October 18th, 2023 is International Pronoun Day!
We are all familiar with the third-person singular pronouns: she/her, he/him, and they/them. But these aren’t the only pronoun sets out there; people also use ze/zir, ey/em, and others. In Spanish, elle has taken off as an alternative to él or ella. In French, ille is an alternative some use to il or elle.
There are also people who use multiple pronoun sets. My spouse, for example, uses either they/them or he/him, and really doesn’t care which one you pick. I use they/them, but it doesn’t bother me if people inadvertently call me she/her; it does bother me if they call me he/him.
A note on grammar: some object to singular they as “grammatically incorrect,” but most English speakers use it freely in everyday conversation for a person whose gender is unknown (for example: “When you get through to the operator, make sure to tell them you’re calling from this address”). Singular they has been in use since at least the 14th century, meaning it predates singular you. If some pedants would have us reject singular they on grammatical grounds, I’m afraid we’ll also have to return to thou, thee, and thy for the second-person singular. As for newer pronouns like ze/zir, language is always evolving, and that’s one of its beauties.
Why are pronouns important? Does it really matter if you get them right? Yes, it does. I think sometimes when people brush it off as a small mistake, they think all they’re doing is accidentally using the wrong word. But when you use the wrong pronoun for someone, what you’re also doing is telling them how you perceive their gender. If someone refers to me with he/him pronouns, they’re telling me that on some level they view me as a man. That’s the box I was forced into against my will for most of my life; it took hard, painful work to break out of it; and I’m not going back. That’s why he/him pronouns sting in a way that other pronouns don’t for me, but every person will have their own experience and perspective.
Getting it right matters for the profession, too. I’m a good lawyer, and I’m actively involved in lots of initiatives within my organization and the larger legal community. But I only became comfortable stepping into those roles once I saw that my identities, including my pronouns, would be respected by my peers. If I was still being misgendered as often as I was when I first came out, there’s a decent chance I would have burnt out and left the profession by now. The best-case scenario is that I would be quietly working away for my clients, with my head down, mostly avoiding other lawyers. I have much more to offer than that, but I can only do so when I feel safe and respected. I mourn all the contributions our profession and society have missed out on because trans and other marginalized voices felt silenced, disrespected, or unwanted.
So what should you do if you get someone’s pronouns wrong? In most cases, the best response is a quick, simple apology and then moving along. Belaboring the point, being over-the-top with your apology, or talking about how difficult it is for you, can make the other person feel they have to comfort you. It may also draw more attention to the issue than they’d like. On the other hand, not acknowledging the mistake at all just leaves us feeling that we haven’t been seen. Please avoid defensiveness, and do not stress that it was an accident or you meant well. When someone goes to the trouble of correcting you, it takes vulnerability on their part, and it means they are already trusting—or at least hoping—that you are well-intentioned and open to feedback. Try not to let them down.
Pronouns signal how we want to be seen, and how we want to move through the world. Using the right pronoun for someone is an important way to show you value them, respect their identity, and see them on their terms. But it is only one piece of the puzzle, and this post is only a basic introduction.
We must also acknowledge that we’re currently living through an unprecedented tide of anti-trans and anti-queer legislation, censorship, and hate crimes. We are in danger, and we need fierce, committed allies now more than ever. To learn more, I encourage you to read the works of trans authors, listen to trans podcasters or YouTubers, or follow trans people on whatever medium works for you.
River Sedaka hails from Toronto, where they studied intersectional social justice movements at the University of Toronto. River attended law school at Northwestern University, where the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown opened their eyes to the racial and economic injustices at the heart of the criminal legal system. A career in public defense quickly became River’s goal, and they were proud to accept a position at the Appellate Division of the Colorado State Public Defender when they graduated from law school. River has practiced in Colorado’s appellate courts for seven years. They also volunteer their time on a variety of EDI and social justice initiatives within the Public Defender’s Office and the larger community. River is an active member of the Colorado Bar Association, the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, the newly-formed Colorado Disability Bar Association, and the Colorado LGBT Bar Association.