Can We Talk About Pronoun Declaration Best Practices?

I want to have a conversation about pronoun declaration and best practices around it sparked by this aspect of the issue coming up 3 times in the past month: that asking or semi-requiring people to declare their pronouns in public can be harmful to non-cisgender people.

This is not an aspect of the issue I’d come across before. In all other discussions of declaring pronouns (usually in the context of convention badges) the general idea I got was that non-cis folks declared so that people wouldn’t accidentally misgender them and folks who are cis or cis-passing were encouraged to declare to normalize the practice and not put all the work and markers on the marginalized group in this equation. This all seemed reasonable to me.

I don’t remember how long ago we started, but for at least a year I’ve been asking Writing the Other students to declare their pronouns where their name appears in discussion areas or video chats. Just before the last class I got an email from a student concerned about this practice because they’d had discussions with nonbinary and trans friends about how pronoun declaration made them uncomfortable in situations where they might not want to be out to people about their gender. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to do with that (my initial thought was that students didn’t have to put pronouns that matched their gender if they didn’t want to, but then realized that’s not an actual solution), so I kept it in the back of my mind and decided to discuss the issue with smart folks I know in person.

About two weeks ago the issue came up again in a private forum that’s mostly cisgender people, so the discussion wasn’t as useful as I hoped.

And then this week a friend on Facebook posted a status saying that all people should put their pronouns in their email sig and social media profiles. I happened to check in on that discussion a little while ago and the issue of pronoun declaration making some trans and nonbinary folks uncomfortable came up again. This made me think it was time to have the discussion about it, even if it happens online, because it keeps coming up. Plus, there’s a Writing the Other class starting at the end of this month and I want to have a firm understanding of the issue so I can craft our policy for that and future classes.

For that specific scenario, I would like to craft the pronoun declaration statement in a way that does not isolate people or force them to out themselves in ways they find uncomfortable. I still want it to be clear that I don’t only want non-cis students to declare. Maybe the classes aren’t the right space for this, anyway, and I should drop the ask. I’m not sure.

For scenarios outside of this, I’d like to be able to speak knowledgeably about why pronoun declaration might be a problem and ways to mitigate it or, at the least, understand the objections to it.

Before I open this up to discussion I want to stress that this is absolutely not about cisgender people feeling uncomfortable or resistant to the idea of declaring pronouns. That’s a separate issue and discussion altogether. And one I’m frankly not here for.

I welcome all ideas and thoughts and even disagreements on this topic as long as you follow the rules of constructive discourse. No using slurs, no bigoted language or attitudes, no punching down. Also, the way I have comments set up on this blog, the first time you comment it automatically gets sent to moderation. Once I release the first comment from the queue others will post immediately. It may take me a while to go through all comments in the queue, please be patient. Thank you.

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9 thoughts on “Can We Talk About Pronoun Declaration Best Practices?

  1. Yes. This. It also affects binary trans people who may not be able to live as their selves. And there’s an aspect of this practice that can cross the line into inclusion theater.

    Normalizing statements about appropriate pronouns is good. Cis people volunteering their pronouns is good. Ritualized mandatory declarations is not so good. Over focusing on gender as *the* critical axis for respect/communication is probably a mistake too.

    I try to say “Introduce yourself and tell us anything you want us to know or do in order to communicate with us respectfully and effectively.”

  2. Yes. This. It also affects binary trans people who may not be able to live as their selves. And there’s an aspect of this practice that can cross the line into inclusion theater.

    Normalizing statements about appropriate pronouns is good. Cis people volunteering their pronouns is good. Ritualized mandatory declarations is not so good. Over focusing on gender as *the* critical axis for respect/communication is probably a mistake too.

    I try to say “Introduce yourself and tell us anything you want us to know or do in order to communicate with you respectfully and effectively.”

  3. As far as best practices it (like always) can depend on the space. I, personally, think it is a best practice to have pronouns asked, give an example (My name is Ashley and I use she/her or They/Them pronouns) or I have in some spaces asked for a sentence in the third person (Ashley Rogers, she likes chocolate cake).

    Why ask rather than not as a best practice? Because, for me, people will assume and more often than not assume wrong. Can this method out trans folk? That is a possibility, in my opinion and experience the best way to ask is “What pronouns would you like us to use?” Why? This sentence is not about debating preference, it is affirmative but not final, and it centers language as a tool we all use (not just trans/non-binary people). If someone is not out, not sure of the people they’re around from a safety standpoint, etc they can choose to utilize pronouns or a name they would not be divulging in person for the purposes of an online class etc etc. If we’re talking about long term, in person interactions again this gives the individual the opportunity to feel out the room and see if they are in a space they feel comfortable and potentially update later…

    If we take the stance that we only choose to divulge pronouns it can make trans/n-b folk put on the spot/a spotlight on them as we are not at a point of normalizing pronouns and so only those of us who have to deal with people assuming wrong will divulge.

