Recently in one of my classes the question was asked, in good faith, ‘Why do we need to ask pronouns? Doesn’t asking pronouns make them more of a deal and separate people more and surely we want people to connect?’. My class responded lovingly that by asking or checking or offering your pronouns you were normalizing that as a process of checking with someone how they wish to be seen and identified, by doing it you were potentially creating a moment were someone feels more connected to the person they are talking to then previously. I nodded and let my class, do what they do best which is engage with and educate each other in a loving and supportive way. Understanding the differences which exist within their class mates and having some of understanding of where they may come from; accepting them and gently offering their perspective be it the same or totally different.
More recently I was giving a talk about feminism and its place in the counselling space. At the start of the talk I asked everyone if they would let me know their names and their pronouns. We went round the room and someone said they didn’t do pronouns they just wanted to have their name used. I duly obliged.
Most recently one of my clients had the profound realization that their pronouns were not they/them but she/they and as we talked they talked about the effect of people giving them female titles such as hostess, goddess, girl, and lady and how good and right that felt.
I would like to think I have always believed whole heartedly in the importance of seeing someone fully, recognizing and accepting their full identity and honoring that in word and deed. But seeing, sensing and being a part of the full impact of someone being able to claim all of themselves and then communicate it to me was incredible, it was powerful, raw, intense and utterly beautiful. I am not saying it was easy and fully joyful there were powerful emotions and not all of them were what we might term positive- there is so much in the world and in society that means that this recognition of part of or all of ourselves, especially if it has been ignored or unrealized for a part of our lives that, whilst liberating, also comes with pain and anger. But it also gave me a sense that when someone shares their pronouns or preferred title with you they are in fact offering you a part of themselves, a very real, and potentially very vulnerable part of themselves and if that is not greeted or accepted with love, kindness, gentleness and understanding that is a rejection of the fundamentals of that person.
I have written before about how we all need love and acceptance. And pronouns are a way we can show others we love, accept and respect them. In a world where this can feel increasingly hard to attain both online and in ‘real life’, possibly more so now as we watch, feel and experience the dehumanization of whole groups of people. By rejecting or not accepting someone as they are we are placing conditions upon them that they must reach in order to gain our love and acceptance. Therefore, in order to achieve this love and acceptance people have to change, alter their behavior, reject or disconnect from parts of themselves. This rejection or disconnection from parts of themselves is what creates mental pain, anguish, anxiety, tension and a host of other mental and physical health problems. This is true of small things, let alone something that can be as big a part of someone’s identity as their gender. If the cause of mental ill health is rejection, judgement and conditions under which we have to operate to gain that essential love and acceptance then the cure is accepting that person wholly and fully. By making sure that there are no conditions upon that person to gain love and acceptance from us. Rember love and acceptance is key to human survival- if those around us do not care for us they may not protect us, come to our aid, keep us safe when we need and may even sacrifice us for the good of those they do love and accept.
The counselling and therapeutic space is the ideal place for this to start to happen. If we accept our clients’ as they are exactly where they are (and there are an infinite number of places they can be on the sphere of identity) we allow them to realise they are acceptable as they are; and having realized that and gained that freedom to be who they are not confine themselves to the limits placed on them by others then they can start to do the most incredible things for themselves and for others.
Pronouns are a subtle and until recently little thought about area of our lives and communication and yet they can convey so much. Whilst I personally do not mind occasionally being misgendered over email (a privilege I have as a cis woman) I know I would be devastate to be continually misgendered and have the wrong title used when I was being written to, but I also hate having certain suffixes added to job titles which I hold because ‘that is the female form of the title’ I do not choose the ‘female form of the title’ by which to style myself.
So to my fellow cisgender folks, the next time you feel an urge to assume someone’s pronouns or having asked want to insist on a different answer think how would you feel if someone in a position of greater power then you refused to use your correct pronouns, preferred titles and suffixes, even refused to use your name and instead insisted on another one which ‘suits you better’? Maybe it is the name you were born with which you loathe because your parents chose badly; maybe it is to use your abusive exe partners surname instead because that is how they have always known you; maybe they refuse to recognize your choice to style yourself as Ms but they insist you pick a title that denotes your marital status. Just think about something that you hold dear to you about your identity and imagine if someone rejected it purely because they thought they knew you better or couldn’t be bothered to get their head around it. Let alone if we then add voices in society that say that the person who rejects that dear and key part of you is right and everyone should do it. You become scared to ask or correct people in case you receive further rejection or risk harm to yourself mentally, verbally even physically. How would that make you feel?
A simple way to prevent this is to ask the question: ‘what are your pronouns?’ This simple question can create so much space, light and hope for people and it allows us all to really see and feel the importance of being able to show all of ourselves. Because whoever we are, we all have humanity and want humanity shown to us.
By Charlie Gould-Smith, MBACP