University of Wyoming Janitor’s Grain of Sand

At last week’s Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, my husband and I sat talking as a student walked by.

She was headed for recycling bins labeled trash, mixed paper, cans and glass.

It’s where a University of Wyoming janitor was tidying up.

As the student carrying a soda bottle approached, the custodian directed her to the correct container.

Curious to know if I’m the only one who finds such bins and labels confusing, I asked if people comply with the campus sorting system.

See the source image

“I think of my grandchildren inheriting the planet, and I know this work is my grain of sand.”

“No,” the custodian said, pulling the lid off a can and delving for misfiled recyclables.

“I spend a lot of time going through trash and doing it myself.”

Then in a barely audible voice she added, “I think of my grandchildren inheriting the planet, and I know this work is my grain of sand.”

And that was the moment of recognition.

Clearly we were in the presence of the extraordinary.

Here was one person doing her job from a place of tender care for future generations.

Here was social justice in action — a living example of what Cornel West says “. . . love looks like in public.”

_____

To Consider

____

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

Film “Good Medicine” Honors Native American Positivity on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation

James Trosper is featured in Jackson Tisi’s short film, Good Medicine. (all photos are from the film)

“It’s not a physical thing.

“You can’t really put your finger on it, but we all know as Native American people what they mean when they say Good Medicine.”

That is what James Trosper says in Jackson Tisi’s seven-minute documentary commissioned by Facebook.

The Wind River Indian Reservation is home to Northern Arapaho and Shoshone Tribes.

And Trosper belongs to both.

He is the great-great grandson of Chief Washakie and Director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming.

He says, “Good Medicine includes our ceremonies and the values passed to us from our ancestors.

“We can achieve peace and healing through our traditions and positive core values such as love, kindness, sacrifice, honesty, loyalty, compassion, respect, forgiveness and spirituality.”

Also starring in the film is 12-year old Patrick Smith.

And for him, Good Medicine takes the form of skateboarding.

Patrick Smith.

“Skating takes a lot of stuff off my mind.

“Whenever I’m mad I can go skate,” he says in the film.

“Skateboarding means you don’t have to be any color.

“You don’t have to have anything, you don’t have to be perfect in order to skate.”

Forms of Good Medicine

Director Tisi says, “Good Medicine is a Native term that refers to anything that can bring peace, healing and positivity.”

James Trosper on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

We can achieve peace and healing through our traditions and positive core values such as love, kindness, sacrifice, honesty, loyalty, compassion, respect, forgiveness and spirituality.

James Trosper

“In this film we explore how elders find good medicine through their traditions, and how the youth on the reservation have found it through skateboarding,” Tisi said.

James Trosper says, “I think if ever there was a time for our people to turn back to our traditional values, it’s now.

“We see examples in the world today of people who don’t live by those values and the destruction and harm that it causes.”

This film makes me think.

And it makes me wonder how we outside the Wind River Indian Reservation find our own way to Good Medicine.

Take action!

Watch Good Medicine by accessing it above.

Learn about the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming

Read about Facebook’s 365 Days of Love. On Facebook, of course.

See another post about a Native American site in Wyoming, Returning a Sacred Rock’s Name — Bear Lodge, Mythic-Owl Mountain, Tree Rock, Mato Tipila . . . Just Not Devils Tower.

.  .  .

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

DC Books to Prisons — a Spark in the Dark in 35 States

by guest writer Barbara Cornell

It’s Wednesday evening, and we’re in a church basement. The walls are crazy-crammed with books–from foreign languages in the far corner to business and science by the door. Busy people buzz around us.

Why have I brought you here? Joseph’s letter says it best: 

“A book or magazine is a major event in my 8×10 universe, and I would not have that spark in the dark if it were not for free.”

Joseph’s 8×10 universe is a prison cell in Woodville, Texas. And you are at DC Books to Prisons in Washington, DC.

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Our little group of volunteers—and we are all volunteers—is one of a handful of organizations around the country that sends free books to people in prison.

DC Books to Prisons serves 35 states, so we know how hungry prisoners are to read. We will send more than 16,000 books and other reading materials this year. 

