By Mehak Walia
Artwork by @liberaljane
“With the pronouns that I chose, I'm just being who I want to be and so can you.” - Jonathan Van Ness
When Instagram added an option to display your pronouns on your profile, a lot of people were confused. What’s the big deal? Pronouns are literally day two of learning a language right? Before you can so much as conjugate a verb, you learn your pronouns. Because of course, one can’t do a thing without first applying a little gendering context right? Ahh. And perhaps, therein lies the crux of the issue.
Including your pronouns in your bio has become one of the most recent battlegrounds of the various cyber woke and anti-woke brigades, making the declaration of one’s pronoun less of a grammatical finetuning and more of a political last stand. Naturally. Because in 2022, it’s nearly impossible to find a hill someone isn’t willing to die on.
What are gender pronouns and why are they so important?
Gender pronouns are a cornerstone of a subset of political issues which are often described by middle-aged cisgender white males as “Identity Politics,” which is their way of saying that as long as your identity subscribes to a white male cisgender interpretation of reality, you shouldn’t be worried about politics. Unfortunately for them, there’s all of us - the ones that don’t neatly fit into a 1990’s version of reality and believe enough in humanity that we are willing to re-write the species narrative - starting with our pronouns.
Feeling uncomfortable in your body or with who you are has a lot of different levels. And while some aspects of this might be a universal experience (especially following the holiday season and one too many gulab jamuns), other, more foundational aspects of this experience, can be very niched (especially when tied to gender, and social gender constructions.) Someone who has always preferred to dress in “unfeminine” clothes or have an “unfeminine hair cut”. Someone sad about puberty and growing breasts. Someone who moves fluidly between masculine and feminine demeanours, not wanting to be boxed. Essentially, gender fluidity, construction, and biology, all come at odds with society’s painfully reductive view of gender as a tickbox on one’s driver's license and birth certificate.
And while this reductive lens does an extreme disservice to literally every human being on the planet, its impacts are much more brutalistically experienced by those in the LGBTQIA+ community. You see, the LGBTQIA+ community face a lot of hurdles and obstacles in being able to come out - societal shaming, criminalisation, economic disadvantages, increased risk of hate crimes and even death penalties in some countries - pitting self-acceptance against a basic struggle for basic rights and equality.
This unresolved crisis leaves many individuals struggling whilst some people manage to embark on a journey to "find themselves”. But what does that mean, to find yourself? To “rediscover”, or to actually understand yourself? To kick open the metaphorical closet doors? The answer is different for everyone, but when someone like that finally decides to bash in all doors and choose to lead a life as non-binary or the gender they feel most comfortable with, the pronouns you’re given might not be right anymore.
How I am Addressed
“Everyone needs pronouns, every cis person or trans person- we all need pronouns because it’s impossible for everyone to address me by my name especially when I’m not around. I was assigned female at birth but that’s not how and who I am. I don’t want to be misgendered and that’s exactly why they mean so much to me,” commented Shrey, a queer person.
Declaring your pronouns has become, for many, a central part of a journey to find or reclaim your true self, and an identity narrative that has likely been suppressed by societal rules and social constructions. The reclamation of gender pronouns represents the journey and struggle that it took these individuals to get where they stand today.
It’s a very simple concept and sometimes, we tend to overcomplicate it. Let me make it easier for you. When I was a child, my grandfather looked at me and smiled as he so easily and casually blurted, ‘you’re our son. Aren’t you?’ Even as a child, that one statement made me feel pathetic because I was their daughter, I was a she and I have hence worked all my life to prove that daughters matter just as much, if not more. So, these simple words are associated with a struggle as well as an identity as much as she/her is associated with mine. That is what gender pronouns represent, and when I spoke to other members of the queer community, they felt similar.
“I prefer she/her/they. Although these are not the pronouns that I was given by the society that we know and live in, but these are the ones that I chose for myself as I feel that I relate to these pronouns on a very deep subconscious level and when I am addressed as a female, I feel liberated and free and the society doesn’t get that at times,” said Venessa, a queer person.
