Pronouns don’t usually draw too much attention, but the non-binary revolution has pushed them squarely into the spotlight. When it comes to respecting individuals’ self-ascribed identities – especially in the workplace – the humble pronoun has a starring role.
“Language is so important,” said Rebecca Hooton(she/her). “It’s important for people to be able to choose how they speak about themselves, and how they express themselves about their identity.”
An education and training specialist with The 519, a Toronto agency committed to the health, happiness and full participation of LGBTQ2S+ communities, Hooton shared her views at ITWC’s 11th annual Canadian Women in the IT Channel Recognition Luncheon on August 24, 2021. In addition to providing tips for using appropriate pronouns, she offered helpful advice on being a good ally for people who don’t fall neatly into the binary categories of “man” and “woman”.
“Gender identity is essentially who we are,” said Hooton. “It’s our lived identity – our knowledge of self. There are many terms to explain how people see themselves and who they know themselves to be.”
Distilling the responsibility into two primary roles – listening and supporting – Hooton said one of the best tools is the simplest of sentences: how can I best support you? “Self-determination is a huge piece of this conversation,” she explained. “When and how people share their identities is massive.”
On the topic of pronouns, Hooton began by defining them as words that take the place of a noun. Some are gender specific, such as ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘hers’, while others, like ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘their’ are gender expansive. In a brief pitch for correct grammar, she added that the word ‘they’ always gets a plural verb, whether referring to one person or several people. “I’m not changing sentence structure. I’m changing my intention,” she said.
Hooton acknowledged that using the correct pronouns doesn’t require us to stop and ask for specific information about the people we meet in casual encounters, but she maintains that we do need to stop assuming that we have the correct information about people we don’t know. “At the end of the day, aren’t we trying to accept each other more, to support each other and help each other feel seen and heard in all of our spaces, in all of the ways that we can?” she asked. “Using language that makes people feel that way is a small step for us, but one that can have huge ramifications.”
Best practices, she explained, are to be proactive, use ‘they’ as a default pronoun, ask for and share pronouns regularly, interrupt generalizations based on gender, and promote self-determination. Even with the best intentions, people are bound to make mistakes, and when they do, she advises a genuine apology. “But keep it short and sweet,” she said. “Correct yourself, say ‘thank you’, and move on.”
The best apology, in Hooton’s view, is changed behaviour. She encouraged luncheon attendees to practise people’s pronouns and use expansive language in all of the conversations they have. “Being a good ally is about listening. It’s about learning that we don’t have all the answers and letting people tell us what they need” she said. “This work needs to happen as of yesterday.”