It’s a popular comedy bit: a person starts a new job and their boss keeps calling them by the wrong name. Rachel becomes Raquel or Jessie becomes Jennifer and the character is too afraid of their employer to directly correct them, even as they grow more and more irritated. The audience laughs and nods, knowing how obnoxious it is when people repeatedly get their names wrong. It’s irritating because our names are our identifiers, a way for others to refer to us as who we are. We link our entire sense of being and sense of self with our name. A different name is a different person. This is the big deal with pronouns.
Pronouns, while not names, are direct stand-ins for them. They are, for all intents and purposes, nouns. They function like a noun and they walk, talk, and behave exactly like their noun counterparts. While they are not a name, they are an abbreviated reference to the same identity that a name references. A different pronoun is a different person. It is the sense of self that pronouns indicate, just as a name indicates it.
The importance of pronouns goes much further than a sense of identity, though. When someone denotes that they identify with pronouns that differ from their assigned sex, they are not just expressing their identity but are also saying that through their thoughts, feelings, analysis, and judgment they have determined their gender. Society isn’t built for that determination to be straightforward and simple. Discovering a person’s gender, especially when that gender differs to their assigned sex, is a confusing and daunting task, which often requires intense data collection and self-introspection. Beyond that, the courage and bravery that come with openly expressing these conclusions is immense because of the stigma that goes along with them. This process illustrates that pronouns do not only indicate a person’s sense of self but also represents their judgment and their ability to think, feel, and make decisions. As a whole, using someone’s preferred pronouns is recognition that they are a person, and as such, their thoughts, feelings, and sense of self are legitimate and real.
Contrariwise, purposefully not using the right pronouns is hugely disrespectful. Ignoring the preference indicates that they believe the person they are referencing is not, in fact, a person and that their feelings and judgments aren’t real or do not count. It denotes that the speaker believes they know the person better than they know themselves or even that they wish the person were someone else. Different pronoun, different person.
What about instances of accidentally using pronouns incorrectly? I mean, it was an accident, it wasn’t done on purpose, so what’s the big deal? To answer this question, let’s consider this example. According to the National Safety Council, texting while driving is statistically six times more likely to cause an accident than driving while intoxicated. It’s estimated that 1 in every 4 car accidents is caused by texting and driving in the U.S., resulting in the staggering fact that 11 people die everyday due to this pervasive habit. Someone shooting a quick text to their partner while on their way to the store is not malicious. They did not intend for anything bad to happen. They didn’t have it out for the small child in the backseat of the minivan they T-boned in the intersection or the father of three in the driver’s seat. A lack of malicious intent doesn’t change the effects of a careless action. The issue with texting and driving is not the presence of malicious intent, but the utter lack of consideration for those around them.
Sometimes misgendering is done maliciously, but even when it’s not, the harmful effects are still ever present. Refusal to use the correct pronoun feels like a micro-aggression. It’s disrespecting someone’s identity and personhood, invalidating them. Beyond anything, misgendering someone communicates I wish you were someone else, so I’m going to pretend that you are.
Justice Taylor (she/her/hers) is working on her BA in Psychology and has a passion for activism and writing. She identifies as gender queer.
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