I’ve written on several occasions about the lack of a gender neutral pronoun in English. This is often viewed as a pressing problem in the context of the desire to stop masculinizing the unknown; when discussing a hypothetical or unknown person, it would be nice to not use male pronouns to do so. And, you know, that is a very legitimate concern and it’s one which should be addressed, because using male pronouns as generics does, in part, prop up the kyriarchy by creating a male default assumption.
But there’s another avenue in which this becomes a huge issue, and that’s when it comes to talking about people who are nonbinary. In this case, you are talking about the known, and you are usually misgendering the known. People who don’t know me use “she” and “her” all the time to refer to me, and it makes me cringe. Every time. Even though I say it doesn’t bother me. (Oddly enough I usually don’t mind being referred to as a woman, which illustrates the complexity of gender identity and labeling.) In the social justice sphere, people are more likely to use gender neutral pronouns to talk about me, either because they don’t want to make assumptions about my gender, or because they know that I identify as genderqueer. But, beyond that, I get ma’m’d and she’d and her’d and there’s pretty much nothing I can do about it.
I’m actually in a fortunate position, in that my name is gender neutral. In fact, people often assume that I am male when they just have my name to go on, which is one reason why I try to be careful about distributing pictures of myself because I am often misgendered as female. (Even in headshots; although I have a somewhat masculine facial structure I have long hair and that’s assumed to be a female trait.)
And, you know, I understand why binaries do it. They’re working with what they know, which is that people are either male or female, because that’s what they have been exposed to. They’re never been confronted with gender variant people, and they reason that if it looks like a duck (woman) and it quacks like a duck (woman) then it must be a duck (woman). For someone with a clearly feminine or masculine name, there’s pretty much no hope if you want to not be gendered.
Automatic gendering is really problematic, though. Even binaries don’t necessarily identify with the gender which they may resemble. I know lots of men whom people think are women and I know lots of women who get sir’d because they have variant gender expressions, or they simply don’t meet with someone’s private definition of gender. In other words, even binary gendering is often wrong.
Whenever a new person is encountered, gendering is one of the first things that people do. It makes people extremely uncomfortable when they can’t determine someone’s gender. Someone like me, who looks like a pretty classical “woman” seems like a safe bet for female pronouns. Which actually is a pretty classical example of why you should avoid gendering people.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Well, you should probably just ask which pronouns people prefer. While it might seem absurd to you to ask someone who looks, say, very obviously like a man which pronouns that person prefers, the answer might surprise you.
You’re doing two things by doing this. You’re alerting the person to the fact that you want to make sure that you are using appropriate pronouns, as a mark of consideration and respect. You’re also alerting the person to the fact that you are creating a safe space for expression of gender variation. When you say “which pronouns do you prefer,” it signals that you do not gender automatically, that you are aware of variations in gender expression, and that you are respectful of self-gendering.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where I want to correct people, but I do not feel safe. Because I do not know how people are going to respond, so I remain silent. If someone asked me which pronouns I preferred when we were introduced, it would relax me tremendously. It would let me know that I am in a safe environment. Likewise, being asked how I want to be referred to would be a big help; I don’t actually use my legal name except on legal paperwork, but people often assume it’s the name I want people to use because people use it to introduce me.
This is another case in which taking steps to include nonbinaries may be perceived as stepping on the toes of binaries, especially cis binaries. But, you know, it’s not. There are plenty of binaries (even cis binaries) who are misgendered and may well appreciate being asked which pronouns they prefer. Likewise, lots of people get introduced with the wrong name/a mispronounced name, and would appreciate a chance to correct it without causing a scene. And while some pushback may be encountered, and there may be environments in which it is not safe to ask about pronouns (because signaling that you are an ally can, unfortunately, be dangerous in some settings), in which case you should not endanger yourself by asking, I think that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Never assume that the name other people use to refer to someone is that person’s right name. Always ask. Whether it’s “how do you prefer to be called” or “I believe your name is Cindy, is that right,” it can save someone discomfort and embarrassment. Likewise, don’t assume that the pronouns other people are using are correct; get the answer straight from the horse’s mouth when it comes to finding out about things like this.
You may inadvertently open up a discussion, in fact, by giving someone an opportunity to self-identify and to correct improper pronoun usage. Someone who has been chafing at the wrong pronouns may well be delighted to have a chance to say “hey people, you have been using the wrong pronoun.”
It might sound ludicrous to think that someone would allow ouself to be misgendered, repeatedly, but it happens. It’s awkward and embarrassing to correct the wrong pronoun usage, especially when correcting pronouns may expose someone to physical danger, ridicule, gender policing, etc. Creating a safe space to talk about the tremendous variation of human gender will help people feel more comfortable when it comes to self identifying.
I want to add another note about names which is actually not specific to the binary/nonbinary issue. People, please punctuate and capitalize names the way people want them punctuated and capitalized. Doing things like capitalizing someone’s name when that person prefers lower case, or ignoring punctuation, is profoundly disrespectful. It signals that you don’t care about what this person wants to be called and how this person wants to be identified. Try to mirror name usage (e.g. my name and nom de plume are ALWAYS presented in lower case, there is NO REASON to uppercase them) and if you aren’t sure about how someone wants to be capitalized/punctuated/spelled, ASK. And when someone corrects you if you make a mistake, please be polite, apologize, and fix it.
It may not seem important to people with names which are cased and which lack punctuation, but it’s really important to those of us who do use punctuation and who opt for lower casing. Punctuation in particular may be the result of trying to transliterate a foreign language name, in which case it provides clues to pronunciation, making it important to retain it EXACTLY AS WRITTEN. Every time I see my name written out incorrectly, it upsets me and it signals to me that the writer does not respect me. It’s not like there aren’t a plethora of examples of how I want my name written right on this very website, including at the top of every single post.
You can call us pretentious and unreasonable, if you want. But keep in mind that I retain your spelling, capitalization, and punctuation without comment (and will gracefully correct when I get it wrong), and maybe you should consider doing the same for people with names which may look unfamiliar and “funny” to you.