The Importance of Using Correct Pronouns in Justice-Related Institutions

Mik Pappas
Aug 30, 2018 · 4 min read

The headline read like this: “Transgender woman allegedly raped by cellmate says she requested single cell.” https://tinyurl.com/ychcbps2

And the article mentioned this: “District Judge Mik Pappas revoked Booth’s bond and upheld all of his charges… [and] changed the victim’s bond to non-monetary to allow her release from the jail Tuesday morning.”

But there’s something that the article failed to mention, which leaves me somewhat compelled to offer a few thoughts.*

Something that many of us already know, or that we hopefully are trying hard to figure out, is that using correct pronouns is important.

It shows “respect for the diversity of gender identities and promote[s] awareness of transgender and gender nonconforming communities.” Using correct pronouns is particularly important in the context of our justice-related institutions, because it “fosters an affirming space” for the identities of folks who are more likely than most to be victims of violent crime. Certainly, the last thing that any of us want to do is to “add insult to injury” (so to speak), by using incorrect pronouns while questioning or referencing an alleged victim of a violent crime during a public hearing. However, while presiding I had to ask, and then correct, more than once.

The Principles of Procedural Justice require that parties have an opportunity to be heard. But how can one be heard when she is not correctly acknowledged?

I greatly respect, and very much appreciate, the attorneys and members of law enforcement who participated in this hearing. Earlier this year I attended a wonderful community-police forum that was hosted by the Mayor’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council, where I observed truly honest efforts in action. I am confident, as I believe you should be, that these honest efforts will spread throughout our local justice-related institutions. But we must remain committed to further action, thoughtful dialogue, rigorous training, and meaningful accountability.

In addition, I would like to share the below guide, as it might be a helpful starting point for some. (Just in case, moving forward I’ll be sure to keep a few copies in my bench book)

10 Tips About Using & Understanding Non-Binary or Genderqueer Pronouns (from A Guide to Non-binary Pronouns and Why They Matter by Sassafras Lowrey)

1. Normalize Pronouns — A great way to do this is including your pronouns in email signatures or on social media bios. This helps to normalize the idea that people shouldn’t just assume they can tell someone’s pronoun based on a the traditional gendering of a name.

2. Ask — Ask everyone their pronouns, not just the person you think might be trans or non-binary. Make asking pronouns as natural as asking what someone’s name is when you meet.

3. Effort — The only way to get better at using non-binary pronouns is to step outside of your comfort zones. Forget what you think you know about grammar, and make an effort to respect our identities by using non-binary pronouns.

4. Practice- A rainbow of gender-neutral pronouns have been part of my regular spoken and written vocabulary for sixteen years. Using them is as natural to me as binary pronouns, but that didn’t happen overnight. The only way to not get flustered using non-binary pronouns is to practice, practice, practice!

5. Don’t assume- You can’t tell a person’s gender identity or pronouns based on how they look. Gender presentation isn’t the same as gender identity, and neither presentation nor identity are a indicator of what pronouns someone uses. The only way to know what someone’s pronouns are is to ask. Also, don’t assume that someone’s pronouns are fixed. Gender is fluid, and their pronouns may (or may not) change over time.

6. Include pronouns- Include PGP — Preferred Gender Pronoun or Personal Gender Pronoun (the latter being the most inclusive phrasing as doesn’t insinuate respecting someone’s pronouns is optional) in your ice breakers/go-arounds when you start a meeting. Are you involved with organizing a conference? Include a place for pronouns on your name tags/badges. You can even buy pre-made pronoun stickers

7. Apologize- Mistakes happen. When you misgender someone say you are sorry, and fix your language moving forward. Don’t make a huge deal about your mistake and force the trans/non-binary/genderqueer person spend a lot of time and energy consoling you for misgendering them. The best apology is not doing it again.

8. Non-binary greetings: Instead of saying “ladies” or “guys” to a group of people try to incorporate language that isn’t gendered like “folks,” “y’all,” “friends” etc. into your vocabulary

9. Correct — When you hear someone use the wrong pronouns for a mutual friend correct them. Sadly, sometimes the only way to get people to respect non-binary pronouns is if they feel socially shamed into doing so. Part of being a good ally to non-binary, genderqueer, and trans people in your community is helping other people get our pronouns right.

10. One size doesn’t fit all — As people become more comfortable and familiar with using the non-binary pronoun “they” I’ve noticed a trend that people will use it as a default pronoun for any non-binary person. “They” is an awesome pronoun, but it’s not mine. I feel just as misgendered by people referring to me as “they” as I do when they use “he” or “she.”

*It should be noted that my comments must be consistent with the Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges. I have reviewed the Rules, including Rules 1.2 and 2.10 in particular, and I offer the foregoing for pedagogical purposes, as well as to initiate and participate in community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice.

Mik Pappas

Written by

Elected, Independent, District Judge in Pittsburgh, PA. Well Established Organizer + Peacemaker, Esq. he/him/his