Why I Stopped Saying ‘You Guys’
by TK Lawrence (he/him/his)
(TK has been a part of the HPA volunteer staff since July 2014. He is the U.S. Mid-Atlantic liaison, on the training/GLA team, and founded the Asheville HPA chapter.
This essay is part of our series of writing from trans people for our Protego campaign, which fights for trans rights and safe spaces. If you have a story or perspective you’d like to share, email email@example.com)
When I discovered I was genderfluid, I began noticing how people use language in their everyday lives. It shocked me to see how much gendered language we use without thinking about it. I started to feel awkward when someone addressed me as “miss” or when in a group, as “ladies.” Internally, silently, I told them I wasn’t a girl, wasn’t a lady. I wish they had used more gender neutral language so that I would feel included and comfortable. I hope that this guide serves to better your understanding of gendered language and how we use it, and I encourage you to think more carefully about it in the future. You never know who you might be helping simply by being more thoughtful and creative with everyday words.
Be Respectful & Examine Language
A big part of feeling welcomed, included, and safe in the trans community is the way others use language. We have all been brought up different ways, by diverse people and communities that already have a set way of speaking and thinking. It can be hard to rearrange your mind and try something different, but once you do it enough, it becomes a habit, and will feel a lot easier.
Let’s Start With Pronouns
A good general rule is never to assume you know someone’s gender and pronouns. Asking politely what pronouns someone uses is a good way to find out, and can also lead to discussions about gender. When referring to someone else, whose pronouns you don’t know, it’s always a safe bet to use “they” and “them” since those words are gender non-specific.
Talking About “They” and “Them”
We do it all the time in our daily lives without realizing it.
“Did you see that car? They didn’t use their turn signal.”
“When our server comes back, could you ask them to refill my water?”
Using “they” and “them” is a good default when we don’t know a person’s gender or pronouns. There are also people who prefer to use “they, them, their” pronouns all the time, because that best reflects their gender identity.
There are, however, people who feel uncomfortable using “they” and “them” for a single person, because we are accustomed to using those words for plural objects or people. Because of the increased visibility and understanding of the trans community, the singular use of “they” has started to become more accepted in society. If you meet someone whose pronouns are “they” and “them,” it might take a little getting used to, but remember to respect (and use) the correct pronouns, and it will roll off your tongue in no time.
More Gender Neutral Language
Let’s move on from individuals and concentrate on addressing a group of people, small or large. Using gender neutral language when addressing a group is a good way to ensure that any trans or nonbinary people also feel comfortable, included, and respected. Instead of saying “ladies and gentlemen,” you can try “everyone,” “folks,” “esteemed guests,” “colleagues,” and more. This also works for when you are making flyers, posters, invitations, and letters or e-mails. Check out the chart below for more gender neutral terms when talking about others.
Alternative gender-neutral terms
Watch for Gendered Language from Others
There will be times when you will encounter someone using unnecessarily gendered slang, making jokes, or commenting about how a certain gender should “be” or “ act.”
Examples of this include:
“He hits like a girl.”
“Boys shouldn’t wear dresses.”
“She should man up and get over it.”
When this comes up, if it is safe and appropriate, you can make a comment about the language the person is using or politely request that they not use that term or make that joke again (and give a reason, which would likely be that it is disrespectful and/or harmful to the community). Everyone should be free to express themselves and their gender identity without fear of negative consequences, and language like the examples above only harm our society, inside and out of the trans community.
Our brains have been taught by our society to think a certain way, so making mistakes will happen. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not a big deal. If you make a mistake, make a brief apology and move on (a long apology can make things awkward or uncomfortable, and is unnecessary). With a lot of practice, we can be more aware of the language we (and others) use, and strive to use more inclusive and kind language going forward.