Making space for them, her, him, and ‘prefer not to disclose’ in group settings: Why pronoun-sharing is important but must remain optional

by Oliver L. Haimson and Lee Airton

Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

Part of Nonbinary Identities and Individuals in Research, Community, and the Academy: A Series Beyond the Gender Binary

Introduction by Oliver Haimson:

In October 2018, I wrote an essay for NCID about why forced disclosure of marginalized identities as casual icebreakers can be problematic. While I did not intend for the focus of this piece to be on gender pronoun disclosure, I included a paragraph about gender pronoun disclosures as an example of one instance in which people are often expected to disclose information about their potentially marginalized identity in semi-public spaces, whether or not they feel comfortable doing so. I noted that “there is an important group of people for whom sharing pronouns is an unwanted and uncomfortable disclosure: those who are questioning their gender, early in transition, and/or not yet ready to disclose their gender pronouns to a large group of strangers.” I asked readers to “consider the example of a trans student who has not yet come out as trans or taken steps to transition. Asking this person to disclose their gender pronouns to a group of strangers, or putting forth such practices as the norm, forces them to either 1) use the pronouns associated with their previous gender, thus invalidating their transition, or 2) come out to everyone as trans before they are ready to do so. Not only is this uncomfortable, it is also unsafe in many settings.”

NCID and I received many questions about this particular part of the essay. These questions could broadly be captured in the following:

  1. Should we ask people to share their pronouns, or do we simply allow the space for pronouns to be volunteered?
  2. If I, as a cisgender individual, choose to volunteer my pronouns, is this ok? Is this simply exercising my cis privilege, as I’m unlikely to receive any sort of negative response?

I wanted to address these, and other contentious issues about pronoun disclosure in public settings, in a follow-up essay. However, while I wrote the previous essay feeling that I had expertise on disclosure of marginalized identities given my personal experiences and research focus, I do not have the same level of expertise on gender pronouns. So, I brought in Dr. Lee Airton, who happens to be an old friend of mine as well as an expert on navigating gender diversity in everyday life and language, including in relation to pronouns. In Lee’s recent book, Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture, they include recommendations around pronoun sharing in public settings, or what is commonly called pronoun “go-rounds,” which we draw from here. The book includes much more detailed advice on pronouns and other aspects of gender diversity in everyday life, and I highly recommend it. For the remainder of this essay, Lee and I are writing together.

Photo from The Gender Spectrum Collective on Broadly

Why pronoun sharing is important but must remain optional

Respecting people’s identities, and referring to them correctly, makes spaces like classrooms, workshops, and meetings more inclusive. Pronoun sharing is important because if we listen, take note, and remember, we will know how to respectfully refer to people in the third person. We cannot assume a person’s gender based on their appearance, and pronoun go-rounds build this lack of assumption into a norm.

However, while sharing pronouns as part of introductions is a familiar ritual in many trans-inclusive spaces, this practice becomes more complicated when brought into spaces that may be less safe, such as those that include strangers, classmates, and professional colleagues. It is very important that mandatory pronoun-sharing does not become a best practice for use in any space at a time when transgender people still face many barriers to transition and disclosure, and could face discrimination and violence if they make themselves known as trans. Especially when a person is questioning their own gender, or is not sure how people will react to their trans or non-binary status, pronoun sharing can be contentious. In these cases, pronoun sharing is more difficult and dangerous for some people in the room than others.

These caveats do not lessen pronoun sharing’s importance. Pronoun go-rounds can still happen, even in spaces like classrooms and non-trans-specific meetings. Sharing pronouns just should not be mandatory in these settings.

In Chapter 5 of their book, Lee gives lots of useful information on how to carefully and respectfully invite people to ‘signpost’ or share their personal gender pronouns in public settings. We provide a brief summary here.

As a facilitator, we see two good ways in which you can invite pronoun sharing. First, you can share your own pronouns, which sets the tone for the group and indicates to people in the room that pronoun-sharing is normal and will be respected. For example, Oliver could introduce himself and say that he uses he/him pronouns, or Lee could introduce themself and say that they use they/them pronouns. This would make it clear to others in the room that sharing pronouns is normal and respected in this space. We also suggest saying something like, “if you have any questions about pronouns in general, or have any requests about your own pronouns or other gender-related needs in this space, you are welcome to chat with me.” Second, you can explicitly invite participants to share their pronouns along with their names, but make it clear that the purpose of the introductions is name sharing, and that pronoun sharing is optional. Nowhere in an introduction should the facilitator say that people are required to share their pronouns. As a more general practice, non-verbal ways of sharing pronouns are also encouraged (e.g., stickers or opportunities to write on nametags or badges), and may be more comfortable than disclosing out loud for people who are new to a particular pronoun, gender, or space. We especially encourage this kind of pronoun signposting for facilitators or other persons of authority in a space.

Text reads: My gender pronouns are…

The larger discussion around pronoun sharing

Several recent pieces, all compelling and with important arguments, have approached the issue of whether pronoun go-rounds are necessary.

