What’s the fuss over pronouns?
Why do some people care about pronouns? What’s the fuss? Over nothing?
All good questions. You can refer to me as Jonathan, him, him over there, that guy in IGS, the tall one, him and that makes sense because I look like what people think a guy should look like. I like to wear a spikey rainbow ear stud I got at Belfast City airport Claire’s Accessories (classy!) and wear a Progress Pride flag lanyard (hands up who knows what that’s all about) but generally my attire is your boring jeans and shirt/t-shirt. I’m wearing blue today. It’s probably easy to get my gender right from a glance.
What if you didn’t know me, you saw me down the corridor, with my back to you, my hair was long, I had bracelets on my wrists, wearing pink. Do you have unconscious bias, built into you from birth, that girls wear pink and have long hair? Most of us do, growing up in countries which to this day sell pink for girls and blue for boys, where gender reveal parties provide one of these two colours to announce to your audience the genitalia on the scan. The thing is, we know better, especially working in a higher education institution where people feel more confident that they can experiment with who they are, find out about themselves, discover. People more and more are discovering that the thoughts they had from a young age, about not fitting into the body with the genitalia that everyone assumed, doesn’t mean they have to live the rest of their life as what modern day ‘Western’ society tells them they’re supposed to be.
A widely respected body, the World Health Organisation has reviewed the research and concluded that trans people exist, that it’s not a mental health condition as was once believed, that people should be supported to transition and live their lives how they understand themselves to be. Their pronouns will change, they may look different to how you first met them; for them they will look how they have always felt they should look. It’s about respecting one another. We must use those new pronouns, use their new name, ask how they are and hope we can be good enough for them to want to still give us their time, not be feared that we’ll use their old name, their old pronouns. You will make mistakes. Apologise as soon as you realise. Try not to make the same mistake again. If you don’t do it well enough they won’t want to give you another chance. They won’t want to work with you.
A male police officer made a mistake about my sexuality and I will always remember it. He asked me about my wife, after I had reported a crime. My husband was out and I was on my own. He was in my home with another male police officer. It wasn’t long ago. I was probably 40. Why is my age relevant? I have built up a reasonable amount of self-confidence by now to be able to correct him. It was the funniest thing, how red he went, apologising profusely. His fellow police officer was amused at his colleague’s error. You can imagine they talked about it later. At one point I wouldn’t have corrected him. It might happen again, I will remember and I will always expect that possibility from every police officer in the future.
If people assume they know my sexuality, it can be incredibly uncomfortable for both of us when they realise their mistake. Maybe you’ve experienced that yourself. Maybe you’ve had a non-traditional hairstyle for your gender. At some point you’ll have chosen your outfit to look masculine – I have – or to look how a woman is expected to look. It’s similarly uncomfortable every day someone assumes they know another person’s gender and they’re wrong. Every day. For students and staff in Informatics. Pronouns matter to them. Using their correct pronouns matters to their friends. It’s not a fuss over nothing. It’s people’s lives, their self-confidence, their feelings, whether they feel comfortable at this University, in the classroom or the workplace, and that should matter to us all.
For further reading: