A Guide to Navigating Gender Pronouns

So what is cis, anyway?

Today I had a conversation on twitter regarding gender pronouns and the need for them. Now, it should be noted that I am cisgender, meaning that my gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth. I’m writing this not to talk over trans folks, but to educate other cis folks on something we can improve upon. One of the best ways I can help is to handle my own people (cis people) who seem to take offense to the term “cis” or the notion that we should not assume anyone’s pronouns.

As a cis man, I was born genetically “male.” “Male” is a biological determination meaning that because I have a functioning penis and testes. In our society where we link genitals with gender, I was assumed “male” at birth by my doctors and nurses. So therefore I am told that I should identify as a “man.” I do, in fact, identify as a man, and so I am cisgender. “cis” is merely a descriptor that means “same,” and since my assigned gender and my gender identity match, I’m cis. But not everyone is cisgender.

A lot of folks are transgender, gender nonconforming (which often includes nonbinary, genderqueer, and agender folks), and intersex. None of this feels easy to understand at first glance — believe me, when someone first asked me about my gender pronouns I was very confused — but if you’re truly invested, you can do some reading. And those around you will really appreciate the effort.

  • “Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth. “Trans” is often used as shorthand for transgender.” — National Center for Transgender Equality
  • “Gender nonconforming” refers to people who do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth.” — Slyvia Rivera Law Project
  • ““Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” — Intersex Society of North America

Finally, I made a presentation entitled “Gender identity, gender expression, and sexual identity” that is publicly available here.

So why should I care about pronouns?

Whether we are domestic workers, students, CEOs, teachers, professors, parents, kids, activists, organizers, janitors, day laborers, unemployed, or anything else, we deserve respect. And whether we realize it or not, we need to get used to a world where we give people their own agency.

The burden should not be on trans folks to out themselves (and face potential violence), or to worry about the symbolic violence of being misgendered (meaning being referred to as anything but your own gender) or deadnamed (referring to someone as their name before they transitioned genders). The tweet above and the dialogue that follows is a simple breather on the importance of pronouns and how to go about asking others for theirs. Although we are socialized to assume someone’s pronouns, those of us who care really have to work to unlearn it instead of complaining about something so simple.

Him: Hey, my name is Anthony.
Her: Oh hi, my name is Sascha.
Him: Cool, nice to meet you Sascha. What are your gender pronouns?
Her: Huh?
Him: Such as she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, or anything else you prefer. For example: mine are he, him, and his.What are yours?
Her: I guess mine are she and her. I’ve never really thought about it before. Why are pronouns important?
Him: We don’t want to assume.
Her: Assume what?
Him: We usually assume pronouns based on what gender we guess the other person is, but we may be incorrect. We judge by their appearance but appearances do not determine gender. We should grant the other person the opportunity to tell us their gender pronouns, rather than guessing.
Her: Oh.
Him: So to ensure that we are respecting a person, which includes their gender identity, we ask them to specify their pronouns.
Her: Oh ok.
Him: For example, I have a friend who does not believe in the binary of genders (man and women) and instead recognizes the spectrum.That means that they recognize that there are more than two genders. So this friend identifies as non-binary.
Her: Non-binary?
Him: Binary just means that there are only two things within that system, so non-binary is outside of our “two genders only” way of thinking.
Her: Oh word .
Him: Yeah, so they use “they/them” pronouns. I’d say “how are they,” not “how is she” or “how is he?”
Her: Isn’t them plural?
Him: It doesn’t have to be. “They” can refer to one person. We’re so used to assuming “he” first, and we’re cool with “she.” For example, rampant sexism means we also say “guys” in a room with both guys and girls. But he and she aren’t the only pronouns. “They/them” and “ze/zir” exist as gender neutral pronouns as well.
Her: This is gonna take me some time to get used to.
Him: That’s chill, just be respectful. Always ask for pronouns or use their name.

I know, it feels like a lot. But that’s it. You can also start by asking people for their gender pronouns and if they ask you why it’s important, you can tell them “I’m still learning, but I know that it’s based in respect.”

Questions, comments, suggestions or corrections? Leave them here on medium or hit me up on Twitter (@anthoknees).