Opinion: Pronouns are not so difficult

Wednesday 8 July 2020
Words are important. We use them to convey information, to express love and affection, and sometimes to hurt or harm, writes Professor Mark Henrickson.
Mark Henrickson

Professor Mark Henrickson.

Last updated: Monday 4 April 2022

By Professor Mark Henrickson

Words are important. We use them to convey information, to express love and affection, and sometimes to hurt or harm. Words shape the way we think about things— if you know another language (or two, or more) you’ll know that different words that seem to be for the same thing often express different aspects of that thing that are shaped by culture or history.

Perhaps most importantly, words define who we are. For most of us, the first words we ever hear in life are “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”. We were probably only a few seconds old at that point, and certainly didn’t have any way of understanding what those words meant, but those words defined and described us for our entire lives. Someone assigned us to a sex based on a visual inspect of our plumbing, and that brief moment determined everything. When someone on the street encountered our parents holding us, one of their first questions was most likely “Is it a girl or a boy?” Sometimes people didn’t ask because our parents dressed us in clothing or colours that were considered appropriate for our gender: boys in blue or bold colours, girls in pink or pastel colours. If they did, our clothing made that declaration for us. And still, no one asked us how we felt about the whole thing.

When we started in school people saw what clothes we wore, what games we liked, whether we played with trucks or dolls, and made assumptions about our sex based on the way we presented our gender. They referred to us with words like ‘she’ or he’, ‘him’ or ‘her’, ‘his’ or ‘hers’. The entire way we were brought up was defined from those first few seconds after we were born.

But what if our internal self-experience of our gender didn’t match our anatomy, or the way we were dressed by our parents, or by the games we were taught to play? What if the gendered ways people referred to us felt like knives piercing our eardrums every time we heard them? What if we felt so different that nothing felt right, and we couldn’t even trust our own bodies or experiences of the world and ourselves? What if we realised that we were not cisgender (that is, our anatomical sex, our experience of gendered selves and the way we experienced our bodies were all aligned to one gender), but instead transgender (all these things were not aligned). Who decided there were only two sexes and two genders anyway?

Transgender people have been in the news a lot over the last few years. You might want to have a look at the newly released film Disclosure on Netflix, or watch a TED talk by Jackson Bird. Maybe you’ll even want to go through the 20-minute ‘Working Under the Rainbow’ module in the Massey Evolve website. Some of us have had trans students in our classes or as research students. We hear their stories, and we learn that the transition from being someone we are not to someone we are is difficult. Epically difficult. In the recent Counting Ourselves study in Aotearoa New Zealand, trans persons reported nine times the rate of very high psychological distress as the general population; 56% had thought about committing suicide; 37% of trans people had attempted suicide. Trans people are frequently the targets of assault and murder: Forbes reports that globally in 2019 331 trans people were murdered, hanged, or lynched (mostly in Brazil, but also in Mexico, the US, and other countries); most of these were transwomen of colour. In southern Africa (and some other regions) there is something ironically called ‘corrective rape’, where, the theory apparently goes, once you’ve been violently raped by a cisgender man you’ll want more of it and stop being gender non-conforming.

The reality is that trans people, gender fluid, and non-binary people have existed throughout history, but only in the last few years have we started to develop a taxonomy, a language that includes their experiences. You might want to have a look at Samy Nour Younes’ TED talk on a history of trans people.

In this context, then, it doesn’t seem too much effort to start paying attention to how we use words that are important, and particularly to the gendered pronouns that we use to define people. Maybe we should wait for people to tell us how they would like to be described, rather than claiming a right to define them? Maybe we could ask other people what pronouns they would like us to use for them. And we could make it even easier, and tell other people what pronouns we would like them to use for us. It wouldn’t be very difficult to add a little tag line on our email signatures, name tags or Stream sites: ‘Pronouns: he/him’ or ‘she/hers’ or ‘they/their’. It doesn’t have to be complicated or weird. The singular ‘they’ (which, by the way, was used by Shakespeare, even though it sounds a little odd to 21st century ears) is returning to common use about people who don’t identify as only male or only female. Woke English-speakers went through a period of trying to invent gender-neutral pronouns about a decade ago before some even woker English speakers realised we already had a perfectly good one in ‘they’. And in adding that little pronoun tagline we signal that we are open to hearing about how other people define themselves.

Using the right words and pronouns means we get to define for ourselves who we are. Identifying our own pronouns gives other people permission to tell us how they’d like us to refer to them. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. It’s really just polite, like offering a guest the comfortable chair, or a cup of tea. Making space for people to tell us how they identify themselves is really just good manners. But it is also tremendously important for them, and for us.

Mark Henrickson is Professor of Social Work at Massey’s Auckland campus.