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.”
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.
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?”
• 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