The DIY Guide to Growing Pronouns
People tend to associate with the pronouns of their choice to represent the gender that they were born with or associate with. These are completely their choice and they aren’t fixed or binary themselves. The actual pronoun, the word, is not in itself binary or gendered. Male and female can encompass such a wide range of people - trans, non-binary, or cis. You can have one set of pronouns but different gender identity, particularly the case for people of colour who face specific, gendered struggles that mean that they can’t detach entirely from their birth pronouns. “The pronouns are essential for me or anyone like me is because they help break the cis heteronormative stereotypes. My pronouns are also important to me because they helped me in expanding my thought process and be more accepting of people regardless of their gender roles and sexualities,” commented Venessa.
Instagram isn’t the only platform aiming for more LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, Tiktok, and LinkedIn are also following suit and adding a gender pronouns option. Certain places of employment encourage including it in one’s professional bio or email signature. But whilst the level of inclusivity is important, it only scratches the surface. It’s a pivotal part of self-acceptance and coming to terms with one's identity, and normalising that things aren’t inherently gendered, but we as a society categorise them that way. But there’s still a lot of barriers to this sort of acceptance outside of social media.
“My primary gender pronouns are they/them. My secondary ones are he/him. I was assigned male at birth, but since my childhood, and especially around adolescence, I have consistently wanted to subvert the expectation of the masculine role from me. At around 20 years old, I finally decided to come out as non-binary. They/them pronouns help me establish to myself and others that my body or assigned gender at birth does not have to constrict my expression within that gender identity,” said Luna, a non-binary individual.
Some countries are beginning to take this issue seriously. The US last year issued its first gender-neutral passport, with the option of X if someone doesn’t want to identify as male or female. It was issued to Dana Zzyym, a 66-year-old intersex activist, who identifies as non-binary and sued the US State Department back in 2015 when she was denied a passport after not selecting either Male or Female. Which is pretty badass. And now the State Department has said that it plans to make this option widely available on passports, following countries like Canada, Germany, Australia and India who already offer a no-gender option on documents.
“My pronouns are essential in the way my identity proofs are essential. Unfortunately, a lot of other queer gender non-conforming individuals including me, are not legally recognised by our identity. On our legal documents, identity cards, and birth certificates, we're still assigned at birth gender. The only thing that subverts that imposed identity is our pronouns. That's why we insist that people don't misgender us with incorrect pronouns. That's all we have,” added Luna.
What if I get someone’s pronouns wrong, and misgender them?
Good question. It should be simple, but the concepts around gender and pronouns have been complicated because of the taboo around LGBTQIA+ issues.
Walking up to someone and just asking them how they identify can sometimes make people uncomfortable and isn’t something you’d do in the street. Sometimes coming out is one of the hardest things that a person has to do, therefore, assumptions are not appropriate and you might be forcing them to come out when they aren’t ready.
One of the easiest ways to make sure that you don’t get it wrong is by taking the initiative and introducing yourself. “Hello, I am Aakanksh, I’m 22 and I prefer being addressed as ‘them or they’, what about you?” A simple “me first” rule would save you as well as the other person from a lot of misconceptions, embarrassment and troubles. Remember, even if you’re a cisgender heterosexual individual, you do have pronouns that you associate with too.
“The best thing an ally can do is listen, really listen to us. They can learn more about us when we're protesting against the status quo than when we're peaceful. Unfortunately, most allies don't like us unless we're silent and laying low. As an ally you should never assume. Just like cishet people, we're a heterogeneous group with just as many variations among us as the rest of the population. Ask us individually before doing something for us. That includes pronouns,” commented Luna.
About the author
Mehak Walia is a writer who loves to use her words to create the rare merge of storytelling, correctness, readability and clarity. She has also written four fiction books and has been a part of various anthologies - short stories and poetry. Follow her on Instagram at @mehakwalia28