The language of identity: Pronouns, politics, and best practices

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Transgender UVic students share their experiences with coming out and using their chosen pronouns

Photo by Darian Lee, Design Director

“Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I use such-and-such pronouns.” To the average cisgender person, this might seem like an odd way to introduce oneself; however, according to third-year sociology student and peer leader with QVic Life Hanna Jacobsen, it’s a respectful way to make transgender people — anyone whose gender identity is not solely what they were assigned at birth — feel more comfortable sharing their preferred pronouns.

“Allies can make a habit of saying their pronouns along with their name when they introduce themselves,” said Jacobsen, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. “It can make it a lot easier for folks who use they/them and other non-binary pronouns to share those if cisgender folks are also doing it.”

Sylvia Allen, a fourth-year Computer Science student, concurrs. They are a gender-fluid transgender woman and use they/them pronouns.

“When you talk to someone and you want to ask what their pronouns are, like, in a first introduction, the best thing to do is actually introduce your own pronouns first,” Allen said. “If you ask them their pronouns directly, what it means is, it’s obvious they have weird pronouns, or they’re kind of odd and would require different pronouns.”

Pronouns politicized

In 2018, Global News reported survey results indicating that transgender acceptance is on the rise globally, as is awareness of trans issues. Trans rights are being talked about by governments and, in some cases, being protected by legislation, bringing how people talk to and about trans people to the fore. 

Bill C-16, passed in 2017, became infamous because of allegations that it would make using the wrong pronoun to refer to someone illegal. This was thanks in large part to Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor and free speech advocate who was vocal in his objections to the bill. Peterson claimed that its passage would mean that he could be prosecuted for not using a person’s chosen pronoun, on the grounds of what he calls political correctness; however, Jacobsen says that this notion of legislated pronoun use is a misconception. 

What Bill C-16 actually does is add gender identity and expression to the Human Rights Code, alongside religion, race, and ability. This also means that if someone were to make a complaint or file a lawsuit under the Human Rights Code, that complaint would have to meet the same standard as the rest of the code.

“Accidentally misgendering someone is not up to this standard,” said Jacobsen. Intentionally, maliciously, and repeatedly misgendering a trans person or insisting they are the gender they were assigned at birth could qualify under this standard, as would intentionally, maliciously, and repeatedly using derogatory words to refer to a person of colour.” 

Even with the increased visibility that political discussion of trans rights has brought, Jacobsen says that many trans people are still being excluded from the conversation.

“The narrative we see in the media is of a very specific type of trans person — most often a white, able-bodied, middle or upper class, and conventionally feminine or masculine trans person,” said Jacobsen. “We hear the same narrative of someone who was ‘born in the wrong body,’ but has always been sure of their true gender identity, and underwent surgery to affirm this. But this story does not apply to everyone in the trans community. And, we still see rampant transphobia and trans misogyny, as seen by the murders of trans women of colour across the globe.”

Despite being gender fluid, Allen says they don’t feel particularly excluded by political discussions of trans rights.

“It’s a very different type of thing, but it’s ultimately the same thing,” said Allen. “You’re not the gender you were born with.” 

But they do notice that these discussions tend to focus on trans women, whereas trans men do not usually feature in debates. Allen worries that not hearing language referring to trans men is harmful, because of their own experience with not understanding they were trans until they heard what it was.

“I just heard the word,” Allen said. “I already had the feelings, but I didn’t exactly know what that was, and then once I heard the word I was like, ‘you know … yeah, that’s me, oh crap.”

Both Allen and fourth-year marine biology student Alexandra Poulton see the codifying of discrimination based on gender expression or identity as necessary protection.

“If my employer … continually uses [the] wrong pronouns, despite me telling them, in the same way as an insult, that’s basically insulting me and harrassing me,” said Allen. “It’s kind of nice to have it written down.”

“When someone misgenders you intentionally,” said Poulton, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, “it is like an emotional attack. It hurts emotionally, and, you know, depending on the severity or the aggressiveness in their speech, it can make me feel physically ill to sit there and deal with it.”

Poulton is out as non-binary at work, and has their pronouns stated on their nametag. When a coworker made derogatory comments and routinely refused to use Poulton’s correct pronouns, they were able to take the issue to their supervisor. That coworker was let go, both because of the harassment and other work-related issues, and Poulton says that their other coworkers are supportive.

