Getting pronoun badges right: Five recommendations for event organizers

Lal Zimman
Sep 4, 2019 · 6 min read

As I usually do, over the last year I attended a number of academic conferences in the disciplines in which I work — linguistics and anthropology. I’ve been pleased to see that organizers for each of these conferences have made some effort to offer attendees a way to signal their pronouns alongside their names and institutional affiliations. I have also noticed a number of different strategies for making pronoun indicators available, and I wanted to recap some of the high points and low points for those who might be considering making pronoun markers available at their own event. The discussion is definitely biased toward academic conferences, as the season for linguistics & anthropology conferences is now upon us, but the principles can be applied to any occasion in which participants use name tags/badges, share their names in printed literature, or are introduced verbally by an announcer or MC.

I don’t want to call out any particular conference for problems with their pronoun strategies, but I did want to identify the most successful conference I attended last year, which was Experimental and Theoretical Advances in Prosody (ETAP) 4, which was hosted at UMass Amherst. Let’s talk about what they did well and how some of the others might have done better in the form of five recommendations.

1. Make pronoun tags separate from name badges

Often, participants of events with name badges who want to signal their pronouns have to write them on the badge itself. This is less than ideal, since other attendees won’t know to look for the information there, and the strategy’s success depends on having both sufficient blank space on the badge and clear, visible handwriting. In this case, the burden is on those who want to make their pronouns known to convey that information and on others to know to look for pronoun information on nametags.

Another option is for organizers to gather pronouns alongside names and other information if the event has a pre-registration process. This is not a bad option, but it may not be ideal. Often, name tags are already crowded with information, and adding another line of text may make everything less visible. Additionally, letting people indicate their pronouns on the day of the event lets them get a feel for the situation before making their selection and allows for the possibility that people’s pronouns might change over time.

The alternative, which offers more flexibility, is to provide attendees with some kind of sticker, button, badge, or pin that displays a set of pronouns. There are a few ways to execute this approach, some of which are more successful than others. Here are some additional principles:

2. Registration volunteers should encourage all attendees to take a pronoun indicator

Having a pile of pronoun badges at registration is nice, but many people will not bother to take one if they aren’t explicitly invited to do so. They don’t need to be framed as a requirement, but having registration staff ask each registrant to take a pronoun indicator drastically increases the number of people who make use of the system. They did this at ETAP, and as far as I could tell, every single person was wearing a badge like the one pictured above. At another conference I attended last year, there was a pile of buttons available, but no one mentioned them during the registration process and very few attendees had them. At yet another annual meeting, I didn’t see any pronoun indicators at registration and only learned that they existed when I saw a non-binary colleague wearing one and asked where it had come from — apparently they were available only on request.

If the practice of signaling pronouns is likely to be unfamiliar or controversial for some of your participants, it can be useful to prepare volunteers with a bit of information about pronoun practices so they can more easily discuss and answer questions about them.

3. Provide an array of options

Make sure you have, at minimum, badges for he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. This will cover most attendees most of the time. But it is also important to have a blank option for those who might want to write in another set of pronouns like ze/hir/hirs.

It would be possible to only have blank badges so that everyone will write them in, but this could discourage people who aren’t sure what to write or feel unwilling to put in the effort to fill out a badge, however minimal. Giving participants a sticker that they place on their name tag requires virtually no effort from them. Making it attach directly to the conference badge will reduce the chances of the pronoun tag being left behind for the second day of the event.

4. For goodness’ sake, make them free

One of the conferences I attended that did not actively encourage people to take a pronoun button surprised me by requesting a donation in exchange for a pin for those who did notice them. While a “requested donation” is technically optional, people may feel uncomfortable opting not to pay. The one good thing I’ll say about the execution this system was that the buttons weren’t monitored and didn’t have to be handed over by a registration volunteer, which makes it a bit easier to opt out of the donation process.

But charging any kind of fee to signal one’s pronouns puts the financial, as well as interactional, burden on trans people, who are also more likely to represent the lowest income populations among your event’s attendees (whether that’s because they are students rather than faculty, or because trans people already experience high rates of poverty and economic marginalization). Furthermore, this practice insures that only people who feel a strong need to signal their pronouns — along with perhaps a few ardent allies — are likely to take a pin. When only a few people are wearing pronoun indicators, most attendees don’t think to look for them, making the whole system less effective.

5. Make them prominent

The most disappointing attempts at providing pronoun tags occur when they are too small or nondescript to be useful, especially when not everyone opts to wear one. The goal should be to subtly inform people of one another’s pronouns, and, perhaps paradoxically, the easiest way to do this is by being highly visible. When people have to lean in and squint to read the text on a tiny button, like the one pictured below, the awkward and obvious nature of the action can discourage people from checking — especially if they think (i.e., assume) they know what pronouns to use. Of course, the whole point of pronoun indicators is that you can’t know for sure what someone’s pronouns are unless they tell you.

One of the ways that ETAP was so successful was that it chose large, fluorescent green ribbons in a large point font. They were impossible to miss, and easy to read from a distance. The creators of the ribbons have an explanation for using the same color for all pronouns, including wanting to avoid contributing to the idea that certain genders are linked to certain colors and the possibility that it would imply all fill-in-the-blank genders are the same. At the same time, I think color coding could be helpful for people with certain kinds of vision limitations, so long as stereotypical color/gender mappings are avoided, and make it easier to identify pronouns discreetly and from a distance.

Bonus point: Normalize sharing pronoun information

In addition to helping participants share information about their pronouns, organizers can take other steps to normalize the practice of sharing pronoun information.

One way to do this, if the event has a program or similar document with information about participants or presenters, is to ask them for their pronoun information to print alongside their name in the event literature. Make sure that the people introducing presenters have access to this information as well, and you may even want to encourage introducers to use presenters’ pronouns so the audience knows them (e.g. “Our next speaker is So-and-So, and their talk is entitled…” rather than “Our next speaker is So-and-So, whose talk is entitled…”). If you have Q&A sessions in which people share their names when asking a question, or any other situation in which people are speaking to a group, ask them to provide their pronouns as well.

Overall, it’s really quite exciting that conferences in my field are thinking about pronouns and how they can support trans and gender non-conforming participants. As this practice becomes the norm, I imagine there will be further refinements we can make to these guidelines.

Send me your suggestions for additional considerations, especially if you are a person who is particularly impacted by the presence and effectiveness of pronoun indicators!

Trans Talk

Language is a crucial element of trans people’s experience and a central component of trans liberation. This publication features academic analysis, activist interventions, and personal narratives that center the language of transgender communities.

Lal Zimman

Written by

Sociocultural linguist, scholar of language and trans experience, faculty at UC Santa Barbara, and lover of political analysis in its many forms. (he/him/his)

Trans Talk

Language is a crucial element of trans people’s experience and a central component of trans liberation. This publication features academic analysis, activist interventions, and personal narratives that center the language of transgender communities.

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