Supporting Trans + Non-Binary Co-Workers: Pronouns 101

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June 4, 2021
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Supporting Trans + Non-Binary Co-Workers: Pronouns 101

Originally made as an internal training document, we're sharing this guide to the outside world today for the first time. If you've ever been unsure or afraid about how to address a trans or non-binary colleague, this guide shares practical advice and exercises that will set you in the right direction to create a supportive environment.

My name is Echo and I’m a Team Lead at PartnerHero. I’m also a non-binary trans person whose pronouns are they/them. Sometimes I get misgendered here at PartnerHero and outside of work. It’s likely because not everyone knows what it means to be trans or non-binary. Not everyone has access to resources to practice or understand pronouns, and sometimes folks just slip up!

I typically correct people when I get misgendered, but sometimes I don’t. It can require a lot of energy from me to educate others about my experience, when I only want to be gendered correctly. If I feel this way, I can imagine that other trans people may feel similarly.

I’m grateful to PartnerHero and the leadership at this company for encouraging me to reach out to other trans co-workers to create some guidance for everyone around this topic. We’ve collectively come up with some tips and tricks for practicing people’s pronouns, how to navigate situations where you misgender someone, and what to do if you hear someone misgender someone else. 

First, let’s go over some common terms.

The Basics:

What is does it mean to be transgender, cisgender, or non-binary?

  • Transgender - a term for people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
  • Non-Binary - a term for people who don’t identity as male or female. This is an umbrella term for anyone whose gender identity falls outside of the gender binary. Some non-binary people identify as transgender and some do not.
  • Cisgender - a term for people who do identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

What are pronouns?

All cisgender (cis) and transgender (trans) people have pronouns - it’s the gendered language others use to refer to you.

  • he/him/his
  • she/her/hers
  • they/them/theirs
  • gender-neutral pronouns, such as ze/hir/hirs

If you are cisgender, what are your pronouns? Consider how it may feel if someone always gendered you with alternate binary pronouns - would that make you feel respected by the person?

What does it mean to misgender someone?

Misgendering someone is when you intentionally or unintentionally use gendered language for someone that is incorrect. For example: 

  • If you are a man and someone refers to you using she/her pronouns or refers to you as a woman, that would be incorrect gendered language and would be considered misgendering. 
  • If you are a woman, and someone refers to you using he/him pronouns or refers to you as a man, that would be incorrect gendered language. 
  • If you are non-binary and your pronouns are they/them, and someone referred to you as a lady and used she/her pronouns, that would be incorrect gendered language and would be considered misgendering.

PartnerHero is such an accepting workplace! Why do we need to have this conversation?

Even the most accepting and loving people and communities still have work to do! This is not a judgement - it’s okay to not know how to do everything perfectly. PartnerHero IS an accepting workplace and that's great! However, not only does language evolve constantly, but so do we. That evolution is something that takes consistent feedback and attention to stay on top of.

Being willing to learn how to do a better job supporting people from all different kinds of backgrounds is how we make ourselves and the communities we’re a part of a safer place for everyone.

Navigating Situations:

Now that we have some basic terms down, let’s go over how to navigate a situation where you misgender someone or you hear someone misgender someone else.

If you catch yourself misgendering someone mid-sentence:

Briefly apologize, correct yourself, and move on. 

“Then he - I mean she, sorry - she went to the store.”

If someone else corrects you about someone's pronouns:

Thank them, correct yourself, and move on. 

Person 1 - "When he answered the phone -"

Person 2 - "They"

Person 1 - "Right, thank you, when they answered the phone..."

If the trans person you misgendered corrects you on their pronouns or gendered language used towards them: 

Thank them, briefly apologize, and move on. 

Person 1 - "You are such a great lady!" 

Person 2 - "Actually, I'm not a lady. I prefer to be referred to as a person or human."

Person 1 - "My apologies, thanks for telling me! You are such a great human!"

What not to do when you misgender someone:

Don’t over-apologize

A lot of times a well-intentioned person will misgender someone, find out, and then apologize A LOT. What does this feel like for a trans person? 

  • It may feel like the trans person is inconveniencing and/or upsetting people by asking to be gendered correctly. It may feel like the person who misgendered the trans person is looking for their apology to be accepted AND for emotional support from the trans person for misgendering them. Trans people do not have to accept your apology or emotionally support you for misgendering them. This is actually a microaggression. For more info on microaggressions, Google is a helpful resource!
  • Instead of expressing your own discomfort to the trans person you misgendered, consider talking to someone else that you trust and communicate with regularly about the experience to support you. 
  • You are completely allowed to be upset, but please lean on someone other than the person you misgendered for that specific support.

Don’t treat using a trans person’s pronouns as a favor 

Using the correct pronouns for a trans person isn’t a way for you to do trans people a favor. A trans person can be appreciative of having their identity recognized and that may feel nice for you (I hope it does!), but gendering a trans person correctly doesn’t deserve a round of applause - it’s just correct. If your name was Jeff and I said, “Hey Jeff!”, Jeff wouldn’t thank me for calling him Jeff. That’s just his name!

Using Correct Pronouns FAQ:

If someone misgenders someone, do I have to correct them?