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Barbara Cornell

But that’s only part of the story

We send Spanish books to children in immigration detention centers. We provide books and magazines for children visiting federal prisons, collect books for prison book clubs and build prison library collections. 

Hundreds of caring people give us books and the money to mail them, free space, free storage, free supplies. 

Sending even 16,000 books is a tiny act against the damage of mass incarceration. But choosing humanity over inhumanity is at least a spark in the dark.

“If we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history,” said Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “But I believe it can.”

.  .  .

Location of other prison book programs (click for details).

Take Action!

Explore  DC Books to Prisons .

Support DC Books to Prisons with a donation.

Find similar programs near you using this map

Learn more about mass incarceration.  “Being involved in Books to Prisons made me want to know more about mass incarceration in America,” Barbara said. Here’s a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project.

Read about progress being made. There has been some progress to undo some of the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration, but there are still many more issues to tackle such as money bail

Visit previous blog posts:  
Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange
“Gillette Against Hate” Stands Up to Violent Speech and Actions

.   .   .

Barbara Cornell lives in Washington, DC.


20 Years After

Matthew Shepard’s Murder in Laramie, Wyoming

by guest contributor, Jess Fahlsing*

Jess Fahlsing with their mom,
Sue Fahlsing.

“Love you.”

Whenever I go biking out east of Laramie, I send my mom that text.

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for me to text her that.  We have a pretty good relationship, so she doesn’t always know why I text her, “Love you.”

I do it after biking, because I remember Judy Shepard’s words, quoted by Rulon Stacey in a press release after Matthew Shepard died.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”  

I’ve flipped those words around so that, whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

I can make it back home.  Matt never can.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”

Judy Shepard

Growing Up in Rock Springs, Wyoming

I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, mountain biking in the desert.  It was a place where there was no visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  I did have a trans friend, but they faced extreme violence in that town. 

I love the land there.  My heart yearns to go back.  

You can’t change who or what you love.

Yet there are some things you can’t make it back from.  That you cannot return to.  

I don’t know that I will return to Rock Springs to live long-term.  But I do know that Laramie has given me a lot. Laramie PrideFest, founded by Robert West, gave me the space to find a queer community here after I started openly identifying as lesbian at age 21.  It gave me the space to honor what activists before me have given up, and to remember Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, transwomen of color who were key in the Stonewall Riots.

. . . whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

Jess Fahlsing

Shepard Symposium on Social Justice

In Laramie, the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice [hosted by the University of Wyoming each year in April] gave me a family. They are my family.  That is actually how Ellen and I met.  

Through the Shepard Symposium, I had the honor to co-chair the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group with Dr. Emily Monago, Chief Officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  As part of the Memorial, we put banners for Matthew on the University Union.

“That wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago, when I was here for grad school,” a friend told me, who was visiting Laramie the same time as the Memorial.  

[Rock Springs] was a place without a visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  

So there is good change.  There is love.  There is the text that I can keep sending my mom.

“Love you.”

And she will send it back.

Jess and their sister Anna (left) and mom, Sue, (right).

. . .

Take Action!

Attend the next Shepard Symposium on Social Justice April 10-13, 2019. All are welcome.

Read about Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents I admire deeply in life.

If you’re curious about the use of the singular personal pronoun “they,” take a look at this post: “Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary ‘They’ Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master.”

.  .  .

* Jess Fahlsing is a senior at the University of Wyoming. They are dual majoring in Psychology and Gender and Women’s Studies with minors in Queer Studies, Honors, and Creative Writing. What’s important to know when reading this love letter is that 20 years ago Matthew Shepard was also a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he was murdered in a hate crime for being gay.

I am privileged to know Jess and grateful for their contribution to this blog. I look forward to following their career which surely will expand social justice and human rights in ways that have yet to be revelaed. — Ellen

Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange

Carla Trier, founder and Executive Director of Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla Trier has a radio voice, and you want to listen when she speaks.

It’s sultry and earnest and sparkles when she talks about the nine children she has fostered/mentored as a single parent.

