Madeleine Wise, a ninth grade student of Camille Napier-Bernstein at Natick High School in Natick, MA, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “’They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words.” In this article, Cole, founder of the Brown Boi Project, welcomes the expanding list of gender pronouns. Pronouns can help us all learn to see and respect each other’s identity. Instead of cultivating fear, shame, and embarrassment around not knowing the right thing to say, Cole encourages us to create new approaches to language so we feel freer and more open with each other.
Writing Prompt: Is there anyone in your life—you included—who is not comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she”? Write a letter to Cole on how you feel about this expansion of gender pronoun language. How do you deal with this cultural change?
The Right to be a Little Bit Rude
I admire your dedication to spreading knowledge about the sensitive subject of gender. In your YES! article “‘They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words,” I agree with what you said about politely correcting people instead of “checking” them, but I feel like this isn’t as easy as you make it seem.
You see, most people are raised with an aversion to correcting others. They tend to feel that it’s not their place to call someone out, or even to gently remind them of a mistake they made, especially when talking with adults or superiors. This is a norm that mostly goes unquestioned, but it can create barriers, especially for people who feel like they are asking for too much in the first place. This socialized politeness is a problem for people who use the pronouns “they/them” and have self-esteem issues.
I remember when several friends of mine came out to me as nonbinary. They all said something along the lines of: “I prefer “they/them” pronouns, but my old pronouns are fine.” The majority of them didn’t really mean it; however, they were afraid that I would find it rude if they were more assertive. This hesitancy causes a miscommunication. Friends or family members may misunderstand the importance of using the proper pronouns and get away with misgendering because “enbies” (a slang term for nonbinary people) don’t feel like they have the right to interject.
Unfortunately, people are always going to misgender others—it would be unrealistic to think otherwise. Like you said, no one can expect people to know their pronouns at first glance. What we need to do is create an environment in which nonbinary people (all trans people, really) feel like they have the right to correct others when they do get misgendered—and raise a generation that feels comfortable asking someone’s pronouns before assuming. This would require a higher level of respect and better education on topics like gender and identity, but these are things everybody can help work towards in one way or another.
Sometimes, we need to step up in someone’s defense when fighting for their preferred pronouns becomes too much. One of my friends, an enby by the name of Sage, finds it extremely exhausting to explain their identity to new people all the time. So my friends and I are at their beck and call. At a recent party with plenty of their more distant relatives, we formed the “Sage Protection Squad.” One of us was with Sage at all times, so that if anyone was out of the loop, we could fill them in. Alternatively, if anyone refused to get in the loop, we could come at them with a croquet mallet of grammar (I’m only slightly kidding).
Of course, the best teachers on this subject are nonbinary people themselves. If we shout over them, we’re defeating the purpose entirely. What we should be doing is (red) carpeting the runway to the stage so our enby friends can take the mic. An ally’s job is to give enby friends whatever they need in order to stay strong through adversity. We have to work together to create the world we want to live in. No one can do it on their own.