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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23 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.

    1. Would you feel comfortable with a format of introducing one’s self that included something like “You name, and if have a preference, what pronouns you’d like us to use for you?”

      I feel that this could work as a compromise because it allows people to opt out of stating a pronoun for reasons of not wanting to seem to declare a gender, but it means that if cis people decide to opt out they are implying that they do not mind what pronouns people use for them. Also it is a focus on pronouns as a thing that are about other people, and not actual a statement of one’s own gender.

      Also, in terms of the general conversation on this thread, I would look for something somewhere (course guide?) that explains that it’s important to respect other people’s pronouns and that a person’s pronouns might change. And make it clear that the opportunity to offer one’s pronouns will be part of the introduction before it happens.

      1. “If you have a preference” is a very bad way to phrase this; it suggests that not answering implies that any pronoun is fine, which is.. definitely not the case for most people.

        My preference is that you not ask at all, at let people include a pronoun in their self-intro if they want to (and maybe normalize it by doing so yourself as the group leader), but if you must ask, go with “Your name, something about yourself, and your pronoun if you’d like.”

        I had the experience of someone asking for pronouns nonoptionally, choosing to just ignore that instruction and hoping everyone would move on, and then having the entire group stare at me until the moderator verbally prodded me to say a pronoun. This was a pretty unpleasant experience, don’t do it to people.

        1. I can see how, in a face-to-face/verbal situation the asking or even semi-demanding of one’s pronoun can make people uncomfortable.

          In the case of our classes they are online, and the place where one can declare their pronoun is in the space where they type their name. So it’s roughly equivalent to a name tag and not the same situation as people sitting around in a circle introducing themselves in person. That said, I’m glad people are discussing the in-person aspects of this as well because there will be times I’m teaching a live class and I don’t want to instigate a situation where people feel on the spot.

  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.

  10. While I like the idea of being able to be properly gendered in a safe place, a lot of places that are picking up this practice aren’t actually safe, or are adjacent to spaces that aren’t. I’m not out as trans at work, and I don’t wish to be, because I know how harmful it would be to my career. In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter, but, well, it does, and I’ve chosen physical safety over freedom of expression in certain large swathes of my life.

    While my office is open to the idea of people declaring their pronouns in their signature file, it seems to be very much a case of “as long as your appearance matches your pronouns”. I’ve already been talked to about my appearance at work not quite conforming to gender standard; I don’t want to be the test case for how well they’d accept an actual facts trans person.

    But I also don’t want to see the wrong pronouns for myself every time I send an email. And even if I felt okay expressing my gender at work, I’m in a position at my job where I deal with a lot of people outside of my company and some of them DEFINITELY aren’t safe to deal with as a trans person.

    I can’t express my gender eight to ten hours a day already; misgendering myself is a bridge too far. So I leave the pronouns out of my sig file entirely, and get the side-eye from liberal co-workers who feel like they’re being good allies by offering their pronouns (and they would be, if we weren’t at work!).

    Until there are much, much better cultural and legal protections for trans people, I don’t think it’s appropriate to make declaring pronouns semi-compulsory unless you are 100% positive everyone involved is trans (or NB or genderqueer or genderfluid) positive, and that’s not going to happen in most public spaces.

  11. This essay by trans studies scholar and activist Dean Spade is the best piece of writing I’ve come across on the topic (and his work in general is always worth checking out if you don’t know it): http://www.deanspade.net/2018/12/01/we-still-need-pronoun-go-rounds/

    In my contexts, teaching LGBTQ Studies, it’s an ongoing conversation. I generally make as much of my process explicit as I can in the classroom, so my current practice is to set up my classes by explaining why pronoun go-rounds are a thing, why some find them problematic and others find them vital, and to invite people to share if they would like to and feel comfortable. Most do, a few don’t; I do model sharing mine so they can see a cis person/person with ‘obvious’ gender do so.

  12. Context matters a lot. I’m nonbinary, but not out at work; I’m a librarian, and I’m starting to see people (cis people, so far) putting their pronouns in their signatures. I’m *terrified* of having someone ask me to state my pronouns, because I am not ready to be out at work but I don’t know if I can make the lie come out of my mouth either.

    The problem with asking at the beginning of a session, a class, whatever, is that I don’t yet know that it’s safe for me to be out. In a class like Writing the Other, I’d be pretty confident. (I wear pronoun stickers/pins at WisCon.) But if I were taking, say, a community college writing class, and the very first interaction I have with people I’m being asked, explicitly, to come out? It’s tough.

  13. I supervise someone at work who is out to some people and communities but not others, and while they are out to most people at work, they want to be given the choice whether to be out to any individual person – and don’t want to record themselves as non-cis yet anywhere that might be official, permanent, or public (but also don’t want to go on record the other way and have to explain again to everyone they’re out to). So asking them to declare a preferred pronoun is not letting them set their own terms for being out and presenting a gender, and we’ve stopped doing anything like that at their request.

    in hobby or queer centered spaces this is less of a concern, but something like school, work, or non-queer activism or religion still carry rl risk here and asking for a declaration removes the option to just not bring it up.

