I am 43 years old and every day I learn that I still have so much more to learn. And while I often feel embarrassed when I discover another thing I didn’t know…I remind myself that being open to change instead of doubling down in shame is ALWAYS the right response and as long as I’m still doing that…then I should feel more pride than embarrassment.

Today let’s talk about how I’m constantly relearning how to talk about gender and how to better help normalize language I don’t have to use, but that I could use. I am a cisgender woman who grew up in a society that treated gender as a binary. The culture from my childhood only recognized genders assigned at birth. No one really understood things like “men who wore dresses” and transgender people were always bad guys in the horror movies. All of this means my default language use and interpretation is very, VERY cisnormative.

Five years (or so) ago, I went to a political action meeting where we were learning about issues being proposed in the Alabama legislature that would impact our state’s LGBTQIA+ community. The woman who stood up to speak introduced herself and said, “My preferred pronouns are she/her.”

Now…that voice inside my head said, Woah. Is she a trans woman? She passes easy as female.

No. This woman was a cisgender female who was doing her part to normalize the declaration of preferred pronouns so that people in the trans community who maybe didn’t present in a manner that made pronouns easy to identify, could feel more comfortable doing the same. That voice inside my head was basically the reason this wise cisgender woman was declaring her pronouns even though she easily presented as female. Once I understood the situation entirely I felt very ignorant and kinda ashamed. Come on, Kim…you know better.

But I didn’t. And just like Maya Angelou told Oprah, “When you know better, do better.”

I have — in the years since — tried my best to apply similar behaviors in my life. I put my preferred pronouns on all of my social media bios. I put it on nametags when I am in a room meeting new people. I wear buttons on lanyards. And I do all of this feeling almost COCKY in my woke-ness. LOOK AT ME, I AM SUCH A GOOD ALLY.

And then recently…like…more recently than I want to admit…I was listening to a gay man refer to his “spouse” and I thought, I know they’re married…why isn’t he calling him his husband? Is he questioning his gender identity?

No, Kim. He has many friends who don’t exist on the gender binary and he has adjusted his language to try to incorporate more gender neutral terms when it is not necessary or important to assign a gender.

(He told me later it’s also been interesting to really think about how rarely it is necessary or important to used gendered language.)

This is just about really trying to own the title of: Ally. It’s not just how we vote or making sure we show up at PRIDE events. It’s also about recognizing the cisnormative and heteronormative programming embedded from a society struggling to let go of the gender binary, and opening our hearts to how hard it is for non-gender conforming people to live in a society filled with those people. In order to really be a part of a changing culture, we need to help normalize new language so that the next generation doesn’t flinch at words like “partner” or declarations of preferred pronouns.

It’s not about NEVER calling Donnie my husband again and it’s not about saying, “I’m Kim…preferred pronouns are she/her,” at every 1-on-1 introduction. But it’s about always being open to adjusting my language in situations where it seems appropriate or helpful. It’s also about holding space in the moments when we think about what language to use…to really meditate the challenges our transgender and non-binary community members face every day.

In the end, this is an important piece of being an ally…holding in our hearts the challenges others face that don’t belong to us, so that we can better recognize our own unearned (and often undeserved) privilege.