The Importance of Displaying Pronouns

Natasha Rainey speaks to three non-binary people about why everyone should include their pronouns in social media bios and email signatures, even if you’re cisgender.

WORDS Natasha Rainey

Tory peer, Baroness Emma Nicholas, has come under the spotlight for suggesting it is an act of misgendering by referring to women as “people”. This follows racist and transphobic comments made about Munroe Bergdorf in June as Nicholas called her a “weird creature”, there has been an apology made since. The exclusionary agenda enforced by Tory politics are guiding public opinion on pronouns and gender, stapling their roots in arbitrary traditions. There is no inherent bias in pronouns, no partiality and certainly no authority over a specific pronoun based on your biological makeup. The use of pronouns is not a pissing contest but a mere clarification of one’s identity. Declaring your pronouns publicly has been extended to associate a person with queerness, however, pronouns have always existed in language and persist in defining identity, including cis heterosexuals. Even, as some have suggested, any confusion regarding the fluidity of non-binary pronouns – “they/them” – as possessive nouns, have always existed. The widening context of gender is simply allowing for an exploration of difference beyond the bounds of the binarial he or she. 

Ardently scoring Twitter and Instagram bios are she/her, he/him, they/them, she/them, he/them – there is a comprehensive list. I added my pronouns to my bio a few months ago and was taken aback when a close friend messaged me “ew, why have you got your pronouns in your bio?” Why does this simple signposting cause such outrage to cisgender people? The strangeness of including these, as a cis woman, is entirely built on a contextual othering of pronouns today. 

Categorically, there is no confusion – I am she/her; I have always been she/her and the reactionary disgust to clarifying this merely highlights how distanced ideas of gender and sex have become but remain marginally taboo.  Our sex, our penises and vaginas, have toppled the gender hierarchy making room for the dissolution of binaries. But in the wake of progress is an expected conservative backlash positing what we have “down there” as the true signification of our identities. This rhetoric does not care for pronouns or gender, it’s survival of the fittest – the survivors glueing together gender performances with their respective reproductive organ. 

To combat these tenuous efforts to replenish traditional norms, we must include ALL pronouns. I spoke to Ivvy Divine, Lily Bovill and Jessi Jukes for an education on pronouns, beyond my cis perspective.

IVVY DIVINE (they/them) 

Ivvy Divine, residing in London via Ireland, defines non-binary as, “foremost an umbrella term. It can represent any gender identities that don’t fall within binary categories of male, female, transman, transwoman. It could be agender, gender fluid, gender queer, non-conforming, non-binary or gender neutral. I identify as non-binary because that’s what it is, I don’t identify in a binary way, my gender is not fixed or rooted within femininity or masculinity, it’s both and its neither. It’s just a very neutral word to me.” They added “it’s certainly difficult for people to wrap their head around what non-binary means because we live in a such a gendered world and where gender stereotypes are so pervasive and so normalised from the minute you come out of the womb.”  

Gender performance is not natural but societal expectations demand we assign gender to specific traits, roles or interests despite these factors holding no inherent gender, but rather are assigned gender significance based on societal standards. Ivvy found when they were younger gender binaries were even perpetuated through genuine mannerisms, sharing,“politeness to me was always ma’am or sir and I really hated that, and I never understood why people wanted to be polite, but it was because I wished to not be perceived.” 

The difficulty cisgender people may encounter grappling with non-binary identities is perhaps because of the singularity attached to pronouns. The multiplicity of identity is by no means a new concept but its threat to mainstream norms is a crucial point where non-binary people become othered. Ivvy says, “any non-biologically descript or non-sex type identity is a trans person. But not all non-binary people identify as trans.” In recognising their own gender identity Ivvy reflects, “I didn’t have an awareness about gender identity as a thing, so I thought I must just be a butch lesbian and that’s how I identified for a while. As I grew up, I realised my sexuality is a bit more fluid than that and then once I started really getting into Tumblr, then I felt I had finally found the words to express who I was and people like me. In a way, I always saw myself as a non-binary person but didn’t always have the language to talk about it.”

In a way, I always saw myself as a non binary person but didn’t always have the language to talk about it.

Ivvy Divine

Beyond linguistic and cultural barriers, there exists discriminatory legislation erasing non-binary identities. “Non-binary people can’t get married legally because the UK government doesn’t recognise non-binary identity. If I ever wanted to get married, I would have to legally sacrifice my gender identity to be seen as married in the eyes of the law, which is really, really fucked up,” Ivvy said. 

Mainstream education of pronouns does not accommodate information of gender-neutral pronouns, based on heteronormative and inherently cis curriculums in the U.K. Pronouns are institutionalised from the beginning of our lives; she gets pink and he gets blue. What do they get and when do they get to decide? Beyond cis privilege, an education lends itself to relieve the burden – Ivvy asserted “stop leaving the minorities to do all of the work to try and just get to that level of social equality. We have a hard time trying to exist as it is, we shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of also fixing and educating everyone else.”  

JESSI JUKES (she/her/they/them /goddess/witch/whore)

Queer artist from Sheffield, Jessi Jukes, is breaking binaries left, right and spiritually-centred. Jessi defines non-binary as “a rejection of gender that occurs in particularly sexy individuals. I’m not against gender for everyone else, I’m not saying it should be eradicated. I think it’s just that the modern definitions of gender should be elaborated and expanded to be more inclusive.” Confining terms as complex as non-binary to one definition is as restraining as gender binaries themselves, and equally as comprehensive a perspective of non-binary identities furthers the conversation of gender identity. 

