A funny thing happened on the way to the blog. I had an inclusion epiphany at the joint Oregon Library Association/Washington Library Association conference.
Conferences have name badges, and often there are also trays of different colored ribbons representing different interest groups and jobs that a conference attendee can select and adhere to the bottom of their badge. At the OLA/WLA conference, there was a bright yellow ribbon with a blank spot underneath. The top read, “My pronouns are” and you could write your personal pronouns below. I loved the idea, but didn’t want to take a ribbon away from someone else who needed it.
Yup, I actually thought I was doing everyone a favor by not using the ribbon, since I use she/her pronouns and I’ve never been misgendered. However, I quickly learned that by taking the lead in stating your own personal pronouns you’re showing allyship and normalizing this type of exchange of information. You’re laying the groundwork for change. This was my inclusion epiphany.
Luckily, as with many complicated and nuanced issues, there’s a well-written book to help us understand. A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni & Tristan Jimerson packs a lot of information into 60 pages. This book succinctly explains what pronouns are, how to use them, and why they matter in the first place. Hint: misgendering someone is demoralizing at best and demeaning at worst. And no matter how inclusive you think you are, you can always do better.
Archie and Tristan, the authors, are longtime best friends and offer two different perspectives on gender-neutral pronouns. Archie is a genderqueer artist and explains from the perspective of someone who uses they/them pronouns and wishes the world would get on board already. Tristan is a cisgender dude who wants to start introducing gender-neutral pronouns at work. He explains from the perspective of an ally and friend who wants to change his and his organization’s habits.
Both Archie and Tristan want to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone. They know that understanding and talking about personal pronouns is a simple way to offer support and understanding.
Written in graphic novel format, this book is a fun and informative way to get up to speed on how language has changed and what you can do to be supportive, inclusive, and welcoming. Archie and Tristan run through everyday scenarios they and their friends have experienced. This helps the reader understand what it’s like to be non-binary and constantly misgendered, as well as how difficult it can be to change old habits even if you want to do better.
It can be a struggle for everyone, but the only way to affect change is to keep working on it. In the back of the book there are a couple of quick reference sheets you can practice with until this becomes natural to you. For instance, there’s a list of different ways to ask for someone’s pronouns. One point the authors make is something I’m still correcting myself about. For a while I was saying, “What pronouns do you prefer?” but that suggests that gender is a preference. The authors are clear that asking, “What pronouns do you use?” is the best way to go.
There are also ideas for how to recover when you mess up someone’s pronouns. Hint: don’t make it a big deal, just apologize and move on while remembering their pronouns for next time. Also, for those of us who grew up with parents who taught us that showing respect meant using gendered words like sir and ma’am, there’s a list of non-gendered words you can use instead.
Other ideas to create more inclusive environments for non-binary folks:
- Be the first: introduce yourself to someone new as I did in this post title:
“Hi, I’m ___ and I use ___ pronouns.”
- Add your pronouns to your email signature and/or business card.
- Begin a meeting with a new group by asking folks to go around the room and state their name and pronouns.
- Talk to your boss about gendered language in policies and handbooks that could be neutralized.
- If you work with official forms, ask if references to gender binaries like male/female can be removed.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re all going to make mistakes along the way. Just keep moving forward, keep trying harder, and have those conversations with friends and coworkers. The more work you take on, the more you’ll clear the way for everyone else.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see about getting my pronouns added to my name badge at work.