So you’re cis? Here’s why your pronouns matter

Photo above by Christina Morillo from Pexels

I went to lunch with someone recently. As we walked out of the restaurant, I realised I hadn’t asked her about her family. It was something that we chatted about occasionally, but because we were closer as colleagues than as friends, I hadn’t heard about her loved ones in a few months.

This lady said they were well, and we took a few more steps in the autumnal sunshine down Hereford Street together.

She stayed quiet.

Then she said,

“Actually, there’s something quite big happening in our lives at the moment.”

And she proceeded to tell me about her child’s exploration of their own gender identity.

How they weren’t sure what pronouns they wanted other people to use to describe them.
How this Mum wanted everyone to understand what they were going through wasn’t a phase.
How they were learning and sharing this together, as a family.
How this Mum was inhaling as much material about parenting a gender-diverse child as she could, but was still worried it wasn’t enough.
How proud this Mum was of her child for being honest about it.
How much she wanted to help her child.
How fiercely she loved her child, regardless of what pronouns they might decide on.

And she said to me, “We haven’t told too many people about this. I just saw that you used pronouns in your email signature, so…” she trailed off.

“I guess I figured you were safe.”

Using pronouns in my title, email signature and screen names on places like Slack and Zoom were modelled to me first by the altMBA team, a global, digital community. This was never compulsory, just invited. Most altMBA coaches chose to do it because it sent a clear message to the students in the workshop that how a person would like to be referred to is how we will refer to them. Sharing our pronouns showed that we were working to make the altMBA a safe community for students and coaches alike to express this part of themselves.

When a cisgender person chooses to display their pronouns, many people ask, “Why?” The undertone of that question is, “Isn’t it obvious what pronoun you identify with?” And that’s what makes it all the more important for cisgender people to share. Even though gender is a social construct, those in dominant positions of society – those with platforms, privilege and/or power – have the ability (I would also argue the responsibility) to normalise behaviours that prioritise inclusivity and dignity for everyone.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

The practice also makes visible the huge variety of gender identities. I came to learn about concepts I’d never had to consider before because of my cis privilege, like deadnaming. I witnessed two fellow coaches transition to non-binary pronouns. One said they did it to “congruently communicate the whole truth of my whole self”. They were able to do this because they realised “I know I’ll never belong anywhere as someone I’m not.” I started to understand why inviting people to share pronouns, and actively sharing my own, matters for everyone, cis or otherwise.

The fight for racial justice and equity reached fever pitch in June 2020 and swept angrily across the globe last year, in the wake of the traumatic murders of innocent black people in America (George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbrey and Breonna Taylor, to name just three). Down here in New Zealand, we were not immune. The swelling plethora of resources that came pouring out last year about how to support these movements for equity was going to take me decades to properly read and digest and act upon. From the tiny, tiny amount that I absorbed, this is the call I heard – what the underprivileged have been asking those of us in power to do for centuries: Sign petitions. Join rallies. Donate to organisations giving the marginalised a voice. Take less. Speak out against injustice. Amplify their voices. Learn about intersectionality. Get uncomfortable. Don’t make it about you. Take much less. Educate myself. Don’t rely on those with marginalised identities to educate me. Check my privilege. Give my time and skills to work that is focused on ending systemic inequity. Take much, much less of everything, except responsibility.

Photo by Krzysztof Hepner on Unsplash

These behaviours can be characterised in the description of an ally. ‘Ally’ means “someone who works for social justice from a position of dominance”. Ally is an incredibly complicated word in the world of social justice and equity. It can sometimes mean that systemic injustice is truly being challenged. It has also routinely been weaponised by those in privilege, connotes paternalism and colonialism, and is often used self-referentially to imply the ally is aware of their privilege (also known as “woke”).

