Should allies use they/them pronouns?

For every opinion a trans person shares, you can always find someone who disagrees. It may surprise you but we don’t have annual meetings or anything to decide what our unified message is. But one thing that concerns me and I suspect didn’t originate in the trans community is the idea that cisgender “allies” should adopt they/them pronouns for themselves.

And I’m going to go ahead and say that’s a big old NOPE from me. I want people around me who proudly own their pronouns in a way that normalizes the asking and sharing of them. We need to model to people who are still learning that pronouns are not something that should just be assumed based on appearance. If you don’t know how someone wants to be referred to, the safest option is something gender neutral. But the best practice is always to ask first and get used to doing it so that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.

And don’t walk into a conversation, especially where trans people are present, and say “oh, I don’t care what pronouns you use for me” if you are cisgender. All that signals to us is that you are so confident that you will be gendered correctly that you are willing to accept people’s assumption. It’s a sign of your privilege and based on the reality that you have never had the deep discomfort that comes with being constantly misgendered everywhere you go. Now of course there are plenty of nonbinary people who for various reasons are apathetic about their pronouns or don’t feel comfortable setting expectations. But we don’t need you muddying the waters.

Nonbinary people are constantly fighting this idea that our identities are a “fad” or a phase to not be taken seriously. Our enemies are actively looking for reasons to dismiss us and prove that this is just some social justice plot to make people uncomfortable. And when those people see you lightly using these pronouns, especially if you only do so to “teach them a lesson” or in liberal circles, they take us less seriously too.

So please, leave they/them pronouns for nonbinary people and for people whose gender you don’t know. Own your pronouns boldly by doing things like putting them in your email signatures, on your nametags, or wearing pins at events. Make it clear to people around you that the only way to know pronouns is if someone has told you. And model that by telling them what you actually use.

And remember, be kind about how you correct people. Gendered language has been hard wired in our education and systems for long enough now that there are a lot of people who have unlearning to do. And many of those people have less access to learn about how and why to do that. In particular, when you are interacting with working class folks such as service staff or people for whom English is their second language, have some patience. It may take many times of correcting people but believe me when I say that a gentle hand with a carrot is going to make a far bigger difference than a slap on the wrist.

When you see someone being misgendered around you who has already made their pronouns known in that space, please speak up and say something. Correct that manager who intentionally or unintentionally misgenders their staff member in a meeting. The good managers will show you who they are by responding in kind and the bad ones will then be forced to make a choice about whether to keep persisting intentionally. And if you see it happen to someone you know and you aren’t sure if you should say something, ask them privately afterwards. Sometimes it’s easier not to make waves or they may not be out in that situation. But often times it is just because we are exhausted of constantly correcting people every moment of our lives. Our patience has worn thin because of the constant mosquito bites of microaggressions but you as an ally have the ability to advocate for us without as great of a power differential.

If you see it happening repeatedly from the same people, maybe offer to have a practice session with them where they talk about the things they appreciate about the person they misgendered to you in a safer space where they feel less embarrassed being corrected. There are a lot of steps that you as an ally have the ability and power to do to normalize the use of gender neutral pronouns. Just don’t appropriate them yourself.

And finally, remember that Allyship is a verb. It’s not some badge you earn because you are vaguely supportive. You have to do that work actively.

2 thoughts on “Should allies use they/them pronouns?

    • I don’t know where it’s coming from but I’ve certainly run across those people in my community who fully admit they are cis and use they/them in community spaces but all their friends and partners use binary pronouns for them.

      Liked by 1 person

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