While Jessi identifies as she/her, their pronouns are widened to include they/them (and witch and whore) breaching a gender identity that knows no bounds. This fluid essence of her identity is exemplified even more greatly by her appearance and her art.

Before coming out, Jessi says she was, “honestly quite suicidal and lost. I didn’t really know what to do with myself for a while at all. I luckily had some good people around me who guided me through it and helped me understand, and a lot of those people I didn’t have until I was 21. So, the stars kind of aligned right.” Non-conforming gender identities are bridled in mental deterioration and mental illness – in most cases, this is not genetic. Harrowing statistics evidence on the staggering suicide rates among transgender people confirms this. This is only a sub-statistic of the entire LGBT+ community. In a world with strict gender conventions and punishment for those who do not abide, there’s no doubt this plays a role in the mental health of non-binary and trans people.

On educating everyone, Jessi says, “I think a compulsory education of most issues like that (including race, sex etc) is needed to help kids not grow up bullying and hating on those who are different.”

Misgendering and using incorrect pronouns can understandably be a triggering experience for non-binary people, even if by mistake. As non-binary or transgender, the case is often a process of coming out and being named correctly. Jessi says “it’s as easy as calling someone by a different married name. I get dead named all the time at home by friends. It kills me even though I’ve discussed it multiple times with them. I think a part of it is willful ignorance.” This ignorance stands immutable so long as thought patterns beyond the norm or habit are reformed. Jessi adds, “if it’s a stranger I’m not bothered, I don’t expect everyone to know or understand, but I still cringe inside. With my friends, I wish they’d do better, but it’s calm. With family, it hurts a lot because that is something I’m never going to be accepted for. I just think honestly, I can rationalise it well. If someone gets them wrong by accident, I think it just needs to be calmly told, and not an immediate attack on my behalf. A lot of non-binary people can get really angry but it’s like, some people genuinely just make mistakes with pronouns, I’m non-bi and I do it all the time so. It’s remembering we haven’t been born in a utopia where everyone thinks gender is more complex.”

LILY BOVILL (she/them)

“I believe that the only thing that all non-binary people have in common is criticism of societal expectations of gender. To each person, it means something different beyond that.” Lily Bovill is a Sheffield-based burlesque dancer who defines as non-binary on their own terms: “it mostly means simply knowing that in some way or another, you are other. It’s impossible to find a set definition because it’s a negative category. Non-binary. In other cultures, it has other names – such as Hijra people of India and Two-Spirit Indigenous people of North America – and traditions associated with it. But in Western Europe (and the places that were colonised by it), because of the gender roles that derive from Christianity, we are only given the language to describe ourselves on their terms. To me, binary gender and everything it entails just isn’t for me. I don’t see myself as completely separate from womanhood as I still relate to many aspects of the experience. Sometimes, I describe myself as ‘woman-adjacent’. Sometimes, I describe myself as a daddy. It’s fluid.”

Religion’s permeation into language and morals has certainly shaped gender identities of the West, however, a consideration of language without its ties to religion could reorient ideas of gender and pronouns. Lily adds “I’ve known I was queer pretty much ever since I learned the vocab to talk about it, though. I’m bi, and I feel as though the fluidity in my sexuality is related to the fluidity in my gender.”

I believe that the only thing that all non-binary people have in common is criticism of societal expectations of gender. To each person, it means something different beyond that.

Lily Bovill

Lily’s however does embrace tropes of gender through their burlesque. “I definitely perform femininity more – I think that’s why I love dancing the way I do. It’s so thrilling to me to be able to perform looking like a dreamy sexy woman but know that it doesn’t define me. It’s a very literal take on the performance of gender,” she explains. 

Nonetheless, non-binary people who self-define using gendered pronouns and gender-neutral pronouns are often just lumped with the gender-conforming pronoun. Lily reflects on her coming out process as many people in her life still consider them cisgender. “In terms of having that realisation – being out to myself, I suppose – there’s a little pang of fear you get when you’re coming to realise something like this about yourself, I don’t know, I guess fear of change? Rejection? The effort of dealing with an identity revelation? Every time I put my pronouns as she/her, I felt a little nag. Are you? I couldn’t stop thinking about it – because deep down the answer was yes. That pang is gone now I’m more out and I know people accept me. So that’s cool!” 

The complexity of pronouns and their meanings to each non-binary person is different. An educational reformation of pronouns and how they can be differently adapted for non-binary people is necessary, and ultimately an acceptance of cis privilege, no matter how uncomfortable it is. “When a cis person makes that effort, it shows that you don’t have to explain and justify this personal thing about yourself. It shows that you’re safe(r) to express yourself around them and that they’re at least trying to understand you,” Lily says. 

It could be seen as a bit ironic that I, as a cis person, am writing about the importance of pronouns. But maybe that’s the point. With my own privilege and access to educate myself about pronouns, it’s necessary to share this with people too disillusioned by non-traditional ideas of gender. I’m not saying listen to me, I’m saying recognise that just because I am a cis woman, I’m not the only one that should be heard. Misgendering people can be embarrassing, asking people their pronouns can feel rude but understanding gender can help restructure the societal idea of what is normal. Inclusivity of varied pronouns will enforce greater inclusivity in society, so no one has to feel uncomfortable in their own skin – cisgender, transgender or non-binary. 

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