Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will be able to:
- explain why they is a valid and important pronoun we can use in the singular.
- understand the need for gender neutral language.
- be able to explain why the words we choose to use are important and why need to be cautious.
As we have already discussed, language is a powerful tool. The words we choose to use have an impact on our interactions with youth and each other.
Pronouns and They
During the youth focus groups, young people were very clear that they need to have their identities respected and part of this is using the correct pronouns and asking youth how they identify. “Hopefully, by now you know that calling people the pronouns they want to be called is a basic and necessary way to demonstrate respect for their identities. This includes learning to use non-binary pronouns, such as singular ‘they’” (Shlasko, 2015).
For fun, trying having a conversation with someone and not use: he, she, they, etc.
How much fun was that? It is nearly impossible if you are talking about anything other than the weather.
In addition to the traditional him and her, new pronouns are being developed to better articulate the reality of trans* and gender non-conforming folks. There include: ze and xe. Also gaining popularity is using “they” as a pronoun in the singular. Some gender non-conforming folks prefer the pronoun they.
Some people who fall under the broad definition of trans have gender identities other than man or woman. People describe these identities as non-binary, genderqueer, non-gendered, gender-fluid, and many other terms … Some (not all) people who experience our genders in these ways ask people to avoid binary gendered language when referring to us, including the third-person pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ (Shlasko, 2015).
Here is a video from staff at Upworthy discussing their reaction to a coworker’s request for them to use their preferred pronoun:
Using they in the singular may feel a little awkward at first. We have been well conditioned in elementary school level grammar about how pronouns work. Saying “Suza was here to check in, but they left to visit Ange” may feel a little weird. With time and practice it gets easier and becomes natural (like learning to ride a bike).
Language adapts to our realities and needs as a culture. New words are constantly entering our lexicon and the meanings of words shifts over time. And the same happens with rules about grammar.
The rule against using singular they is enforced neither because it preserves some consistent, objective grammatical standard, nor because it serves our communication needs. It is enforced because enforcing language norms is a way of enforcing power structures. Our pronoun problem isn’t just about gender — it’s about power … So if you object to singular they on the basis of its correctness, you’re not only dropping the ball on an important trans ally behavior; you’re also supporting a language and power system that you probably don’t agree with. (Shlasko, 2015).
Get some practice! When referring to someone who has not told you what their prefered pronoun is use they instead of he/she. “I was talking with Meena and they said…”
Please read How Using “They” as a Singular Pronoun Can Change the World for more information on why using they is important.
In the Terms and Definitions module we shared a number of important definitions. In the What to Say and What Not to Say module we discussed several terms we need to avoid using. This is a good foundation. Being an inclusive space for LGBTQ2S youth, staff and volunteers requires more than having a few rainbow inspired posters in visible areas.
Do you remember the days when we said:
- Policeman instead of Police Officer
- Stewardess instead of Flight Attendant
- Waitress instead of server
- Manhole instead of maintenance cover
Sadly some folks still use outdated gendered language. Moving towards gender neutral language requires us to acknowledging sexism that exists in our society and language. Shifting language moves at glacial speed (read: slow).
We need to shift towards a gender neutral language. This is hard and takes energy and mindfulness. But it is so important to LGBTQ2S folks. Being inclusive in our language is the next step.
You may be wondering what does sexist language have to do with LGBTQ2S issues? First, sexism, heterosexism and cisgenderism are all interconnected as we learnt in the Intersectionality module. Second, youth who access our services are telling us (either in formal focus groups, or informally by how they access our services and programs) that they need their gender identities respected. You will recall in the Overview section there were numerous comments about respecting chosen names and pronouns.
Things you can do
- If you have not already, update your forms (especially intake and case management forms) to be gender inclusive. Add multiple gender identity options and space for chosen names. Please see the Form module of the Tools section for samples
- During the intake process and at the beginning of groups as part of the introduction ask participants what their pronoun is. As the facilitator is best to role model by going first and sharing your pronoun. It is as easy as “Hi. My name is Elizabeth. I go by Liz. My pronoun is her.” Do this with every youth. It will soon be a natural habit.
- Consider the words you use. Try to avoid calling a group of women “ladies”. There may be some one in the group who does not identify as a “lady”. Also try to avoid calling a group of people “guys”. Instead you can use “folks” or another non-gendered term.
- Read GLAAD’s Ally’s Guide to Terminology
Below is a grassroots activity from Vancouver British Columbia.
In 2012, Toni Latour and Jenny Lynn set out to make these cards in response to people being misgendered or “lady’ed” in restaurants. This has been an ongoing experience and dialogue in the Vancouver queer community for many years and they wanted to come up with a creative response. Since then, James Alexander Kelly collaborated with Latour and they completed the work in 2015. Latour will print 1000 cards that she will give away freely to anyone who wants to use them. Please email her to have yours sent to you in the mail. She has also included a free PDF link to both sides of the card for printing at home. (The card is designed with space around the edges for trimming). It is her hope that they will be used at the end of a restaurant visit as a kind reminder or an opportunity for education and dialogue (Latour, 2015).
The next module is on the topic of bullying. The language we use has an impact on the people around us. Most of us heard “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Unfortunately this cliche is not accurate. Names do hurt. They may not leave physical marks on us on their own, but they affect how we feel about ourselves. LGBTQ2S are more likely to attempt suicide than straight/cisgender youth.
Words can also be used to condone violence. We need to speak up when we hear words being used with the intent of harming others. Please see the How to be an Ally module for strategies on how to speak up.
GLAAD. (2012). An Ally’s Guide to Terminology. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from http://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/allys-guide-to-terminology_1.pdf
Kacere, L. (2013, September 23). 5 Ways Using Correct Gender Pronouns Will Make You a Better Trans* Ally. Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/correct-gender-pronouns-to-be-trans-ally/
Latour, T., Lynn, J., & Kelly, J.A. (2015). Hello There. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from http://www.tonilatour.com/hello-there/
Shlasko, D. (2015, February 3). Feministing. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from http://feministing.com/2015/02/03/how-using-they-as-a-singular-pronoun-can-change-the-world/