The LGBT+ Students’ Network at University College London (UCL) is this year running a campaign to raise awareness of gender-neutral pronouns used by transgender people.
A page on UCL’s website introducing the campaign asserts there are people who don’t ‘identify’ as male or female and consider themselves to be “non-binary”. Stressing the apparent importance of gender pronouns to such people, the page urges readers use gender-neutral pronouns upon meeting new people so as not to ‘misgender’ anyone.
In a video the LGBT+ Network prepared for the campaign, a number of students speak earnestly about the importance of pronouns to them, and give instructions and tips on getting to grips with gender-neutral ones.
Explaining her understanding of pronouns, a student wearing a purple scarf says: “The most common gender pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘she’ which identifies that the person is male or female”.
“But that’s not always the case. Some men and some women might not use he or she, respectively and some people who use he or she might be different genders.”
“There are also gender neutral pronouns such as they and ze which indicates that a person defines as either agender or somewhere along the gender spectrum.”
A student with pink eyebrows and a shaved head asserts: “Pronouns are a very important and integral part of an individual’s identity. It’s something most people don’t ever have to think about, and take for granted.”
Matthew Wagaine, the student union’s LGBT+ officer, warns: “If you misuse pronouns for someone, you are effectively thrusting upon them an identity that they themselves do not have.”
One tip given in the video, for respecting other people’s pronouns, is to use gender-neutral pronouns to begin with, then “when they tell you their preferred pronouns, continue to use those pronouns from then on out.”
Using the correct pronoun, a number of students profess, shows that you respect people’s identities.
“It’s important to get pronouns right, because every day people who are in the LGBT community deal with different discriminations for different ways they identify [unintelligible] misgendered or are not represented in the right way”, a student in an “LGBT+ History Month” T-shirt tells the camera.
Mr. Wagaine acknowledges that “there may be times” where people “possibly forget” a person’s preferred pronoun.
“So if you do, and that person calls you out on it, don’t take it as a personal insult. Just acknowledge that that was a mistake and you will learn from it,” he instructs.
Mr. Wagaine cautions against being too outwardly contrite, however, stating that: “Being apologetic puts too much pressure on that person, who’s already feeling inadequate and insecure as a result of being misgendered.”
The student with pink eyebrows recommends: “If you know somebody who identifies as a transgender or non-binary, take a moment to realise how long they may have spent figuring out their gender identity and the effect that you misgendering them might have on them.”
On the topic of gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze”, the student in the purple scarf suggests people practice using them, alone in their free time.
“Pronouns that might be a little odd, that you’re not used to… perhaps, practicing them, practice using them in sentences just, on your own, might help you with using them in future, like ‘ze’.
“‘Ze’ is not a particularly common pronoun but, if you ask the person how to use it in sentences and then you practice it by yourself, it can really help you be able to use it correctly in future.”
To assist with this endeavour, the page on UCL’s website directs readers to a ‘resource pack’ which includes a game with which people can practice conjugating a range of gender-neutral pronouns including “hu”, “ey”, “hie”, “fae” and “xe”.
The resource pack asserts that “genitals and bodies in general don’t reflect anything about a person’s pronouns or gender” and warns that believing otherwise is “probably the biggest mistake you can make”.
“Above all else, don’t try to argue this with a person” it admonishes, continuing:“Even if you personally disagree, a person who’s asking you to use new pronouns more than likely already has their mind made up, and will probably also feel pretty hurt.
“Basically, what’s more important? Someone’s anatomy, or their happiness?”
The UCL website’s campaign page outlines some general advice for using pronouns, and encourages people to use gender-neutral ones when meeting new people.
“For example, try introducing yourself as follows: ‘My name is Natalia and my pronouns are she/her. What pronouns do you prefer?’”
Urging people to step in and correct anyone they hear using a wrong pronoun, the piece explains: “As a close friend of mine whose pronouns are they/them explains, ‘There’s nothing more comforting after being misgendered as hearing a chorus of ‘they!’ going round the table!’”
Several celebrities have declared themselves as having “non-binary gender identities”, including Labour party-supporting political activist Eddie Izzard who told The Guardian, “I am all boy, plus extra girl”.
Last month, police were called to investigate a “hate crime” when a Bolton councillor who “transitioned” from male to female complained of being misgendered by a fellow councillor.