    We can also give people the option to have others only use names rather than pronouns. which is still an option that allows an unfortunate “Pay attention to me because I’m doing something you didn’t expect” moment… but then the argument still comes down to: Do we potentially hurt those who don’t want to be noticed or those who would rather not have to correct over and over…

    By centering it around how the individual would like us to refer to them the individual can make the choice to use the pronouns that reflect who they are (with the understanding that that can also change with time) or the pronouns that the individual feels is safer. It is still not perfect, but it is the best I have found so far…

    My TL:DR opinion:

    * Yes require
    * Center the question around our use and how the individual would like us to talk about them
    * Give the option to only use names and not pronouns.

  4. i do not think you are going to get a clear answer on this. I am a trans woman. I look,act and pass as a ciswoman. I want the female pronoun. I worked hard for it. Many others are less committed to a firm gender identity and would not want the pronoun. Probably bet thing to do is ask each person

  5. I do not like to be put on the spot in general and thus find the group go-around and share excruciatingly uncomfortable even when there isn’t a gender declaration component as part of it. When there *is* a gender declaration as part of it, I feel like absolutely everyone is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for me to offer my pronoun(s) so they can finally make sense of me and, soon, perfomatively demonstrate how “brave” and “courageous” they think they are. It’s horrible. Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.

    Convention badges and e-mail signatures (two places where I have seen cis people declare their pronouns proactively) are different because they do not involve a roomful of people looking expectantly at me, hoping whatever I say will resolve *their* tension around my gender. Here, I appreciate the attempt to lower the stakes and normalize the offering of pronouns, because among other things I can choose whether or not to participate as my comfort level dictates and it’s not all happening in real time all at once.

    In other words, I would like at the very least for it to be recognized that cis people offering cis pronouns is easy for cis people. It might not always be so for trans and nonbinary people, and while I appreciate that going around in a circle and having everyone offer their pronouns is an attempt at normalization, *the stakes are still different*. (See also the way that cis people will often make a joke of the pronoun declaration: “my gender is nerd” or whatever.) The stakes are always going to be different for a trans/nonbinary person, and although I appreciate attempts at lowering the barriers for me to say “by the way, please call me ‘they,'” I don’t want cis people to forget that it’s not an even playing field, or think that I *owe* anyone a pronoun declaration or explanation of my gender (or gender presentation, which may be different). If that makes sense.

    TL;DR: the stakes are different for trans/nonbinary people, and if we can avoid putting people on the spot, that’s a good thing.

  6. What I do in my classrooms is have students write pronouns they want used on their nametags, which we use in every class. I tell students that the best practice if someone hasn’t volunteered pronouns in some way is to use that person’s name. This allows for room for folks who don’t want to declare and also often results in a few cis students who hadn’t paid attention being surprised when pronouns aren’t used for them. Students who want to add pronouns can do so at any point in the semester and students whose names or pronouns change have reforlded their nametag another way to shift name or pronouns (I’ve had both happen this semester, actually). For me, this balance works.

  7. I couldn’t easily comment before when I was on my phone and away from home. I don’t have any answers, but I think folks here in the comment have raised excellent points and I’d like to follow this conversation.

  8. I’m non-binary, genderqueer & genderfluid, currently leaning in a femme direction, and was assigned female at birth. I prefer neutral pronouns most of all, but when I’m actively presenting as very feminine or very masculine in ways perceived as typical, I’m comfortable accepting the pronoun usually attached to that gender. Unfortunately I am often misgendered by people who don’t understand the concept of non-binary gender and perceive me as female *all* the time, even when I’m not.

    As far as divulging goes, I’m developing the habit of using neutral pronouns to refer to everyone, cis, trans or otherwise, unless and until an individual (or, indeed, a multiple person, as I’ve a few among my friend circles) tells me what they would prefer. I can understand how it might create anxious dysphoria for someone who feels that it means I am aware they’re trans if they’re not out, as that’s an aspect that has worried me, but at the same time it means I’m not actively misgendering anybody if I simply use “they” and the variations attached (rather than “xe” or “hir” or “zir” and the like, which tend to feel and be responded to as more definitively non-binary than as a simple neutral assumption to avoid making mistakes).

    My brother, who’s still using masc pronouns while feeling out the idea of his being non-binary and genderqueer – he hadn’t ever heard the terms before the first time he met me, about 18 months ago (we are technically stepsiblings whose parents are now separated and about to get divorced, if that helps reduce confusion), but he says they feel right for him – always tries to make sure to use neutral terms for me, down to and including calling me “sib” instead of “sis” as is his default (I have a bio sister & he’s still getting used to knowing her, too). We have yet to figure out a term to correspond to “aunt/uncle”, but use “niblings” for our siblings’ children.

    That’s just my $.02.

  9. I think in the context of a Writing the Other class, I would feel it as a relatively safe space. So context can make a difference here. And a queer or poly class might feel like a different environment from a religion or disabilities class. I think asking people to put pronouns in profiles (or similar) is like the name tags mentioned above. Different from actively having to introduce yourself. And if it’s clear that ‘any’ is a reasonable option, more people might take that?

    I think the main question might be though: Do you need people’s pronouns? Are they used that often in class? Is it enough to refer to people by name?

    There’s some data security best practices buried in there, I think. Don’t collect data you don’t need.

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