I learned about ally cookies and performative allyship. I learned about white exceptionalism, white apathy and then white silence from Layla F. Saad. I got really confused because it felt like I could never fully erase myself from the narrative of being an ally. Even when I did try some of the things on the lists on the Internet or in books, my actions still felt like they were about me, so they were inherently selfish. I got overcome by a hideous case of privilege paralysis – the knowledge that one or more of your identities is creating the injustice you are seeking to try and solve, but rather than take any small action towards reconciliation or equity, you are paralysed with indecision, thereby preserving the status quo that inevitably keeps your privilege unchecked and unchallenged.

I cannot remove my ‘self’ from my actions as an ally. I will never have totally pure, altruistic, unselfish motivations to act in ways that empower people who I have power over. I didn’t, and I still don’t know how to handle the fact that the world is so biased towards someone like me: a conventionally attractive, university-educated, wealthy, white, neurotypical, able-bodied cis woman. Doing something like putting pronouns in my signature and display name seemed token. It was laughable.

I’d never seen the pronoun practice in my own country or industry. So when I put pronouns on my email signature in my day job and on my personal email address, I was questioned at first. I was told by someone very close to me that using pronouns made it look like there was cause to question whether or not I was cisgender, and that I’d been through a gender transition when I had not… implying that I wouldn’t want that, that it was a bad thing. There are large groups of people that argue that pronoun usage as a cisgender person is virtue signalling, gas lighting, progressive bullshit, and a gateway to the end of free speech.

But at the lights on the corner of Hereford and Montreal, when this Mum said what she said, I realised that it’s quite right to treasure some people’s opinions over others.

The observational comments I received when adding pronouns to my signature and Zoom profile (all from other cisgender people, interestingly enough) are absolutely nothing compared to the prejudice, open discrimination and hostility that gender diverse people are subject to throughout their entire lives.

I’m sure you have heard of the statistics about cis prejudice against those who identify as takatāpui or queer. In New Zealand, this group are more likely to be victims of crime, have poorer physical and mental health outcomes than the general population, come up against health professionals who are often not gender affirming or adequately trained in meeting their unique needs, their history is not integrated into our school curriculum, they are more likely to be bullied both at school and at work, and must often conceal their identities for fear of discrimination.

The Human Rights Act 1993 does not provide explicit legal protection from discrimination with regards to gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.

I’m going to write that again:

The Human Rights Act 1993 does not provide explicit legal protection from discrimination with regards to gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Our non-binary friends are incredibly vulnerable, and this is because cis people hold most of society’s power and have not used our privilege and platforms to demand change and equity.

I don’t think I can change the Human Rights Act. If I could be a safe person for this mother to chat to about her child’s gender exploration, that is still progress. She wasn’t asking my opinion. She did not need me to validate her child’s journey, nor her maternal response. She just wanted to tell a safe person what was going on in her whānau (family). The pronouns I’d displayed told her that I was going to honour her child’s experience with the dignity it deserved, if nothing else.

Our conversation about her child lasted less than four minutes. I had no wisdom, no lived experience to offer, nothing except encouragement for her as a Mum, and acknowledging her commitment to navigate this with her child in a safe way.

Do you believe that a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics should not be discriminated against, under any circumstances?

Then I’d encourage you to add pronouns to your signature, profile, business cards, display name or title too.

Not sure how? Use this guide.

Photo by Norbu GYACHUNG on Unsplash

A couple of notes:

  1. This article brings up an incredibly valid point: don’t ever force someone to share their pronouns. Simply invite and model without pressure.
  2. A gentle reminder about basic trans etiquette.
  3. My privilege is coursing through this article, and I have blind spots. This article is flawed, biased and messy. I’m going to publish it anyway, because I remember Dr Brown’s words: “To opt out of this conversation because you can’t do it perfectly, is the definition of privilege.”
  4. I want to take a stand for this, and I want to learn so next time I can do better. If I am incorrect, if I’ve written out of turn, if I have harmed you with my words, or if I need to know something that you know to make this article safer or more accurate, please reach out to me by leaving a comment below. If you’d prefer to reach me privately, please touch base on my contact form here.