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Asking About Pronouns is for Everyone – An Intern Publication

In the U.S., it’s estimated that about 0.6% of people identify as transgender. That’s about 1 in 165. This population is highly vulnerable: almost 50% experience sexual trauma in their lives. It’s important in our work here at the OCRCC that we serve this community with humility, sensitivity, and respect. 

As a nonbinary person, I often think about how unfortunate it is that our language and culture is so gendered. Every time I talk with a stranger and they “Sir” me (or “Ma’am” me, sometimes), I wince a little inside. I get it, though. I was also raised to “Sir” and “Ma’am” people, and I know it’s an attempt to show respect and politeness.  

The thing is, for someone like me it always has the opposite effect. I’ll be completely honest here and say that I don’t know what a nonbinary version of “Sir” and “Ma’am” might be. I just know what it feels like for people to always put me in the wrong box. If you happen to have a name that is common for both men and women, such as Alex, Leslie, or Jamie, you may know this feeling too. 

If you’re cisgender—that is: if your sense of your own gender matches what the doctor wrote on your birth certificate when you were born—and you’re reading this, I’m sure you can imagine what it would feel like to have strangers call you “Sir” (if you’re a woman) or “Ma’am” (if you’re a man). If it happens once, it might feel awkward. If it happened continuously though, you might feel embarrassed, frustrated, or worse. 

But the fact is that English is gendered when we talk about people, and pronouns are the most common place where that shows up. Pronouns are a marker for gender as surely as that M, F, or X on a driver’s license or passport. 

When we ask you your pronouns, your gender identity, or “how would you like me to address you,” we are expressing our respect for you as a person, and a desire to be as respectful as possible. If you are a cisgender person and struggle to understand why things like pronouns are important, you might think about what it would feel like if people consistently referred to you as the opposite gender. 

But this is more than just respecting trans and nonbinary people. Plainly asking for pronouns and preferred ways to address someone you’re talking to—and making that practice a normal part of everyday speech—benefits everyone, especially when we talk over the phone and in text messages. Instead of guessing (and sometimes guessing wrong) we can avoid that awkwardness by asking.  

Instead of assuming that everyone is comfortable being addressed by their first name, or that everyone hears politeness in “Sir” or “Ma’am” or “Mr. Jones” or “Ms. Smith”… we can ask. And then we can show our respect by consistently using the address they prefer. 

We can also all be a part of respecting others by making it a habit to introduce ourselves with our pronouns or with how we’d like to be respected: “Hello, I’m Jamie, and my pronouns are he/him.” “Hi, I’m Alex, and my pronouns are she/her.” “Hi, please call me Mr. Jones.” “I am Mrs. Smith.”  

Because the English language makes gender an issue even in situations when it shouldn’t matter, we’re all better off when we’re clear about our own identities. When we don’t try to guess other people’s gender, and don’t make others guess ours, we can interact from a place of mutual respect. 

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