By: Sarah McCarthy
I appreciate the initiative of including your name and your pronouns in class introductions. But I am always frozen with fear in this situation.
I also appreciate this momentous phenomenon of creating language that challenges cissexism and that is welcomes and appreciates trans and gender-variant identities. I’m a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies major and sociology minor also getting my social justice certificate. I know very well that language works to shape knowledge, and further, I understand the need to create new language and conventions to normalize trans genders.
My fear, however, comes from the fact that normalizing trans/gender-variant genders takes lots of work, lots of emotional labor, lots of engaging with oppressive systems in a battle to work within the system to change the system . . . I’m trans non-binary, and my pronouns are the singular they/them/theirs and the neopronoun xe/xem/xyrs. This means that disclosing my pronouns is synonymous with disclosing a trans/gender-variant identity.
When asked for my pronouns, I enter instant panic mode — my brain and heart race: “Is this safe,” ba-boom, “what if people are transphobic,” ba-boom, “am I going to face ridicule? (Micro)Aggression? Discrimination? Be judged? Erased? Isolated?” Boom-boom-boom, “Am I going to be the only person in class who isn’t cis,” ba-BOOM, “Will my pronouns be respected? Should I share them? What if I don’t share them? I guess I have to share them cause everyone else is… Is it safe to share xe/xem/xyrs? Or is it risky enough already to say ‘they/them’,” BOOM-BOOM-BOOM…
I wonder what cisgender people think and feel when asked to share their pronouns. I’m too scared to ask, though, and I don’t foresee being comfortable asking anytime soon. I bet a lot of it is rooted in cis privilege though. I mean, every time a cisgender person has introduced me, they’ve said, “This is Sarah. She uses they/them pronouns.”
Being asked to disclose pronouns in class should be a positive thing for trans folks. But swimming uphill in a sea that is the cissexist/cisnormative/cis privileging systems in which we live translates to an anxious negotiation of safety and comfort. It really shouldn’t be this hard, but my lived experience proves otherwise. Here is some useful information for cis folks to know.
My glossary of (gender-related) terms
The following definitions are a combination of my knowledge from school and mainly my own research over the years. They represent how I think about and understand these terms. However, this list is non-exhaustive. You can check out the website It’s Pronounced Metrosexual for a more expansive glossary. Another impressive glossary can be found on Julia Serano’s website. She is a trans activist, speaker, performer, and writer. Check out her books as well: Whipping Girl, Excluded, and Outspoken!
- Cisgender (also shortened to “cis”): An adjective for someone who identifies as the gender assigned to them at birth, i.e. someone who was assigned male at birth (AMAB) identifies as a man; someone who was assigned female at birth (AFAB) identifies as a woman… It operates as a mode of privilege.
- Cisnormativity: The assumption that everyone is cisgender (cisgender being society’s default gender identity) and the institutions that maintain this belief.
- Cis privilege: Advantages that people have solely for identifying with their sex/gender assigned at birth.
- Cissexism: A system of oppression that perpetuates the belief that transgender people are inherently inferior to cisgender people.
- Gender binary: The social construction of gender as being two distinct, opposite categories of male/man/boy and female/woman/girl; the idea that there are only two genders and everyone is either one or the other.
- Gender essentialism: The belief that gender, gender roles, and gender stereotypes are innate/natural. Assumes that biology is destiny; assumes someone AMAB is a man and masculine while someone AFAB is a woman and feminine; a basis for oppression and violence against trans people.
- Gender normative: A term for people whose gender/gender presentation conforms to society’s gendered expectations.
- Gender variant: A term for people who do not conform to society’s expectations of gender.
- Neopronoun: A newly proposed gender-neutral pronoun.
- Non-binary (sometimes shortened to “enby”): A term for a gender identity that falls outside of the social construction of the male/man/boy-female/woman/girl gender binary; gender that is not distinctly/solely male or distinctly/solely female; an umbrella term for genders that do not fit into the gender binary or a gender identity on its own.
- Transgender: A term that can be a gender identity on its own or an umbrella term for gender identities that don’t match one’s gender/sex assigned at birth
- Transphobia: Prejudice, dislike, hatred, disgust and/or discrimination towards trans people; a system of oppression.
- Transmisogyny: An intersection of two forms of oppression: transphobia and misogyny; this is specifically directed to transwomen and transfeminine people.
(Editor’s note: Both ‘transwomen’ and ‘trans women’ are in use, depending on context, literature, and a person’s choice. Always respect the latter, and be mindful of your language.)
Ways to challenge cisnormativity, cissexism, and cis privilege
- Gender is a loaded term. Start by understanding the concept of gender. One of my favorite articles explaining gender What is Gender? can be found on Everyday Feminism’s website.
- Remember that even though there is a lot to (un)learn, trans and otherwise marginalized folks are not educational tools at your disposal. Of course, if someone is willing to exert emotional labour and educate you, listen! But remember that you are not entitled to anything. Educating yourself is important and necessary, and Google is free!
- Check your privilege. Be aware of the intersections of your identity and how you are advantaged and/or disadvantaged by these intersections. Be aware that privilege comes with power. Further, privilege and power are inherently linked with oppression; where one person/group has privilege, they have power over another who is oppressed.
- Be aware of the space you are taking up. Are you speaking over/for trans folks? Is there someone with lived experience who could speak better to the topic? Trans folks are frequently silenced: make sure to listen.
- Related to the last point: uplift trans voices, but also respect silence. By this, I mean if you have privilege, use it to help folks who are traditionally and systemically silenced be heard. Simultaneously, don’t force anyone to do or say anything; a situation or topic could be triggering or tiring. Again: no one is entitled to the labour of trans folks.
- Respect pronouns. Use the pronouns that you are told belong to a person. If you struggle with using certain pronouns, practice (the website Practice with Pronouns is a handy tool)! If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, don’t assume anything, and default to gender-neutral pronouns (i.e. they/them/theirs). Ask for pronouns if you are unsure — and then use these pronouns!
- Even (especially) if you’re cis, introduce yourself with your pronouns — this normalizes the practice of introducing oneself with their name and pronouns, and works to establish a more trans-inclusive and positive environment and future.
- If you misgender someone: acknowledge your mistake, apologize, correct yourself and move on. It’s okay to make a mistake; what’s not okay is making a big deal out of this and flipping the situation to be about yourself, and about how guilty or bad you feel. Going on about this mistake and making a big deal out of the situation is extremely uncomfortable for the individual who has been misgendered.
I believe that in order to dismantle oppressive systems, we must work within the existing system to change the system. Cis folks, there’s movement on a social level to challenge cissexist norms, now I challenge you to challenge cis privilege within yourselves; it’s not hard to use someone’s correct pronouns, educate yourselves, and check your privilege.