Sharing your pronouns to support trans colleagues and students

This week Caley Yardley, Doctoral Tutor in Physics, talks about how we can support our trans colleagues and students by sharing our pronouns.

For many, pronouns can seem a very trivial thing, but I think there is a power in them. Even if everyone shared their pronouns on all their social media, professional contact lists, at the start of meetings, and on door signs, there would still be so much more for us to address on gender equality and inclusion. However, I believe that sharing pronouns is a very easy thing to do and can mean much more to others than it may appear at face-value for you.

It shows awareness.

Human identity is complicated; we are all shaped by our social, cultural and/or ethnic backgrounds, our jobs, passions, interests, and hobbies, as well as by the people we interact with as we go about life. I challenge you to describe yourself or a friend in only one sentence. I bet you wouldn’t be able to account for all your quirks, even if I were more generous and let you use a full page. It is probable you would feel compelled to employ generalisations, or even stereotypes, to paint a vaguely accurate portrait of who you are. 

As with the rest of your identity, your gender identity exists on a spectrum, may be fluid, and is never the same between any two people. Yet, it is still deemed normal to categorise people into binary categories – men or women – which for many happen to align with their sex assigned at birth – male or female. This carries strong norms and values which still perpetuate gender stereotypes in too many areas of modern life. If you are cisgender (not trans), I doubt that your identity as a man or a woman is identical to that of your friend. Yet the languages of Western cultures traditionally do not view anyone as existing between, let alone beyond, a rigid gender binary. If you are trans, this rigid view of gender can be even more unhelpful when the choice of language is informed by other people’s assumptions about the way you look or sound.

By sharing your pronouns, you can show your understanding, or willingness to understand, that gender identity is more complicated than the traditional picture, and therefore one’s pronouns are not necessarily a given to be assumed.

You can reduce the stigma.

Although it is important to discuss peoples’ assumptions and individuals’ identities in the context of trans and non-binary people, it is also important for cisgender people too. Many trans people are misgendered on a day-to-day basis, but I know of cis friends and colleagues who have also been subject to it on occasion because of some assumption regarding their appearance. However, while cisgender people often feel comfortable to politely correct an honest mistake, often trans people are less likely to do the same in that situation. 

For me, sometimes it is a matter of staying silent for mine own safety, or simply worrying about how I may be perceived for raising my voice. On other occasions, I know I worry about stigma when I am in that situation – “another trans woman who cares about pronouns”. Like many trans people, I choose to share my pronouns where I can, including on pin badges and at the start of meetings. In my experience, it helps to reduce the frequency of awkward encounters and means I don’t have to worry so much about upsetting others, especially if they would have misgendered me during a good-faith interaction. Many people seem to be very happy with trans people sharing their pronouns, but there is a vocal minority who are not, resulting in a stigma that pronouns are just a thing that trans people have and declare. This is especially the case if only trans people are the ones sharing their pronouns.

By sharing your pronouns, you can help to tackle this stigma directly. Even if you don’t think you personally benefit from sharing your pronouns, you can be the one to get the ball rolling and potentially put others at ease to do the same.

It can be a step towards allyship.

The current situation for trans and non-binary people is not exactly easy in the UK right now. Research by Mermaids and Ipso has shown a strong increase in negative media coverage and the Home Office’s statistics show that transphobic hate crime is on the rise in the UK. It can be hard for gender diverse individuals to access help and support, which can be especially hard for those at the start of a social transition who may be scared to “come-out”. Although people of all genders are deserving of acceptance and safety, too many trans people find themselves questioning whether they are safe and accepted for who they are in too many areas of public life.

If you want to be an ally, I appreciate that it can be daunting, largely because it is unrealistic for any one person to effect change on such a complex set of issues. Given that allyship is an action, not simply a badge that one can claim, some may wonder, “how exactly can I be a good ally?” 

I remember David Tennant featuring in the media for wearing a badge which read, “you are safe with me,” and was decorated with trans and LGBTQ+ flags. You don’t have to do wear anything as bold as this to promote a similar message. At the very least, sharing your pronouns can signal a willingness to be a good ally and promote a safe space for those of all genders. It may seem like a small thing, but you can show that you are willing to be among the first in a room to have that discussion, and help to promote a safe space for trans, non-binary, and gender diverse individuals.

What can you do?

No-one can force you to share your pronouns (and I wouldn’t want to either) but I hope it is something which most are willing to do. It can mean more than the effort which is needed to do it: normalising gender diversity, reducing stigma, and challenging biases and stereotypes. It isn’t the only thing you can do though. To be inclusive and curb biases, consider using gender neutral language. They/them pronouns can be used in reference to a hypothetical person, or if you don’t know a person’s pronouns. This might help you to avoid words or phrases which stereotype or differentiate too. You may also wish to think more about your own biases, prepare to challenge them yourself, or be ready to have them ‘challenged’ by others, which can be incredibly helpful in being an active listener and bystander against discrimination.

Some naturally worry about ‘getting things wrong’. Don’t let this stop you learning from mistakes – even trans people can get things wrong. At the end of the day, if you are willing to try, this matters more than anything else.

How to share your pronouns in some of our tools

  • Canvas
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Zoom
  • Outlook Online
  • Padlet does not have a specific pronouns feature, but you can add your pronouns to the About box in your user profile:
    • From your Padlet dashboard, click the three-dot ellipsis button (…) on the bottom-left of your screen (right if you’re using the mobile app).
    • Click Settings
    • Select Basic Info
    • Type your pronouns in the About box.
screenshot of Padlet About box
screenshot of Padlet About box

For further information on the use of pronouns at the university please visit the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion pages. 

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Posted in Accessibility, Educational Enhancement, Inclusive teaching

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