There’s a chance you haven’t yet heard about International Pronouns Day. The observance, which occurs on the third Wednesday in October, began three years ago to encourage widespread respect, sharing and education about personal pronouns. The singular “they” pronoun probably sparks curiosity. To some, it creates confusion. Whatever your take, singular “they” is here to stay.
Word of the Year.
In December 2019 the folks at Merriam-Webster announced the pronoun “they” as the Word of the Year. Their choice was data-driven: searches for “they” had increased 313% over the previous year. Many of those searches resulted from shifts in the way “they” is used. Singular “they” has been around for over 600 years. And you’ve probably used it yourself before all the attention.
“Everyone wants a vacation, don’t they?”
“Someone left their cell phone on the conference table.”
In more recent years, the singular “they” pronoun also refers to someone whose gender identity is nonbinary. That is, an individual who doesn’t fall into one of the two binary categories of male or female. Merriam-Webster added that new sense of “they” to their dictionary in September 2019 this way: used to refer to a single person whole gender identity is nonbinary. That same month singer Sam Smith announced their pronouns as they/them. Earlier in 2019, Rep. Pramila Jayapal told the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing on the Equality Act that her gender nonconforming child uses “they.”
Some people are ‘they.’
It’s now commonplace to see a person’s gender pronouns in their email signatures, social media bios and video conference displays. This is important, because everyone has the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, including the use of nonbinary pronouns.
Trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, especially those whose gender is or is perceived to be outside of the man/woman binary are sometimes harassed and treated with hostility. This is often demonstrated by the intentional or repeated use of the wrong pronouns.
Here are some things you can do to be more trans- and nonbinary-inclusive.
You can’t tell someone’s pronouns by just looking at them. Default to using someone’s name, if possible, to avoid mis-gendering. You can always take the first step by introducing yourself and your pronouns at the same time. Know that not making assumptions gives people space.
Be inclusive in group settings.
Start your online meetings by asking everyone to introduce themselves and state their pronouns. It’s common practice in college classrooms.
Practice using the singular they pronoun more often. The more you do it, the easier it will be to remember. And your pronouns to your email signature and your name display when in video meetings or get-togethers.
Mistakes are common when re-learning habits of speech. If you do screw up, you can correct yourself and move on in the conversation. If you realize it later, or someone else points it out to you afterwards, you can apologize by saying something like, “I’m so sorry I didn’t use the correct pronoun for you. I’ll do better next time.”
Use of the singular they pronoun is part of the larger work of creating and sustaining inclusive and supportive communities for everyone. I know you can do it. Happy International Pronouns Day!
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