    Also, I know this gets perilously close to the arguments about cis people that you didnt want to hear, but there is a whole class of people who are questioning or not out to themselves for whom having to affirmatively declare as their birth-assigned gender feels false but affirmatively stating they are not cis also feels dishonest. (I am in this class depending on how gender-weird I feel on a given day.) Spaces where gender identity choice is not foregrounded can feel a lot safer to people who are unsure what they should choose.

    People in that category are also unlikely to speak up if they’re uncomfortable (especially if they’ve previously been told it’s not about cis people so don’t speak.)

    Spaces where blank, don’t know, or self-deprecating jokes are acceptable for gender (and understood to mean the person using them will not object to whatever pronoun, or is okay with a default they) work ok for both of these cases – I’ve been drawing the shrug emoji on my con badges sometimes – but that’s harder when it’s something like “go around the circle and speak,” in person or livechat ( and in that situation, something like “don’t care” or “pass” can feel publicly minimizing to people who do care, very strongly, and sometimes lead to the unsure person or the other person feeling shut down.)

    I don’t know if thinking about that is worth the trade-off in terms of normalizing gender in new ways, but it’s at least worth thinking about in terms of what we are normalizing and who isn’t included in that.

  14. I’m agender, but present fairly feminine (sue me I’m dfab and lazy), so unless I specify my pronouns, people invariably assume I’m a girl and misgender me. My experience with pronoun circles is that (even in queer spaces!) nobody can remember the pronouns of 10-20 people they’ve just met, so they pay close attention to anyone who looks “visibly trans” (which is also super uncomfortable) and continue to assume that everyone else’s pronouns “match” their presentation. Thus, I still get misgendered unless I wear a pin or nametag with my pronouns on it.

    I like the pin/nametag method for several reasons: nobody has to actually remember my pronouns, and I don’t have to somehow slip them in my self-introduction. This should of course be optional, and optimally people who do not specify pronouns are not referred to using gendered language.

    I feel it’s important to leave room socially for people to specify their own pronouns somehow. In one of my classes this semester (on presentations and public speaking), on the first day we were each paired off and told to introduce each *other*: person A would ask questions of person B, with person B given no real opportunity to volunteer additional information, and after a few minutes person A would introduce person B. Of course this meant that when I was introduced I got misgendered about thirty times, and I didn’t care for that at all. I shouldn’t have to interrupt the flow of the class if I want to self-specify my pronouns — there should be room for that built in from the start.

  15. +1 to “What pronouns should we use for you [here and now]” as the best way to ask.

    I am currently securely agender, but during the time between when I stopped being cisgender-by-default and when I reached that security, being asked “what are your pronouns” was an invitation to a gender-based anxiety attack and identity crisis.

  16. I’m commenting as a cis woman who recently had a conversation with a friend who uses they/them pronouns. Something in the conversation had led me to ask about which pronouns they use (because I had been – erroneously – assuming she/her), and after they told me they use they/them pronouns, they added some thoughts about a reason they find the asking of pronouns problematic: because if someone uses they/them pronouns, it is assumed that they are nonbinary, but my friend is actually agender, which is something different. So they use they/them pronouns, but just asking their pronouns might lead someone to misgender them. Which is a different problem than they one you’re bringing up here, but also possibly an issue to keep in mind. (I didn’t think to ask this friend what they’d prefer if the choice were simply declare pronouns or not declare pronouns with no options for further explanation.)

  17. Thanks for asking this, Tempest! The question had occurred to me after semi-requiring my writing students to declare pronouns and seeing some nb-presenting students looking uncomfortable. I have another question for any trans/nb folks who are interested in answering: I’m cis but have recently been answering this question with “she/her but am fine with any non-male pronouns” because I think a parade of cis people offering the obvious cis pronouns doesn’t actually decenter cis people, and making it clear that gender-neutral can be a default for cis people helps in this matter. But I also don’t want to draw attention to myself in this matter since it is partially about decentering cis people. Does it help to say this? Hurt? Make no difference? Thoughts?

  18. I don’t know how this fits in here, but I’m an intersex cis woman. I didn’t figure this out until I began fertility treatments in my thirties.

    I’m still figuring out what this means, but for me, asking my pronouns triggers memories of every time I’ve been misgendered as male, every time my doctors treated me as a curious medical anomaly or case study, of every group of men in lab coats shining bright lights on my delicates and arguing, every pregnancy loss and all that raw grief.

    I wish our language just used they/them for everyone as the default, but I’m also defensive of being deprived of she/her because I’ve had my gender interrogated and questioned by medical people my whole life (deformed and medically fascinating female was that narrative). So when I have to put a she/her on paper, I’m often hit with a gut punch of “am I really, tho?”

    Plus memories of trauma around gender-policing.
    Plus memories of gendered medical trauma.
    Plus unresolved grief.

    Heres the thing. I have no idea what best practices I want in place to address this.

    And I’m willing to accept that gut punch to make it easier for more threatened gender minority folx.

  19. Thank you to everyone who has commented so far, I appreciate all your viewpoints! For the class coming up I decided to go with “please tell us the pronouns you’d like us to use in this space, which may be different from pronouns you use in other spaces” and also gave people the option not to declare pronouns. I’ve added a section to our code of conduct asking students to use the person’s name instead of pronouns if they don’t see any.

  20. Thank you. I was only peripherally aware of declaring through seeing other people’s email signatures. When I did a search this is the first article I found.

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