In The Performance of Transgender Inclusion: The Pronoun Go-Round and the New Gender Binary, Jen Manion argued that pronoun go-rounds are often more of a performance of trans inclusion, rather than an actual means to include trans and non-binary people. Beyond that, in making pronoun sharing compulsory and moving away from the male/female binary, Manion argues that we are moving towards a new binary — cisgender vs. transgender — that places many people into boxes they are not comfortable with. “For so many young people who might be questioning or discovering their gender, [pronoun go-rounds] require them to make a declaration, whether or not they are ready, or want to,” Manion writes. Further, Manion argues that pronoun-sharing practices are complicated because “for people with clarity about their gender identities, certain situations may not feel comfortable or safe for any number of reasons. For transgender and gender nonconforming people like me who use pronouns that are consistent with our assigned sex, it serves to erase the significance of gender in our life, leading people to lump us into the ‘cisgender’ pile.” We agree with Manion’s point that pronoun go-rounds attempt to take gender diversity, a complex thing, and simplify it into a few words that people can use to accurately categorize each other. Given the importance of respectfully referring to people and the terrible impacts misgendering can have, however, we respectfully disagree with what we see as Manion’s main argument: that pronoun go-rounds necessarily do more harm than good. Rather, as we argue above, pronoun go-rounds can still happen, but not without significant steps taken to protect peoples’ agency in doing what is best and safest for them, which might mean not sharing any pronouns at all even if everyone else does.

Arabelle Sicardi’s piece, My Gender Is: Mind Your Business, speaks to the importance of people’s abilities to disclose their gender on their own terms, and the difficulties of pronoun disclosure in group settings. This personal narrative describes how gender is personal, powerful, and complex. As much as one person at the table may strongly wish to disclose their non-binary pronouns and be referred to as “they/them,” the next person may not wish to broach the subject at all. It is difficult for allies to know what to do, and as Sicardi’s piece makes clear, there is no simple answer.

Dean Spade, who has been thinking and writing about these topics for many years, makes a strong argument in favor of pronoun go-rounds in We Still Need Pronoun Go-Rounds. Like Manion and Sicardi, Spade agrees that pronoun go-rounds overly simplify a complex concept, yet he argues that “the problem is not the pronoun go-round, it’s the gender system, and binaristic thinking of all kinds.” A pronoun go-round, in Spade’s view, “is not meant to and cannot take care of all the many complex problems of judgment, identity, and anxiety that exist around our complex lives and our political movements. It is merely an attempt to create a practice of not assuming we know what someone goes by just by looking at them.” This is an important argument that we agree with.

It is entirely possible to have pronoun go-rounds and normalize pronoun sharing, and yet still make pronoun sharing be non-mandatory on a personal level. People should always be able to opt into or out of this practice. Sure, it may be frustrating if a cisgender colleague or peer chooses not to share their pronouns. But the assumption that someone is cisgender feels like the assumption about gender that pronoun go-rounds are meant to dispel: that you can tell just by looking. There is no way of knowing if that person is actually cisgender, or if they are currently questioning their gender and do not have a pronoun that is possible or comfortable to declare to the group at that moment.

So, returning to the questions posed above.

  1. Should we ask people to share their pronouns, or do we simply allow the space for pronouns to be volunteered?
  2. If I, as a cisgender individual, choose to volunteer my pronouns, is this ok? Is this simply exercising my cis privilege, as I’m unlikely to receive any sort of negative response?

To answer the first question, yes, you should invite people to share pronouns in a group setting — you should just make it clear that sharing pronouns is optional and, if you are in a leader or facilitator position in the group, explicitly share your own pronouns if you are comfortable doing so.

To answer the second question, yes, it is okay for cisgender people to volunteer their pronouns. This is an instance of what Lee calls ‘signposting,’ which demonstrates that a space is one where pronouns will be respected, at least by the person who just signposted. Yes, this does also mean exercising cis privilege, but for a purpose. We argue it is beneficial to signal to people that a space is respectful of sharing pronouns and inclusive to trans and non-binary people.

Pronoun sharing is about respect: by engaging in pronoun go-rounds, and by using people’s correct pronouns, we signal to people in a group setting that each person’s gender is valid and deserving of respect. Yet respecting people also involves understanding that gender pronouns are sensitive information for some people and that some will not be comfortable disclosing their gender pronouns to a group of strangers or colleagues. Respecting each person’s choice to disclose or not disclose sensitive information about their personal identity means that, while pronoun go-rounds are important and necessary in many group settings, pronoun sharing must be optional, not mandatory.

Oliver Haimson is a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, incoming assistant professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information, and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Haimson conducts social computing research focused on social media use during life transitions and transgender people’s experiences with social media, with a primary research goal of impacting technological inclusion of marginalized users.

Lee Airton is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. They founded They Is My Pronoun, a blog about gender-neutral pronoun usage and user support. Dr. Airton is also the founder of the No Big Deal Campaign, a national social media initiative that helps people show support for transgender peoples’ right to have their pronouns used. Lee’s first book, Gender — Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say and What to Do in the New Gender Culture picks up on the themes of this blog post and is available from Adams Media (An Imprint of Simon & Schuster).