Opinion

The Importance of Pronouns and Naming to Gender Identity

By Naomi Canny

In an article by Durham College titled “Misgendering, a Not So Silent Killer,” Sid MacIsaac, a student of Durham College, is nonbinary, and therefore uses the pronouns they/them rather than he/him. The director of their camp, Kevin tries to reassure Sid when he’s experiencing an anxiety attack, but ends up doing the exact opposite.

“Sid, you’re a great guy and any person would be lucky to know a dude like you,” says Kevin.

Sid’s anxiety becomes much worse after Kevin repeatedly refers to Sid using male pronouns. This is just one example of how misgendering someone can have catastrophic impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.

Now, social media has helped members of the LGBTQ community to find acceptance within not just their own communities, but others’ communities as well. Influencers tell their community about their name, sexual orientation and gender to help their followers identify them correctly. Some people have been putting their pronouns in their Instagram or Twitter bios to inform their followers about how they should be addressed.

If someone changes their name or pronouns, however, people often complain about the difficulty of adjusting to the new terms. But it’s important to remember that although recognizing pronouns may seem trivial, they are extremely important because they validate the identity of the person that they are attached to. 

Pronouns are not a choice or personal preference; indeed, “preferred pronouns” is a misnomer. Rather, pronouns are an essential part of gender identity because they address and define the person someone is referring to. For example, if a trans woman uses she/her pronouns, it is not because she has chosen those pronouns — they are rightfully hers. An essential part of gender identity is the fact that the gender given at birth has nothing to do with someone’s actual gender. Cisgender people keep their assigned sex; however, trans and nonbinary people do not, not because they choose to, but because sexuality and gender identity are fluid and constantly changing. For this reason, society needs to accept and address that not everybody is going to keep their assigned gender at birth. 

Using incorrect pronouns purposefully because someone’s pronouns are an “inconvenience” is insensitive.  A person’s former name, which is commonly referred to as a deadname, does not apply to them anymore, so the use of that deadname should be prevented. The same logic applies to pronouns. If one is aware of a person’s pronouns, they should make a conscious effort to use them. According to the Oxford dictionary, “intentional misgendering” is “when a person knowingly refers to another individual by the wrong gender.” Many transgender youths have lost their lives for this reason. For example, in 2015, Kyler Prescott committed suicide because he was intentionally misgendered by medical professionals. Prescott had been admitted to the hospital for contemplating suicide and had asked the staff to refer to him as Kyler, because he was born female, but was a male. The staff did not comply, and shortly after, Kyler took his own life.

Unintentional misgendering also occurs. If incorrect pronouns or names are used by mistake and the person apologizes and corrects themself, then that person should be encouraged for making an effort to try to refer to that person correctly. The best practice is to ask someone what their pronouns and names are, rather than just assuming and taking the risk of severely invalidating someone. In an article by Healthline, some reasons for misgendering are discussed. They include: facial hair or lack thereof, high or low vocal range, chest or breast tissue or lack thereof, and genitalia. Something that many do not understand is that one does not have to look or appear to be cisgender in order to be the gender that they are. For example, the argument against trans women is that women have to have periods. This argument is clearly flawed, because even cisgender women sometimes do not have periods due to underlying health conditions such as menopause, stress, and amenorrhea, which is the absence of periods. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume anything about a person at first glance, and it is important to ask them about their pronouns.

It is important to realize that changes in sexuality and identity are normal, and using pronouns is part of breaking the stigma over these changes. It takes time for someone to truly discover their gender identity, which is more than okay, because people learn and grow continuously over their lifetimes, and with that evolution, they discover more things about themselves. For this reason, it is best to be accommodating to everybody and respect their gender identity by asking questions and referring to them correctly to make sure that they feel comfortable and valid in their bodies.

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