  • No, but it would be nice if you did. ☺
  • If you want, you can message them later and let them know. 
  • For example: Let’s say in the meeting today Betty used the incorrect pronouns for Shelly, a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns. You noticed, but didn't say anything. Later that day you decide to message Betty - "Hey, I'm not sure if you know this but Shelly uses they/them pronouns and today you used she/her pronouns in the meeting for them.". This is a great way to show solidarity with your Trans co-workers too!
  • If you feel like going the extra mile, you can offer to practice pronouns together. 
  • For Pronoun Practices, check the bottom of this document.

If I mess-up someone’s pronouns and I feel really guilty, what should I do?

Process your feelings! If you feel guilty, is that because you wish that you wouldn’t have misgendered them? That sounds like you really care about gendering someone correctly! You can check out the Pronoun Practices at the bottom of this document and start practicing yourself.

If you are struggling with using new pronouns (like they/them), remember that you are retraining your brain and learning any skill means you will make mistakes.  Don’t let those mistakes stop you from trying!  Failure is a part of the process.

Refer to What Not to do When You Misgender Someone (above).

Why Does It Matter?

For many — though not all — people who are trans, a shift in pronouns is an affirming part of the transition process. It can help a trans person and the people in their lives start to see them as their true gender and their true self. Gendering someone correctly is an easy, low-effort way to show respect and recognition to who someone really is, not just how you perceive them. 

Misgendering can have negative consequences for a transgender person’s self-confidence and overall mental health. A 2014 study in the journal Self and Identity, asked transgender people about their experiences with being misgendered. Researchers found that:

  • 32.8% of participants reported feeling very stigmatized when misgendered.
  • Non-binary folks, and people who had taken fewer steps in the transition process (HRT, gender affirming surgerys, voice training, etc), were most likely to be misgendered.
  • Those who were misgendered more frequently felt that their identity was very important, but experienced lower self-esteem around their appearance. They also had a reduced sense of strength and continuity in their identity.

When you misgender someone, you also run the risk of outing them to other people. It’s never anyone’s right or responsibility to out a person who is transgender without their express consent. It’s a trans person’s right and their right alone to tell others that they’re transgender, depending on whether they wish to be out or not.

Outing a trans person is not only disrespectful of their boundaries, but can also result in that person experiencing harassment and discrimination. Discrimination is a major issue for the trans community. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found these startling statistics:

  • 33% of trans people surveyed had at least one experience of discrimination when seeking medical treatment.
  • 27% of respondents reported some form of employment discrimination, whether it was being fired, mistreated at work, or not hired because of their identity.
  • 77% of people who were out in K-12, and 24 percent of those who were out in college or vocational school, experienced mistreatment in those settings.

Pronoun Practice:

Stopping your own misgendering behaviors and encouraging others to do so is an easy and effective way to support the trans people in your life. Here are a few things you can do to prevent misgendering and affirm a person’s identity:

  1. Don’t make assumptions. You might think you know how someone identifies, but you can never know for certain unless you ask.
  2. Always ask what words you should use! You can ask people specifically or ask people who know a given person. You can also simply get in the habit of asking everyone their pronouns and terms they use for themselves.
  3. Use the right name and pronouns for the trans people in your life. You should do this all the time, not just when they’re around. This signals the proper way to refer to your trans friends to other people. It also helps you get accustomed to saying the right thing.
  4. Avoid using gendered language to speak to or describe people unless you know it’s the language that a particular person prefers. 

Examples of gendered language include:

  • Honorifics such as “sir” or “ma’am”
  • Terms like “ladies,” “guys,” or “ladies and gentlemen” to refer to a group of people
  • Typically gendered adjectives such as “handsome” and “beautiful” 

Practice using these gender-neutral terms and forms of address instead. You can say things like “my friend” instead of “sir” or “ma’am,” and refer to groups of people as “folks,” “y’all,” or “guests.”

  1. Don’t default to gender-neutral language if you know how a person wishes to be addressed! It can seem like using the singular “they” to describe everyone is a safe bet, and sometimes that’s actually a good way to navigate a situation where you’re uncertain how a person identifies. However, it’s important to respect the wishes of people who have specific gendered language that they want you to use.
  2. Avoid using passive language. Instead of saying: “X identifies as a woman” or “Y prefers he/him/his pronouns,” say things like “X is a woman” or “Y’s pronouns are he/him/his.”
  3. Practice with Friends! Set aside 5-20 minutes to practice someone’s pronouns with a friend and correct each other when you mess up. This is a great, safe way to start using pronouns you may not be super familiar with. 
  4. Practice in your head. Gender people correctly in your thoughts too. If you are thinking of someone and misgender them, correct yourself and then say 3 sentences internally to practice the correct gendered language. “Ross’s pronouns are he/him now. He has red hair. His outfit looks great today.”
  5. Consider adding your own pronouns to your Slack name or bio. This one is totally up to you, but it helps to normalize the concept of pronouns, even if you are cisgender!

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Archie Hale and Mikki Hatfeild for your input and suggestions.  I’m so thankful to be learning and developing tools with you both.

Thank you to Sam Gates for your formatting and grammatical editing - and making this document look so beautiful.

Thank you to Mandy Clark + Stephen Hazeltine for empowering me to create this document so that we can all be learning together.

Some information from this document (particularly the pronoun practices list + statistics) comes from this article from HealthLine.com by KC Clements. 
https://www.healthline.com/health/transgender/misgendering#takeaway 


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