#ASKOM: Hi guys. I hear all the time that I should respect someone’s pronouns and I do with my friends but how do i handle this when meeting someone new? Is it OK to just ask? I’m always hesitant. – “Tara”
Hi, Tara. Using the correct pronouns can definitely be tricky. Not only does correct pronoun usage help with our family and friends who may be in the process of transitioning into their gender identities, it also highlights our friends and family who don’t specifically identify with binary gender roles.
For the most part, we think of correct pronouns as not misgendering someone who identifies as “she” by calling that person a “he.” It’s been a huge topic when we talk about transgender people who should be referred to as their gender identity, not their biological sex or assigned gender at birth.
However when we meet someone new, we have no inclination if a person is cisgender or transgender, so we tend to apply the pronouns that most appropriately apply to the gender they outwardly express. For a lot of transitioning or transitioned people that is perfectly acceptable and comforting because you’re normalizing their gender identity and not necessarily focusing on what genitalia they may have, even though they may physically have masculine or feminine features. High profile examples are Caitlyn Jenner, who was able to afford plastic surgery for more feminine features during her transition, and Laverne Cox, who, like many transfolk, may retain what most would say are masculine features while she openly identifies and expresses herself as a woman. This approach is definitely preferred over possibly outing a transperson or denormalizing their identity by asking if they are a “he” or a “she” or transgender, especially if it’s someone you recently met. Not only do you respect them and their gender identity, but it respects the safe spaces they’ve been able to build.
But we do have other cases where gender isn’t so easily explained and pronouns can be difficult. When we talk about people who identify as androgynous, non-binary, two spirit, genderqueer, etc…, gender isn’t as black and white as identifying as a man or a woman. For some people, they identify as both a man and a woman. Some say they float somewhere in between the two binary genders. Some identify as a culturally recognized third gender, like two spirit people in some Indigenous American cultures. There are even some who don’t feel they have a gender at all. Because of the variants in gender that non-binary people express, it’s good practice to use gender neutral pronouns, like “they/them.” Now, not every person on the gender spectrum uses “they/them” pronouns, some use “tey/tem,” “zie/zer,” or “ve/vis,” but not everyone knows that these pronouns exist or how to use them. It is usually acceptable to ask genderqueer and non-binary people what their preferred pronoun is, first by stating yours, but when it comes to directly asking for pronouns, I tend to err on the cautious side because you can’t tell if a person is transgender, genderqueer, intersex, or cisgender just by looking at them and outing a person as transgender can be extremely harmful. If the atmosphere or tone lends itself to openly asking, definitely do, but your hesitation in asking is perfectly normal with new people. If you eventually get to know each other and ask what pronouns they would like you to use, that’s fine, too. I’d rather risk the slight embarrassment with someone I can now call a friend than to continue misgendering them.
My final tip is possibly the most effective and the easiest thing to do if you’re not sure how to go about referring to someone and that is to listen to how people refer to themselves and what pronouns other people use to refer to them. Listening to how a friend, family member, or maybe just someone more acquainted with a person refers to someone can take some of the trickiness away from the situation and avoid a lot of potentially awkward talk. But with all things, be prepared to be wrong sometimes. Not every friend or family member is going to be accepting of someone’s identity and may misgender them.
If you try any of these approaches, you will always run the risk of misgendering someone and experiencing an awkward moment. Just remember that as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for you, you weren’t the one who was just misgendered and it will always be a learning experience. Many people will let you know if you’ve misgendered them and correct you. If they correct you and give you a specific reason why they prefer that pronoun, like if they are non-binary, it may also be a good time to ask non-intrusive questions about the gender spectrum to avoid misgendering in the future. However, if they correct you and leave it at that, take note and move on without digging any deeper.
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