Her first foster daughter was seven years old when she arrived on New Years Eve 2012.

“She came only with a sack of things,” Carla said.

“She was sobbing, and I made a pretty fast decision that this wasn’t the way things should work.” she said.

That clarity lead to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla said, “Children are removed from parents quickly, and that usually meant stuffing a few things into a trash bag as they are taken from the parents.”

But awareness is changing, and evidence of that are duffle bags often replacing plastic bags when children are picked up.

“That makes the little ones’ self images a lot different than arriving at a new home with a garbage bag,” she said.

Carla was a foster child, but unlike most children she encounters, she was sent with a suitcase and a teddy bear under her arm.

Change is also seen in Sheridan in the form of both children and the foster parents receiving help faster.

Children immediately receive 7 days worth of clothes, hygiene kits, towels, handmade quilts, coats, shoes, socks and underwear, pajamas, books, and stuffed toys.

Yet it’s not about handing a child a bag.

“Sometimes they’ve never had things that are their own, and we don’t ask for anything back,” Carla said.

As well, foster parents, grandparents, and biological parents reuniting with their families are all supported by this 501(c)3 nonprofit.

What Carla Would Like You to Know

“People say foster care is something they could never do.” Carla said.

“They’re afraid they’ll get attached to a kid and then they’ll leave”

Carla and her first foster daughter. The following year Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange was created.

To Carla, though, if you don’t give it your all, you’re not serving yourself or the child.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives.

“That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

“It’s not always been easy with my kids,” Carla said.

Yet her support is unwavering.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives. That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“I tell all my kids, I am not going to give up.

“I say, ‘Hey, I love you.
‘Hey, you matter.
‘Hey, you made my day special.
‘My day is always better with you in it.'”

“Those are things they may not hear in their lives,” she said.

“I just keep showing up.”

Take Action!

Donate to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Watch a 90-second video on Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange narrated by Carla Trier.

•  Learn about a similar organization in Laramie, Wyoming

•  Watch the feature film, “Instant Family,” based on director Sean Anders’ own experience adopting his three foster children. From the movie’s website learn more about fostering and adoption, and volunteering with the foster care system as a tutor, mentor, and more.

•  Read about other organizations doing great work in Wyoming:
Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care Sees Far Beyond Medical Needs
–  Climb Wyoming Breaking Multi-Generational Single Mom Cycle of Poverty

•  Listen to Josh Shipp, a former foster child, talk about The Power of One Caring Adult

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and is a practitioner of both HeartMath and The Connection Practice.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

Refugees Resettled in Maine Give Me Hope

Deo, Uber driver in Portland, Maine by way of Tanzania and Burundi.

While visiting my home state of Maine I used Uber to get around Portland

During one trip the driver, Deo, and I started talking.

He has lived in Maine for 10 years.

And he is an immigrant from Burundi, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

In 1993 the first democratically-elected President came to power there.

Voter turnout was 97%.

Later that year the President was assassinated, and civil war erupted.

After two of Deo’s children died the same year, he walked 600 miles to Tanzania.

For the next decade he called two Tanzanian refugee camps home while assistance from the United Nations helped secure his asylum in the United States.

In 2008 he relocated to Maine after a short stay in Iowa.

Maine Used to Champion Refugees

For close to a decade Maine championed refugees, and whether that is because its population is rapidly aging and attracting younger workers was strategically smart or if it was a humanitarian gesture, I can’t say.

Either way, it was a powerfully good thing.

And unlike Wyoming, Maine had a plan to assist people in need.

But as of January 2018, an amended Act curtained Maine’s participation in what remains of the federally-funded refugee resettlement program.

In truth, since the U.S. presidential election of 2016, refugee resettlement in Maine and elsewhere has all but ended.

Between October 1, 2017 and March 15, 2018, 91% fewer refugees came to Maine.

That’s 21 arrivals versus 229 in the same period the previous year.

Yet for Deo, life here is good.

He works in Portland and belongs to a supportive community that both sees and believes in his worth.

I’m encouraged

After all he has witnessed and experienced, he reports being treated fairly and with respect in the whitest state in the country.