People and their pronouns

“I initially came out [almost] two years ago, now,” said Poulton. “But initially I started as identifying with gender-fluid. It was kind of like a stepping stone.” 

People who are gender-fluid shift between connecting with more masculine or more feminine energy depending on the day or how they’re feeling, Poulton explained. They now identify as non-binary — meaning they do not identify as being on the male-female gender binary at all — which they say relieves the pressure of feeling like they have to conform to a specific gender or present in a certain way at any given time. 

“All of my immediate friends around here were really amazing with it,” said Poulton. “It was a totally new thing for me entirely to be introduced to, but they all were very conscientious of trying, and being accepting of it, which is the big thing for me.” 

While their coworkers, friends, and professors are accepting of Poulton’s gender identity, their parents are a different story.

“I came out as gay in 2015, I think it was, [and] they were like ‘yeah, cool,’” said Poulton. “It was a non-issue, they were very accepting.”

But when Poulton came out as non-binary, the reaction was very different. While they say their parents still love and respect them, they don’t understand Poulton’s gender identity and have not been willing to learn or use their correct pronouns. 

Unfortunately, lack of support from parents is an issue that many people who don’t strictly identify with their assigned sex at birth face. Allen, who came out to their parents about five years ago, says that their situation is unusual in that they had their parents’ support in coming out as trans.

“My background is a complete upper middle class family, and my parents are supportive, which is a very odd thing, especially in the trans community,” said Allen. “I think I know, like, one or two other people who have supportive parents. Generally it’s kind of assumed your parents are unsupportive.” 

Allen says that coming out as transgender was easier for them because people at UVic saw them as a woman and used female pronouns, not realizing that they were born male. 

“I have the ability to pass [as a woman] in public very easily,” said Allen, “Especially because of my genetics. I am half Chinese. So, I have that kind of effeminate kinda thing going already.”

Despite knowing that they have their parents’ support, Allen says they still have a hard time interacting with their family. Though their parents use Allen’s correct pronouns when they are within earshot, they still misgender them when they think they can’t hear, making Allen feel like they aren’t truly seen as themself, yet.

For Allen, being misgendered, even accidentally, is an emotional blow. 

“You’re having a good day, you feel your identity, and then suddenly someone uses the wrong pronoun and then all you can think about from that point on is all of the things that don’t match your identity,” said Allen. “It’s kind of like someone pointing out, like, ‘hey, there’s a mole on your face’ … or a pimple, or something.”

Being accidentally misgendered doesn’t particularly bother Jacobsen — although they recognize that it is a privilege to be able to take it in stride — but if it’s intentional, Jacobsen says, then that person is probably not someone they want in their life.

Poulton says that their friends have commented that they [Poulton] are quite relaxed if someone accidentally uses the wrong pronoun. For them, it’s easy to shrug off as an innocent mistake — and it’s easy to correct.

“It’s not intentional, what they’re doing in those moments, and it’s not going to help anything if I respond [aggressively],” said Poulton. “I find that the best way to promote a better life for everybody is to just communicate, and build the knowledge, and build patience and respect.”

For many people, especially those who haven’t been exposed to LGBTQ+ culture, understanding the spectrum of gender identities and associated pronouns can seem confusing. But Jacobsen says it’s really not that difficult.

“Using a trans person’s pronouns doesn’t have to be a big deal,” said Jacobsen. “Once you get used to it, you won’t have to think about it. It’s also going to be a lot easier to shift your pronouns if you also shift your conceptions of gender — widen what feminine and masculine look like, stop automatically assuming strangers’ genders, and see trans women as women, not as men that you have to remember to use she/her pronouns for.”

Poulton has a similar view. 

“When you see someone, you shouldn’t try to assign a gender immediately based on appearance,” they said. “That is definitely something that our culture and our society is built on. I do it myself … It’s a learning process, for sure. But just start to be aware that someone could look one way and identify a totally different way, and that the way they identify doesn’t have to reflect their appearance.”

And if you’re confused, or if you forget what pronoun a certain person prefers, ask, just like you would if you forgot someone’s name.