Beyond he and she: the rise of non-binary pronouns

As a queer non-binary human, I face a lot of challenges daily that cisgender folks have the privilege of not worrying about. I have to fight for the validity of my gender, as well as respect, when it comes to my name and pronouns. It seems like common sense. If someone tells you their name or their pronouns, you should use them, right? It’s disappointing that an article like this has to be written in the first place, but I’m not alone in my struggle to be accepted as a human being.

I ask myself a lot, “Why does my gender/gender presentation matter so much to others?” I don’t feel as though it is hard to ask. It’s my identity. No one would purposefully misgender someone who, to them, looks “male” and goes by “male” pronouns, so why don’t we get afforded the same basic decency?

When I asked several of my trans and non-binary friends how it made them feel to be misgendered, almost everyone responded that they felt disrespected, frustrated, uncomfortable, or anxious.

Coley Alston (they/them/theirs) also made an important point in saying, “Not misgendering someone isn’t some “ally” action. It is the most basic level of human decency. Do you congratulate your grandparents for not referring to grown black men as ‘boy’? Do you high-five your coworker for not referring to people as ‘Oriental’? No! Being misgendered is a microaggression — maybe the size of a raindrop — but as a black queer person in Pittsburgh, I experience a torrential downpour of microaggressions.”

Being misgendered is awful, especially for those of us that try so hard to present in certain ways. Some of us even wear pronoun pins or other apparel in an attempt to ward off misgendering. Gender identity isn’t something you’re going to know about a person right off the bat (regardless of whether you think you’ve “guessed” the correct gender of someone). Being courteous and affording someone respect is the best possible solution to a situation when you maybe unsure of what pronouns someone uses in their day-to-day life. Coley is right to say that not misgendering someone isn’t an “ally” action, but taking the time to ask someone most certainly is. At the end of the day, another persons identity doesn’t affect you or your life. Does it really hurt to ask? Why does the notion of someone taking away your ability to make an assumption about their identity make you so upset, when that identity doesn’t belong to you in the first place? Gender holds far more repercussions for someone who is trans than for the person making the assumptions.

“It makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable: It’s a difficult-toexplain ‘wrong’ feeling in my stomach. The best way I can describe it is it that just feels fundamentally wrong. It also makes me incredibly anxious, because I have to make the choice to ignore it, or figure out if it’s safe to correct this person. You never know who might have some kind of issue with trans people, and I’m not trying to be in any kind of danger if I can help it,” said C.J. (they/ them/theirs).

Assumptions about gender identity are frustrating and disrespectful, but these assumptions can also lead to difficult questions regarding personal safety, as C.J. pointed out. Pronoun usage may not seem like something that is particularly impactful as far as safety is concerned; however, there is an inner dialogue that often takes place in situations of misgendering, even if the moment is fleeting. Non-binary or trans people often feel compelled to ask themselves, “Will correcting this person end productively, or will this interaction turn hostile?” These are topics and questions that someone who identifies with their assigned gender doesn’t have to think about or consider, but are exactly part of the reason accepting someone’s pronouns is important.

If you have friends or coworkers who are trans or nonbinary, ask them if it is OK to correct people who misgender them, and if the answer is yes, then do so. Lead by example; exhibit the same love and support that you would want to see in your own life. We can’t change the world over night, but that kind of support is a start.

For those who do struggle to correct folks who misgender you, please remember that your identity is valid. YOU are valid and you are allowed to stand up for yourself. Sometimes it is necessary to gauge someone’s intent. Perhaps it is unintentional because they just don’t know or have not encountered someone who is trans, but other times it might be malicious or purposefully disrespectful. In a workplace situation, if you feel comfortable, a helpful situation might be to find someone to help support you and correct people who have misgendered you.

“Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. It can be hard, but your identity, your feelings, your pronouns are valid,” Lyndsey Sickler (they/them/their) said. “Reach out for support from friends and co-workers if possible. Their support can make all the difference. That said, please be mindful of your safety. Not all of us are privileged enough to work/play and be in spaces where these conversations won’t impact our physical or financial security or otherwise.”

If you are already a person who has realized how important it is to use someone’s correct pronouns and respect their identity, that’s great! Thank you. But there’s always something that you can do to influence others toward feeling the same.

Remember, mistakes happen, and that’s OK! Those of us who are trans also slip up on pronouns sometimes. A quick apology or even just a correction are completely appropriate responses to these slip-ups. We know you don’t know everything. None of us do. However, be proactive in learning from trans folks or through other resources, and utilize that knowledge to implement change.

Over-all, identity validation is already such a prominent part of living as a trans or nonbinary individual, and correct pronoun use is such a simple way to respect those identities that may be unfamiliar to you personally. Remember, you don’t have to understand someone to respect them as a fellow human being.

This article is preserved here as part of the QArchives. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history, like this article, by contributing to our GoFundMe.

Kit Kavanaugh is a local drag king who has been performing in Pittsburgh for 3 1/2 years. He is the former Mr. Pittsburgh Pride Drag King 2015, an international performer, and will be a featured performer at the upcoming 2018 Fierce! International Queer Burlesque Festival. When not in drag, Kitt is a non-binary human by the name of Ash and uses they/them pronouns.