And his reflection on Maine matters to me; I want to live where human life is valued and compassionate acts are not only tolerated but are sanctioned.

•  •

Deo’s Uber profile shows he has a 4.86 overall rating with almost all evaluations being perfect 5-stars.

He says on the Uber app, “I am honest and take care of people.

“I love gospel music.

“I am filling [feeling] nice when I give people rides.”

Take Action!

•  Read about the Wyoming student who wrote a refugee resettlement plan for the only state without one.

•  Listen to Maine Public Radio, The Year the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Unraveled, by Deborah Amos, Jan 1, 2018.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and is a practitioner of both HeartMath and The Connection Practice.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

“Pain should not be wasted”— Deep Gratitude to Three Parents Who Have Not Wasted Their Pain

Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard.

Holocaust survivor, Gerda Weissmann Klein said, “Pain should not be wasted.”

And I am deeply grateful to three parents who live that wisdom.

Karen Ball began the Sturge-Weber Foundation when her daughter, Kaelin, was born with Sturge-Weber Syndrome accompanied by a significant facial port wine stain.

Because this Foundation was there when my son, Byron, was born with the same syndrome, we were not alone.

Karen continues to blaze trail after medical trail in service to others.

The Shepards of Casper, Wyoming

And then there are the Shepards.

Their son, Matthew, was murdered 20 years ago this month.

It was a hate crime for being gay.

Judy channeled her anger and pain and created good:  The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

And for two decades, she and her gentle husband, Dennis, have traveled the country and the world erasing hate, promoting tolerance, and heralding human rights for all.

“This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.” – Judy Shepard

We spent this week-end in their presence.

On October 26, 2018 at 10 a.m., a public celebration of Matthew’s life will precede his interment at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

His remains are still not safe in Wyoming.

And that is unimaginable.

The Shepards model both public anguish and resilience as they counter the injustice of Matthew’s death.

And though their service to humanity cannot be measured, award after award attempts to quantify the shift their work is creating.

As Judy said during the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice in Laramie last spring, “This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.”

And for me, a mother still fighting for me children — sometimes out of fear, occasionally from anger, and mostly out of love — I spill tears every time I’m close to the energy that swirls like tornados around Judy and Dennis.

Because beyond the LGBTQ community, the work they do emphasizes justice for all human life on the planet.

“Pain should not be wasted.”

And for Judy and Dennis and Karen it hasn’t been.

•  •  •

An excerpt from Dennis Shepard’s trial statement:

“You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone . . . First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time — one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming . . . And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind — the ever-present Wyoming wind — for the last time. He had one more friend with him. He had God.

“I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.”

Take Action!

•  Learn more at the Sturge-Weber Foundation

•  Help Erase Hate at the Matthew Shepard Foundation

•  Read about growing up in a moderately-tolerant town

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and has been practicing Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy since 2013.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care Sees Far Beyond Medical Needs

Abigail Strube, WFCC Executive Director, with her mom, Cathy.

Last year Abigail Strube’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

And that’s when they both came to know volunteers from the Angels Care Cancer Program, a Casper-based organization that’s part of the Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care (WFCC).

In fact, it was an Angel who suggested Abigail apply for her current job.

“WFCC is all about reducing the burden of cancer,” Abigail said.

And that translates to helping patients and families with non-medical needs that accompany treatment.

Help Beyond Medical Care

“We sometimes pay utility bills.

“We’ve even made mortgage payments,” Abigail said.

“We give gas cards, and this past summer a patient who needed to travel for a much-needed surgery had unsafe tires, so we just bought new ones for her.”

A large portion of WFCC’s budget goes to paying hotel bills.

Because of vast distances between Wyoming towns, people seeking cancer treatment must often travel hours for care.

It’s is all about reducing the burden of cancer.

WFCC Board of Directors includes (front row) Abigail Strube (ad hoc), Kara Frizell; (back row): Angie VanHouten, Michele Nash, Dr. Robert Tobin, and Sam Carrick (ad hoc)

More than 12 years ago staff at Rocky Mountain Oncology in the mid-state city of Casper saw patients struggling at home with non-medical needs.

