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Pro-noun equals pro-identity

Not only can it spare people needless pain, using preferred pronouns and gender identities is a justice issue

by the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard is Associate for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries.

LOUISVILLE — Not one day goes by that I am not misgendered in some way.

Sometimes it is intentional. Most often it is just a mistake. Either way, it is a micro-aggression that I have learned will probably be a part of my journey for the rest of my life.

I am all too familiar with that look of slightly hidden confusion and discomfort that most people have on their faces when they encounter me for the first time. It is that look of “who” or “what” is this person and how do I engage them properly?

To be misgendered means that someone has taken the liberty to assign a gender label to me that I have neither asserted nor consented to. Over time I have come to a point to not allow this to bother me as much as it has in the past, namely because I realize that most intentions are good and that, in some way, each situation gives me another opportunity to either educate a novice or expose a bigot. Whichever outcome is a daily tossup, and I am OK with that. That is why I have learned to initiate introductions using my pronouns proactively.

When I shared my pronouns with someone for the first time a few years ago it was a very different experience. It was a liberating, yet somewhat anxiety-ridden moment. To have to explain my identity in an exercise for some form of approval or sanction seemed wrong to me. Yet it was equally imperative that I was free and open to vocally acknowledge exactly who I was.

For the first time I felt like I was living into the language of my uniqueness that I had held in an internal chatter for so long. It was as if I was given another tool to unlock the God-designed mystery that is me for everyone else to hear and see. The use of a plural language context to refer to myself meant that I no longer had to live into a dichotomy of identity that felt perplexing, nor an assigned box that never quite fit right.

It is amazing how something that seems so small can make such a big difference in so many ways. It is not that the use of an informal pronoun had not always been a part of my identity. After all, pronouns are linguistic tools used as substitutions for proper nouns and are common in most languages. We all learned that in grammar school. However, there is something very empowering that comes from the freedom of defining for oneself your own truth despite the often rigorous confines of societal norms. It was me being my full self at a deeper level than ever before.

The good thing is I am not alone in my journey toward self-actualization. There has been a growing conversation for many years about the use of pronouns in connection to identity. It has become more common for people to share their pronouns in professional settings such as email signatures and meeting introductions as well as informal, familial situations.

The realization that gender is a vast continuum has allowed for the idea that one’s pronouns are not confined to the binary either. The use of pronouns has traditionally helped to signal one’s gender identity and generally continue to do so. Being considerate of a person’s chosen use of pronouns shows that you respect the dignity and humanity of that person. It also signifies that you honor how they show up individually in this world devoid of your own assumptions or misnomers around clothing, name, voice inflection or a variety of other markers that folks often use.

To assume someone’s pronouns without their consent is the equivalent to the usage of the wrong proper name for an individual without them agreeing to this odd travesty. In a world where so often discrimination is prevalent, the effort to respect someone’s gender personhood is a small step towards the equality of all people.

By contrast, some may decide that pronouns such as they/them, she/her, ze/hir, or he/him are not markers they wish to utilize. The reasons for this may be as vast as the people who make this choice. Remember the use of a pronoun is merely a substitutional marker for a proper name. It is not a requirement in conversation, correspondence or in reference to another. The use of one’s name is actually considered a more polite way of referral and can be used when there is an absence of a preferred pronoun in place. In doing this, you are reinforcing the narrative that identity is a self-guided activity, and no one has the right to label or categorize anyone else without consent.

Some may argue that this type of discussion of identity, gender and pronouns feels foreign and difficult to comprehend. However, there has also been an understanding of difference. Indigenous people/Native Americans have used the term “two-spirited” to refer to people of varying genders. The use of “they/them” in a singular sense has been in practice in the English language for centuries. In fact, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English language now affirms this and classifies they/them as an official singular pronoun for an individual.

Furthermore, the Bible has several references of God in both male and female language as both mother and father to us all. Please see the upcoming release of the Third Edition of Well Chosen Words, the PC(USA)’s guide to understanding and using inclusive language, for more information on this subject.

Thus like many other aspects of life, the notion to use preferred pronouns takes effort and practice to shift a binary way of understanding into a more expansive way of being. It is not a new concept. It is a framework that cannot be further ignored.

Finally let me state clearly that the respect and use of an individual’s preferred pronouns is a justice issue. To not do so is a form of discrimination based in sexism, homophobia and transphobia. This type of blatant disrespect is not only illegal in many places but is morally offensive and potentially harmful. According to research found on such sites as thetrevorproject.org and hrc.org, there is a distinct correlation to depression and suicidal behavior for individuals who are repeatedly misgendered and whose gender identity and pronouns are not sufficiently acknowledged and honored.

In the Words Matter Gender Justice Toolkit produced by the National Black Justice Coalition, Executive Director David Johns states:

“Language is often a reflection of culture and, when unchecked, can be used to perpetuate violence and oppression. Words have the power to reinforce stereotypes, marginalize the most vulnerable among us, and support harmful ideas about race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Language also has the power to be a revolutionary tool in dismantling oppressive structures. Language has the capacity to liberate and empower.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has taken the stance to be affirming through the General Assembly the continued work of the Office of Gender & Racial Justice and others around the denomination.  As we in the larger Presbyterian body continue work to live into the beloved kin-dom that welcomes, affirms and acknowledges all, let us remember that the use of preferred pronouns and gender identities makes space for the full inclusion and expression of all of God’s beloved.

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard is Associate for Gender & Racial Justice in the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Their pronouns are they, them and theirs.


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