By Jenna Wenkoff
While studying communications a professor told us not to use ‘they’ as a gender pronoun to avoid confusing our audience. As companies embrace diversity and inclusion, this statement excludes transgender individuals who do not identify as male or female. There are many pronouns used to refer to non-binary individuals, but one of the most common is the singular ‘they and them’.
Why it Matters
Thankfully I got to chat with Yana Calou who identifies as they/them, and is the director of public relations at Trans Lifeline, a North American non-profit with a crisis hotline for transgender individuals. Right out the gate Yana made it clear why it’s important to use preferred pronouns.
“If someone has a clear pronoun and you are avoiding it for the sake of not using that specific word, I think there are accuracy problems with that. Imparting truth, accuracy and nuance is important. It’s a problem if something is inaccurate and missing information.”
More importantly, Yana explained why pronouns are meaningful to them and many transgender people.
“There are several things our community has come up with to reflect a better understanding of ourselves and our self-determination. For example, social transition can be about clothing or language. I am an expert in my own life and how I feel. I can self-determine. Using language to respect someone’s self-agency and calling someone what they want to be called is respectful.”
Essentially it comes down to respect. Asking someone what pronouns they use and referring to them by those pronouns shows you respect their self-agency. Yana argues that avoiding someone’s pronouns because it might confuse others is disrespectful.
Grammar and Confusion
I asked Yana if in their experience people find ‘they’ confusing.
“This is a word that other people already know, and they already use it to refer to a singular person. For example, they will be coming to the concert.”
“Whenever possible, confirm with the person how they wish to be described in print, including their preferred pronouns — male, female or gender-neutral pronouns like they and them. Such pronouns can be used sparingly to refer to a single individual who expresses such a preference, but be careful — it can get confusing for a reader. Always explain the person’s preference in copy, and make generous use of the person’s chosen name as an alternative in order to foster as much clarity as possible.”
Saying that ‘they/them’ should be used sparingly or that it can confuse readers is odd considering ‘they’ was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019. Merriam-Webster chooses this based on search numbers and found that “Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.”
If you are still worried about confusing your audience, Yana’s advice is simple:
“If my audience is not familiar with particular terms and they aren’t in the community, I just make sure to explain them clearly. Include pronouns on professional twitter accounts with links explaining them.”
They recommend sites like Pronoun.is which help you link pronouns in your work email signature or professional Twitter bio.
How Communicators Can be Accommodating
I asked Yana what communicators can do to be accommodating, and what to do when you’re told to avoid non-binary pronouns.
“I wonder if people hit up against this with their editors and bosses, if they want to use they and them it’s about having internal conversations about why this is important. Whether it’s about bringing in someone from a trans organization, or sharing stories like what I shared with you about why this is important. Creating messaging style sheets and copy-editing guides are things communicators can do in their own organizations. Practice asking people which pronouns they want to use and practice using these in communications. These are the kinds of decisions companies can make.”
Although asking someone what pronouns they use is great, they point out that not everyone is comfortable with their pronouns being public.
“Don’t assume that in every space and at every time people want to come out with their pronouns. There isn’t one time that everyone comes out in life.”
Yana also recommends doing what’s done in many trans spaces. Don’t use pronouns, or use ‘they’ until you ask someone their pronouns.
How We Got Here
It’s important to remember that they/them has not always been a Merriam Webster word of the year, or been included in style guides. It’s thanks to the work of trans and LGBTQ+ advocates that we are here. Just to name a few, it’s organizations like the Trans Journalists Association, The Association of LGBTQ Journalists and GLAAD that have done the heavy lifting.
- What is gender? What is sex? – The Canadian Institutes of Health Research explain the distinction between sex and gender.
- Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive – The National Center for Transgender Equality’s explanation of non-binary genders.
- ‘He,’ ‘She,’ ‘They’ and Us – New York Times explains their evolving use of pronouns.
- Glossary of Terms – Transgender – GLAAD’s media reference guide for transgender terminology.