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He, she, they: why proper pronouns matter

Asking what someone’s pronouns are and not making assumptions is one way to make the world a safer and more welcoming place for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.

On December 1, 2020, Elliot Page came out as transgender via social media, sharing his new name and pronouns. Previously known as Ellen Page, he was most beloved for his breakout role as the titular character in the movie “Juno,” where he played a teen facing an unplanned pregnancy. Not since Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 has such a famous public figure come out as transgender.

In an announcement on Twitter, Page shared his joy and gratitude. “I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in life,” the announcement read. But he also said he felt fear because of the way trans people are often treated, noting that more than 40% of trans people report attempting suicide at some point in their lives.

While Page is one of the newest and most recognizable faces of the LGBTQIA+ community, his experience of coming to terms with his identity are common among transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people. When people in this community come out, they have often worked hard to accept themselves but enter a world where many won’t accept them.

A 2015 study found that 46% of the trans community in the U.S. had experienced verbal harassment because of their identity, and 9% had been physically assaulted. But not all negative interactions are outright violent. For transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, misgendering can be incredibly hurtful.

Misgendering means intentionally or unintentionally assigning a gender to a person who doesn’t align with that gender. While sometimes this can stem from hostility or discrimination, it can just as often be a simple slip-up from a well-meaning person making assumptions based on a person’s physical appearance or outward characteristics. Whatever the intentions behind misgendering, it can still hurt.

Erica Rodriguez, Psy.D., a mental health therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and professor of Cultural Family Psychology at Pacific Oaks College, has seen this firsthand. “There have been times when I’ve had young people come to me and tell me about this overwhelming feeling of depression because of the fact that their own bodies are betraying them—that their body doesn’t match with who they know they are, who they are in their brain,” she says.

Having that feeling cemented by comments from other people can be harmful. A 2014 study found that 33% of respondents felt very stigmatized when misgendered, and those who were misgendered frequently suffered lower self-esteem.

But there’s a simple, straightforward solution to misgendering: using proper pronouns. Sometimes referred to as preferred pronouns, this practice creates a space where it is easy and safe to discover and affirm everyone’s gender identity.

“I like to call it proper pronouns versus preferred, because this is something that is very personal to an individual, something that helps identify them,” Dr. Rodriguez explains. “If you think about it, how many times a day on average, even during COVID-19, do people address you without knowing your name, but by using a pronoun or a title? When the incorrect pronoun is used continuously and in a purposeful way, it’s an attack. It’s incredibly limiting because it’s so impactful to have to hear it over and over again.”

Rodriguez presents two simple pointers for anyone looking to understand and use others’ proper pronouns. First, always ask; never assume. “It can be as easy as asking: What do you prefer? Say: I want to be respectful. Would you mind clarifying your pronouns for me?” she says.

Second, don’t take it personally if someone corrects you when you misgender them. “Sometimes people will get defensive or want to explain themselves, but you should just thank them for letting you know,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Let yourself be open to making mistakes, but change your words and actions when asked.”

With these two easy steps, anyone can make the world a more welcoming place. This is especially important in the workplace, where 27% of trans people report facing discrimination.

“Not every employer, not every co-worker may be open to using proper pronouns or using chosen names,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Sometimes trans or nonbinary people are forced to make a choice between being able to keep their job and afford housing and food or being in a place that accepts them for who they are.”

Because of the hostility and the very real danger that exists for trans people, many trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people won’t push back against misgendering, even when it hurts.

“There will always be people who don’t accept those who are different, who will say they just don’t believe in it. The last presidential administration really pushed the narrative that it was OK to be mean, to be hurtful, to be harmful to others and that people who complain are just ‘snowflakes,’ and some people really embraced that,” Dr. Rodriguez notes. “You still notice that undercurrent where people feel that they have a right to hurt people who are different from them versus trying to understand, to be open, to use proper pronouns, to use their chosen name.”

Yet with a little care and generosity, we can help make the world a kinder place for the transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people in our schools, workplaces, and communities.

Interested in a career that supports the LGBTQIA+ population? Explore our M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy: LGBTQIA+ Studies Specialization.

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