Words are just as powerful as sticks and stones.
Even the smallest of words can have the ability to either reaffirm or invalidate someone’s identity. When it comes to gender, some of the most important words are usually only a few letters long: pronouns.
Many trans people deal with others using the wrong pronouns when referring to them, often on a daily basis. This is called misgendering, and it can trigger anxiety, cause panic and reinforce the idea that trans identities are not important enough to be respected.
Unfortunately, this happens almost everywhere, and Penn is no exception. Sophomore Xeno Washburne recalls his experiences and points out that misgendering can even affect students’ academic performance. When professors assume students’ pronouns and gender, it “creates an extremely unsafe environment where I and other trans/non-cis people can be discouraged from participating in class and made to feel that our genders and identities don’t matter. I won’t volunteer to speak in a class where I know I will be misgendered as a result.”
Misgendering is not limited to using “he/him/his” when a person’s pronouns are “she/her/hers” or vice versa. Another major problem is the lack of knowledge and respect for non-binary pronouns.
Non-binary pronouns are third-person singular pronouns that are not “she” or “he.” A few examples of non-binary pronouns are “ze/hir/hirs,” “e/em/eir,” and “ze/zir/zirs.” For someone who does not fit into the gender binary that has been forced upon them, these pronouns are extremely important.
Another gender-neutral pronoun is singular “they.” We all use “they/them/their” when referring to more than one person, but this pronoun can also be used in the singular form. Before you say that this isn’t grammatically correct and doesn’t sound right, I want to ask you if you noticed that I used a form of the singular “they” in the previous paragraph. If you didn’t, that shows just how often we use the singular “they” already.
You may still believe that non-binary pronouns are grammatically incorrect or otherwise wrong to use. However, changes in language are far from uncommon. Sophomore linguistics major Will O’Connell, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, says that although language changes often face backlash when they are first introduced, people will incorporate them into their language as time goes by.
“We need as many people as possible reinforcing this change in our language. In this case, the incorporation of more inclusive and appropriate gender pronouns is a necessary change — one that must be carried out to meet the needs of our society. Those who do not adapt to this new change will be left behind as our language advances ahead of them.”
Everyone can and should do their part to help stop misgendering from happening. One of the best things that you can do is to incorporate the use of singular “they” into your vocabulary as much as possible. “They” is a specific pronoun for many people, but it is also widely regarded as a universal gender-neutral pronoun that can and should be used in situations where you don’t know someone’s pronouns. This goes hand in hand with another important practice: not assuming someone’s gender or pronouns based on their appearance.
Imagine that you are walking down Locust Walk and you see someone wearing a beautiful dress. When describing this dress and the person wearing it later to your friend, you may say, “She was wearing the most gorgeous dress!” The assumption of the person’s gender and pronouns is based on what our society typically expects people of certain genders to look like or wear. Instead, try saying, “They were wearing the most gorgeous dress!”
This may take some getting used to. Your friend may even ask why you used singular “they.” Take this opportunity to spread the knowledge that assuming gender and pronouns can be a really harmful practice to many people! It’s these types of interactions that can make a large-scale change for the better.
These types of changes may seem small, but they are extremely important and worth the effort in reshaping the way that we speak. By incorporating these kinds of practices into our academic and social spaces, we can make Penn a more welcoming place for all people.
Roderick Cook is a College sophomore from Nesquehoning, Pa., studying gender, sexuality and women’s studies. Their email address is email@example.com.