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  • Stephen G. Krueger

Please stop misgendering people.

This is not a call-out piece. I want to be very clear about that, because if I am not, a lot of people are going to decide that it doesn’t apply to them, and they will be wrong. So maybe it is a bit of a call-out, but it’s for all y’all.


A story: I was once on a search committee for a position whose application form included a pronoun field. (This is good, as long as it’s optional, and as long as the people on the committee do not do what happened next.) A candidate listed they/them/theirs in this field. Also good, as that is what it’s there for if anyone wants to use it. The interview itself went fine, as nobody in the meeting talked about the candidate in third person while they were present, so they were not misgendered to their face. The post-interview discussion went...less well. Over half of the people on the committee used the wrong pronouns, repeatedly, even with multiple reminders (I was the one giving these. They became progressively less tactful.) After each, there would be your usual “oh right,” perhaps a quick apology, possibly a little shame. I truly do believe that the misgendering was a mistake—or rather a series of mistakes, which is where the problem really comes in: it didn’t stop. By the end, I snapped a little and gave an unsolicited tiny lecture on how important it is to get candidates’ pronouns right when they have given them. It is not clear whether this was effective.


There are probably all sorts of things to be said about our cisnormative society and how difficult it is to break a lifetime of habit, how most of us were not raised to use pronouns apart from he or she for individuals, how people need practice to learn language that they’re not accustomed to. I know; I do in fact say most of these things in my workshops, and I mean them. At this point, I do not care. No, the issue was not transphobia; yes, I think everyone involved meant well and may even try to improve in future. It takes practice and time and work that most people haven’t even realized that they need to do. I know.


It’s 2021, y’all. There is no excuse for failing to do this work. You cannot wait for an openly nonbinary person to show up in your workplace; by that time, the fact that you need time to practice means that you will be causing them harm while you do. Alternately, a current employee will sit on a committee like this, hear their coworkers repeatedly misgender someone else, and decide that this workplace isn’t going to be comfortable or safe if they ask people to use their correct pronouns. They will quite possibly be right. (Has this happened at your workplace? My gut says probably. There’s no data on this sort of thing, which is another issue.) There have absolutely been students who decide whether the library is safe for them based on this kind of thing, and they are not wrong to do so.


I honestly don’t know whether or not I’m glad that nobody misgendered the candidate to their face. The fact that their identity was respected on paper but not in discussions about them is, I think, actually worse—it means that they could not make an informed decision about how it would feel to work in that environment, since the application form implied a level of awareness and respect that was not reflected in practice by the individuals they would be working with. (And yes, I know that people are usually better when it’s someone they know and see regularly, partly because they’ll get used to hearing others use the correct language. That’s not good enough.) I do know that the experience made me feel less comfortable in the space as an openly trans employee. To me, using someone’s pronouns correctly when they have been supplied—and after one has been reminded of them—is such a baseline of respect for trans people that it was deeply upsetting to have that just...not happen. It’s also another reminder that people like me (for whom the correct pronouns match how most people gender me on sight) have it much, much easier than trans and gender diverse people for whom that is not the case.


The reason that this is not a call-out piece is that it’s an example of something that happens all the time. I’m not trying to shame the people on that particular search committee; I’m using the story because it’s a demonstration of something that I can almost promise is happening in your workplace too, however much people like to throw around EDI buzzwords. I don’t care if you have a diversity committee if you’re not doing the work individually as well.


And that’s the thing. It is work—I was serious about the cisnormative society; that probably isn’t your fault if you're the sort of person who would read this blog, though it is your responsibility to work to dismantle it—but it is very, very easy to learn what this particular work is. This isn’t something where you have to convince a provost or a director or whatever to give you money for building a new restroom. I didn’t magically know the candidate’s pronouns, and it has taken me years to get in the habit of using people’s pronouns correctly when I have learned them (and I still make mistakes sometimes; that’s part of the process. Practice helps). If you want to even begin to help trans and gender diverse people feel comfortable in your workplace, you must meet at least this incredibly low bar, and you have to do it regardless of whether there’s suddenly someone there who you’re worried about misgendering. You have to do the work now, so that you have the tools to treat people with respect when it does come up. (And as I mentioned above, it’s not unlikely that there are already people there who may be making their decisions on whether to be out on how they see others treated. This is a deeply shitty position to be in.)


So, the work (because it would not be helpful to leave you without explaining how to do it): When someone tells you their pronouns, use them. Use them whether the person is in the room or not. It is incredibly disrespectful not to. Actually doing this is admittedly not easy if you have never trained yourself not to gender people on sight; that’s where the real labor comes in. Fortunately, I’m not the only trans person who has gotten frustrated enough to write about this stuff! So here are some free resources.

  • pronouns 101, a Medium article by Kirby Conrod. Start here if the whole concept of personal pronouns is a new one.

  • pronouns 102: how to stop messing up pronouns, another article by Kirby Conrod. This is probably closer to where a lot of y’all are at. It’s also got a section on correcting other people.

  • Speaking of which, I would not have made such a point of correcting the search committee if the candidate’s pronouns had not been clearly and intentionally shared with all of us. One of the other times I got cranky about this sort of thing, I made some flowcharts to help you figure out how to respond if you or others make mistakes so that you don't accidentally out someone. Please note that the second flowchart applies even if the person you misgendered is not present; you still need to acknowledge your mistake to the people in the room.

  • mypronouns.org, lots of good information on learning and using personal pronouns.

  • Pronoun Island, a site that gives examples of different pronouns so you can learn how to use new-to-you ones without someone having to explain it to you.

That’s all. I’m very tired. Please stop doing this. Using people’s pronouns correctly when they have supplied them in a little written field labeled “Pronouns” is the lowest bar I can possibly think of. Training yourself to do this isn’t progress; we’re so far behind what should be standard that none of this remotely qualifies as actually moving forward, but apparently we still need to cover it. Do better.

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