, that is cruel, and never okay.
Likewise, if you notice a friend mis-gendering another person who you know to use different pronouns, don’t stand idly by. Be an active bystander, step-in, and respectfully correct that person. It’s easy. “My friend to me he wants people to use he/him pronouns when you talk to or about him,” is a great way to offer a simple clarification without speaking for the person who is being mis-gendered.
Speak About It is all about asking. Ask for consent, Ask for what you want. Ask how your partner is feeling. But asking about someone’s pronouns comes with a few caveats. Ask what someone’s preferred pronouns are if you don’t know, but do so with respect and clear intentions. You’re not asking to fuel gossip or your own curiosity, but because you want to respect someone’s boundaries and identity. When asking for someone's pronouns, try using questions that are open ended. “What are your preferred pronouns?” or “Which gender pronouns would you like me to use for you?” are much preferable to an assumption like, “You’re a ‘she,’ right?” Additionally, it’s best practice in a group to ask for everyone’s pronouns when you’re first meeting them. That way you are not singling out any one person who may already feel excluded or uncomfortable simply for how they look, dress, or identify.
You are allowed to ask for pronouns respectfully, and should when appropriate. However, you are not allowed to ask for details about what someone’s body looks like or what is in their pants. You need express permission to ask more in depth questions about someone’s gender identity. Like Shane so wisely put in his last post, “Feel free to ask me about my pronouns or compliment me on my buff arms. But don’t give me side-eye when I walk into the men’s room.”
It’s best to follow the other person’s lead in these conversations, and let them come to you with personal details if they want to disclose those. Just like when you’re hooking up, it’s important to get permission—to get consent—before going to another level of intimacy with a person; this includes conversations about gender, sex, and sexuality. It is everyone’s unique and individual choice what they do or share about their own bodies.
Respecting someone's gender identity is a hugely important part of any relationship; without this respect, a healthy relationship is not possible. So, go forth, respect your friends' and partners’ pronouns, and celebrate the wonderful, diverse ways we all express our gender in our everyday lives.
Want to learn more about gender, gender identity, and preferred pronouns? Check out the following resources:
Speak About It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges to educate, entertain, and empower students to create positive change within their communities, advocate for and practice healthy relationship habits, and prevent sexual violence.
Copyright 2016 Speak About It, Inc. Website by Alexandra Valleau