Etiquette lesson: Pronouns and deadnaming

A blue and white introduction label with blank spaces for one’s name and pronouns ted eytan

How do we make things right after we get them wrong?

More and more professors in my classes, administrative staff, and coworkers in my life have begun introducing themselves with their pronouns, including them in their e-mail signatures, and using gender-neutral language wherever possible. A few have even changed their pronouns, or at least introduced the ones they prefer for the first time. It is important to make this a neutral part of socializing. Personal pronouns and gender identities are not taboo subjects; they are information we often need to exchange so that we can respect the way a person wants to be spoken about, cisgender or not. That being said, when administrative staff in particular use these as markers of acceptance for trans and nonbinary people, that needs to be backed up with a consistent understanding of what trans students deal with.

In this year’s Alumni Awards at the University of Regina, the Distinguished Alumni Award for Humanitarian and Community Service was won by the past executive director of UR Pride, who made possible initiatives like Monarch Mental Health and Colourful Campus Housing. These important contributions were made for the sake of 2S and LGBTQ+ students’ safety and security, precisely because many of these students do not feel safe enough on campus. Because of the significance of this work for queer and trans students, it was a particularly heinous error when the initial announcement of the award referred to the recipient with a name that they do not recognize.

Although this error is no longer visible on the U of R website, it is not something a person forgets, and the students, staff, and faculty need to look at it as a serious undermining of any message in support of diversity. Neglecting or refusing to call a trans or nonbinary person by the name they go by (deadnaming) causes serious distress and shows a great lack of care.

What’s more frustrating about this constant struggle for respect is that, in general, whenever a mistake like this is made, cisgender people tend to treat it like a public relations embarrassment instead of demonstrating a genuine desire to learn. Trans and nonbinary people often have to fight and have deeply humiliating conversations just to be recognized accurately for their work. Being seen for your studies or work but being misgendered can feel like not being seen at all, and many trans people back out of the spotlight or of jobs that require a public presence simply because of the emotional toll that takes.

This is a short list of things I wish more people kept in mind when working with trans and nonbinary people, and especially when recognizing them for their accomplishments:

  • Ask for people’s names – ask them directly. Not even all cis people use the same name in every situation. Using the wrong name to refer to a trans person can actually put them in danger of violence if the wrong person recognizes it.
  • Get pronouns right. Sometimes people will have more than one set (“he and they”) or pronouns you may have not heard before (“ze and hir”). Even if this is a new concept to you, it isn’t to trans people, so when you treat it like it’s unheard of, it’s actually you who comes off as looking unreasonable. Google is your friend when it comes to these things; if you’re afraid of using a person’s pronouns incorrectly, most people are very willing to guide you through it if you’re genuine about wanting to know.
  • You really don’t have to explain that a trans or nonbinary person is trans or nonbinary every time you write about them, or explain what that means when it’s not relevant. You can just use their pronouns the right way. Making marginalized people hypervisible unnecessarily, or leaving room for controversy in a story about them, can lead to harassment and even mockery from transphobes.
  • Sometimes a person’s identity, their pronouns, or their name will change. Because there are so few resources for trans people out there, it can take a long time to understand themselves. This is why it’s important to do your due diligence and make sure that you get the absolute basics of respect for someone you’re working with – their name and pronouns – correct.

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