So they considered how best to help.

The result was a grass roots organization as an arm of the large Tennessee based eplus Cancer Care foundation.

Then in 2018 WFCC received its own 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

Until recently funding came 100% from community donations and grants from individuals.

And now as they extend their reach to more of Wyoming and are eligible for federal grants, efforts are underway to grow the current $50,000 budget.

It’s about supporting patients and families with the non-medical needs that accompany treatment.

In 2017 more than 206 people state wide were served, and this year 176 patients have already been helped.

And the only eligibility requirements are that applicants be Wyoming patients currently undergoing treatment.

Partnering with Hands-On Care

When WFCC merged with the Angels Cancer Care Program more ways to offer non-medical support were possible.

That’s because many of the volunteers have, themselves, gone through cancer treatment.

“They know how to help make the stress of chemo more bearable,” Abigail said.

“Volunteers may sit with patients going through treatment, assemble cancer care kits, and drive patients to appointments.

“They have even put together teams to do house cleaning,” she said.

“In Wyoming we are proud to take care of our own.

“We believe in the spirit of the west and supporting cancer patients in our communities who are in need,” she said.

As for her mom, Abigail reports, “She’s 10 months out of treatment and doing really well.”

Take Action!

•  Read more about Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care

•  Donate to WFCC. Every small donation has a big impact.

•  Review Preventing Alzheimer’s and Slowing ALS: The Focus of Jackson Hole Medical Non Profit.

• Read Climb Wyoming where efforts to end the cycle of single-mom poverty in Wyoming are effecting change.

•  Read about a daughter who helped her mom live fully to the end of her life.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. She is a HeartMath Certified Trainer and Coach, and certified through HeartMath to administer the Stress and Well-being Assessment tool; A Connection Practice Trainer, a Trainer’s Trainer, and Coach; and a Registered Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist (RCST®). Her website is EllenSynakowski.com.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

 

Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary “They” Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master

If you read no further, delight in watching John E. McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on the indisputable appropriateness of the singular, epicene, pronoun “they.”

The third-person, singular “they” he talks about was the 2015 American Dialect Society Word of the Year.

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries agree.

And the Washington Post style guide, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style do, too.

So why is speaking “they” when we’re referring to one person so difficult to master?

Even — and especially — if someone has told us “he” or “she” just isn’t who they are.

Logic says this should be easier.

Most of us have lived through a few language changes in our time.

Think no further than “groovy.”

We used it, then shuttered and moved on.

Yet tell me that they/them/their are your pronouns, and I’ll stumble, fall, get up, and do it again.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

Linguistics May Hold the Answer

Why I slip up so often can, at least partially, be explained by linguistics.

John McWhorter, an English and literature professor at Columbia University, says we are flexible with changing nouns, verbs and adjectives, and it can even feel natural to add, subtract and revise them.

Like software, he said, we can adapt moderately easily to new versions of what’s called, “open class words.”

But other parts of language are different.

“Pronouns are closed class words,” he said.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

“A new object or practice is one thing — but a new “you” or a new “him” or “her”?

“It’s harder to wrap our minds around changing something so cognitively fundamental, just as one does not pop up with new prepositions.

“ . . . nouns and verbs are lightbulbs; prepositions are the wiring inside the walls.”

He said the origins of our language can be traced back 6,000 years.

And even then people spoke pronouns that sounded similar to “me,” “you,” and “we.”

“That’s how hardy pronouns are,” he said.

Comfort in Knowledge

So let’s drop some of the judgment we put on ourselves for making mistakes with “they.”

Slipping back into “he” or “she” when someone says their pronoun is “they” is what can happen when you have hard-wired parts of the brain.

And as a result, this is going to take time.

What we’re seeing is a rapid evolution in English.

But John McIntyre cautions against taking too long to adapt, “The tide is running against you, and it’s coming in,” he said.

“. . . Resistance is futile.”

Take Action!

•  Read  the CNN Opinion by John McWhorter, Goodbye to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and hello to ‘ze’?,” October 14, 2015.

