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Please stop making jokes about gender pronouns when people tell you theirs

They might hurt people more than you realize.

Taking pronouns seriously signals that you’ve thought about what trans and gender-nonconforming people face. (iStock)

Earlier this fall, during an LGBTQ town hall on CNN, Sen. Kamala D. Harris said her pronouns were “she” and “her.”

“Mine too,” said host Chris Cuomo.

The backlash was instantaneous. By the end of the night, Cuomo had apologized on Twitter, noting his sorrow as “an ally of the LGBTQ community” — but still not managing to state his pronouns. And I wondered, not for the first time: Why can’t cisgender people be semi-normal about this?

This ham-handed approach appears to transcend political affiliation. Ricky Gervais, who has made no secret of his disdain for so-called politically correct culture, has claimed that his pronouns are “it” and “he he” — because he’s a comedian, get it? At a recent conference I attended, one panelist identified her pronoun as “boss,” to the delight of most of the packed room. Enough people, whether they’re well-meaning or trolly, have indulged in this behavior that it has become a meme: Bisexual actor Joshua Rush tweeted in October that saying “my pronouns are attack helicopter” is one of “like three jokes” homophobes and transphobes rely on.

In a society that frequently equates appearance with gender identity, it can be comforting for those who identify differently to push back against those assumptions, and it’s affirming to know that others are at least making an effort to do the same. Which is why it’s increasingly common, especially in spaces trying to demonstrate LGBTQ friendliness, to have people declare their pronouns upon introduction or in their email signatures: My name is Kat, I live in Chicago, and I use she or they pronouns. (As the writer Ada Powers recently pointed out on Twitter, this dual pronoun use can be a way for some non-binary people to express the complexities of their gender identity in different contexts and social settings.) 

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This practice has been routine in some activist spaces for more than a decade, but it’s moving into more mainstream arenas as well. Avinash Chak reported for the BBC in 2015 that “sharing one’s pronouns and asking for others’ pronouns when making introductions is a growing trend in US colleges.” Chak noted that the University of Vermont, “which has led this movement,” began asking students to self-report their pronouns in 2009. In job settings, too, more companies have made stating one’s pronouns a regular part of introductions. The employee analytics platform Culture Amp, which says it works with more than 2,500 organizations, advises workplaces to encourage employees to share pronouns in icebreakers; an NPR article recently did the same. Uber’s internal employee profile pages list their users’ pronouns.

In these contexts, there is no need to be cute or funny; don’t say your pronouns are “princess” and “in charge.” You may get a laugh, but is the cost — the alienation, discomfort or frustration of vulnerable people — worth it? A cisgender person who claims that their pronouns are “dance mom” and “brat” is suggesting that they are not interested in how fraught this matter can be for trans and non-binary people.

Those of us who make a point of identifying our pronouns often want to make sure that others see us as we are. Having my gender interpreted incorrectly makes me feel panicky, like trying on a sweater that’s too tight around the neck in a crowded store. Others have said it makes them feel stigmatized, lonely, dysphoric, depressed or threatened. It’s not appropriate for people who aren’t in danger of being fired, evicted or even murdered for their gender identity to decide that pronouns are a joking matter.

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Taking pronouns seriously signals that you’ve thought about what trans and gender-nonconforming people face. That doesn’t automatically make you an ally, which requires much more work, and pronouns aren’t a magic key to unlocking someone’s gender: Plenty of non-binary people use “she/her” or “he/him” pronouns, for example, or they might not be ready to out themselves in mixed company. But it does mean you’re at least trying to demonstrate basic respect — just like calling someone by the correct name.

I know that for people who are just learning about the practice, stating pronouns can feel a little intimidating. Some might get nervous about the possibility of offending someone or looking foolish, and may try to reclaim control over the situation by making a weird joke. I suspect that’s what happened with Chris Cuomo.

But if you’re a cis person who’s going to make a show of declaring your pronouns as a way of signaling your allyship, can I just ask you to please be chill about it? Feeling discomfort with new things, especially when they involve other people’s lived experiences, is part of what it means to be a compassionate adult human. If you’re a cisgender person who has never had to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you, introducing yourself at a party or workshop is not the time to get creative. We might just call you “out of touch.”

Twitter: @KJercich

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