Engagement and Education
Guides, Lesson Plans & Research
What are pronouns?
We use pronouns most often when referring to someone without using their name, to make sentences feel less awkward. In English, pronouns often refer to a person’s gender but there are neutral ones. There are also “alternative” pronouns – some of these have been around for centuries as people play with language, & new ones created all the time. In some languages there are only gender-neutral pronouns, in others there are many. Canadian society still largely operates as if there are 2 sexes or genders. But not everyone fits into these binary categories. This means that pronouns such as he & she don’t work for everyone around the world.
Why does it matter?
Hundreds of societies around the globe have long-established traditions for 3rd, 4th, 5th or more genders, a diversity of sexes, & varying sexualities. With the number of immigrants to Canada steadily increasing every year, understanding different perspectives & experiences of sex, gender, & sexuality across the world is more critical than ever.
Before European colonizers, there were at least 135 Indigenous languages in North America that had terms that identified individuals who were neither men nor women. The categories of sex, gender, & sexuality, like many labels, have been introduced through colonial processes – the ways one group of people controls another. The end goal is to constrain, transform & destroy cultural practices & bodies to ensure the dominance & maintenance of those with power. Truth & reconciliation requires us to move beyond binary perspectives & end this ongoing violence.
As social attitudes change, each generation finds the language & courage to express their true selves. The use of gender-affirming language has proven to help reduce the negative mental health consequences of exclusion & marginalization. Inclusion asks us to consider if an environment is safe for everyone to feel like they belong. Justice challenges us to consider whose safety is being sacrificed & minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views. Ontario’s Human Rights Code is explicit: gender identity & gender expression (alongside sex & sexual orientation) are prohibited grounds of discrimination; respecting someone’s pronouns helps to uphold these rights.
Sharing your pronouns & Alternatives
Adding your pronouns to email signatures or name tags or stating them when you introduce yourself can show respect, allyship & increase awareness. By modelling & normalizing the sharing of your own pronouns, you create a safe place for other people to share theirs.
If you are uncomfortable sharing your pronouns for whatever reason, there are other ways to create this safety. You could include an inclusive progress pride flag or an ally flag in your email signature or wear a pin; if you truly have no preference you can use (any/all).
When should I ask? What if I make a mistake?
Sharing pronouns should never be mandatory. You shouldn’t need to ask someone’s pronouns if you remain neutral by defaulting to using they/them or using their name only. In a group setting asking someone directly to share their pronouns is inappropriate as this can force some people to either lie or publicly disclose their status to a roomful of strangers. Also, these requests can imply that a person is not presenting their gender in a way that is consistent with their gender identity.
If you make a mistake, simply apologize or correct yourself & move on. When someone asks you to use their pronouns, they are asking for you to respect their identity so don’t get defensive. Put yourself in their shoes: how would you feel if someone was disrespecting you? If someone else makes a mistake, correct them but do not make a big deal out of the mistake. If someone uses a pronoun you haven’t seen before, be courteous & discrete by providing some context, explaining you want to be an ally & use their pronouns correctly. Intentionally choosing to ignore or disrespect someone’s pronouns is an act of oppression & violence.
How we talk with others can reflect assumptions & bias:
- not everyone with a child is a parent
- not every child has a mom &/or dad
- there are more than two sexes & genders
- don’t judge based on appearance
- don’t assume monogamy, coupledom, sexuality, or biological relatedness