Read  New York Times magazine article, “Who’s ‘They’? by Amanda Hess, March 29, 2016.

•  Watch John McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on singular ‘they.”

•  Read last week’s blog, The Evolving World of Pronouns, and My Struggle to Keep Up.

•  And You Might Enjoy  Growing Up in a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others with Non-Binary Lifestyles 

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

The Evolving World of Pronouns and My Struggle to Keep Up

October 17th is the first-ever International Pronouns Day.

That means that organizations and individuals are acknowledging and supporting — celebrating, even — nonbinary pronouns.

And I’ve already signed up.

What has been she/her/hers, he/him/his in me/mine/my language is expanding.

English pronouns are becoming they/them/their, ze/zim/zir, sie/sie/hir, ey/em/eir, ve/ver/vis, and more.

Other languages have far more pronouns than we do, so this change isn’t revolutionary, but it’s happening quickly, and it’s confusing to me.

Dizzying and disorienting better describes where I am with all this.

Last year my husband and I took lunch-time classes at the University of Wyoming to become better-informed LGBTQIA+ allies.

The topics were LGB 101, gender identity, and how to be a visible ally.

But even after being encouraged to ask people their pronouns, I couldn’t.

I haven’t been able to say to a single person, “Hi, I’m Ellen. My pronouns are she/her and hers.

“What about you?”

I fear I’ll anger some people while offending others.

My own history foreshadows the perils of good intentions.

At least once I called someone’s husband by her former husband’s name.

And then there’s the personal anguish of anonymity that I experienced with my chronically-sick child.

In hospitals I was seldom summoned by any name other than “mom.”

It was as if I didn’t exist.

And not being seen doesn’t feel good.

So I really do get that this pronoun upgrade is important.

But I don’t want to be shamed or humiliated or seen as disrespectful if I mess up.

Yet that’s exactly what recently happened.

An Email Exchange

Last week I wrote an email suggesting that when I don’t know someone personally I can ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?”

A swift reply arrived from my colleague, a self-described, non-binary human who uses the pronouns they/them/their.

My offenses were itemized.

First, they said, “Being trans is not a choice. One does not just choose to not be cis.

“In this vein, the pronoun that people use is not a ‘preferred’ pronoun . . .

“There is no preference here. I am not a woman, therefore they/them IS my pronoun — not a preference.”

So noted.

In the same email they said it’s impolite to ask a personal question about a relationship.

But wait a minute.

Isn’t asking about someone’s pronouns a really, really personal question?

They also told me to “refrain from using the word biological.”

“Assigned Female/Male at birth (AFAB, AMAB) is the word choice at the moment (these things change!!)”

And for me that’s the fulcrum of the problem; I feel the rules keep changing.

Being warned that changes are coming isn’t exactly the rally call I need to go forward with confidence.

So what I’m now trying to understand is if the comments I received are the reaction of a single person, or are the points they make typical of a wide range of people asserting rights to their own pronouns?

I Could Use Some Empathy

What they didn’t seem to consider [and here I’m using “they” as a personal pronoun for one individual] is that every single time I take a risk with the intention of being respectful and empathetic, I am leaping flat footed into vulnerability where criticism is poised to pounce.

But ok.

I accept the feedback and will learn from my errors, innocent as they may be.

I have another chance at success.

This time it’s a commitment to myself and a nod to Pronouns Day.

By October 17, 2018, I promise to look someone in his/her/their/zir/hir/eir/vis eyes and say, “Hi, I’m Ellen. My pronouns are she/her and hers.

“What about you?”

Take Action!

•  Sign Up to Support International Pronouns Day.

•  Read Lindy Westenhoff about and her simple ideas for updating language in college classes.

• Read my experience of growing up in a town friendly to multiple-gendered people.

•  Take free online LGBTQIA+ ally classes through the Safe Zone at the University of Wyoming.

•  Read “Understnding Non-Binary People: How to be Respectful and Supportive” on the Transequality.org website.

•  Read a CNN article by John McWhorter, “Say Goodbye to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and hello to ‘ze’?” .

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West