The Future of Pronouns

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By: Sarah Fowler

Let’s begin by using our…

spongebob squarepants making a rainbow with hands with the caption imagination
Retrieved from https://giphy.com/gifs/QIiqoufLNmWo8

A new student comes up on your caseload; a 5th-grade girl named Rebecca. You go to grab her from class for a 5th-grade group therapy session. When you arrive, the teacher asks Rebecca to stand up. The student who stands up doesn’t fit your assumption. As you are walking back to class, you chat with Rebecca. She tells you that she prefers to be called Becket. You assure her you’ll do so and introduce her to the other students as such. You explain, “Becket is our new student. She just moved from living with her mom to living with her dad.” You notice Becket sinking down in her seat and ask her what’s wrong. She explains that she prefers the pronouns, “they/them.”

Now imagine this:

Another new student comes up on your caseload. He is a 5-year-old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You look at his IEP and one of his language goals is the accurate use of pronouns for gender identities (e.g., he/him = boy, she/her = girl, plural = they/them). You begin to think about Becket. There are many people who fit under the gender-expansive umbrella, meaning their gender is not what they were first told it should be. How could I adjust this classic pronoun goal to accommodate the future of gender fluidity?

Now that I’ve got you thinking, here are some definitions from the LGBTQ Inclusion: Glossary | UW Medicine [1]:

  1. Cisgender (adj.) – Gender identity and assigned sex at birth correspond
  2. Gender dysphoria (noun) – Distress experienced by some individuals whose gender identity does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth.
  3. Gender expression (noun) – The way a person acts, dresses, speaks and behaves (i.e., feminine, masculine, androgynous).
  4. Gender identity (noun) – Internal sense of being a man, woman, both, neither, or another gender.
  5. Gender non-conforming (adj.) – Gender expression that differs from a given society’s norms for males and females.
  6. Heteronormativity (noun) – Assumption that everyone is heterosexual, and it’s superior to all other sexualities.
  7. Non-binary (adj.) – A person whose gender identity falls outside the traditional gender binary of man or woman.
  8. They/them (pronoun set) – Gender-neutral singular pronoun set according to many style-guides
  9. Trans man/transgender man – A transgender person whose gender identity is a man may use these terms to describe himself. Most just use the term man.
  10. Trans woman/transgender woman– A transgender person whose gender identity is a woman may use these terms to describe herself. Most just use the term woman.
  11. Transgender (adj.) – Describes a person whose gender identity and assigned sex at birth do not correspond.

*Notes

You may hear the term “Assigned sex at birth” to mean the sex (male or female) assigned to a child at birth. It’s important to note however that within the community, assigned sex at birth is an outdated term because it implies the person was once a man or a woman to begin with.

*You may hear the term female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female but, for the same reason that we don’t use male and female, this is sort of an outdated term. Many people in the community don’t use FtM or MtF because it insinuates that a trans man was ever not a man. The idea is they’ve always been a man, however, they’ve not been able to express themselves as a man.

Why do I have to change the way I’ve been using pronouns all of my life?

Often times I hear older adults ask various questions about the use of they/them pronouns such as, “We’ve calling men by he/him and women by she/her all our life, why should we change? Or, “Why does it even matter? Pronouns are such a small thing to get up in arms about.” Or, “They/them is plural so it doesn’t make sense grammatically.” But, in actuality, we’ve been using this language all along.

Let’s break it down. You arrive at my house for dinner with friends. I tell you that I made a new friend in school. You want to know what classes they’re taking. What would you ask your friend?

If you said, “What classes are they taking?” Great job! I never mentioned whether or not my friend was male or female. Because I left out that information, your brain chose the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

Furthermore, my response to these questions is, “Why not?” It is such a small task that helps a person who already has an immense emotional load considering the discrimination and subsequent trauma they face on a regular basis. Something so small yet helps a person feel safe and at home in their body. So small yet reduces the risk of triggering gender dysphoria. So I ask you again, “Why not?

What exactly is dysphoria anyway? Gender dysphoria was defined above, but I think this quote does a really good job encapsulating the thoughts and emotions that occur as a part of gender dysphoria:

“Dysphoria is (like) the (destructive relative) who visits the family and wreaks havoc. Sometimes she plucks away, needling and poking, whispering doubts and lies and pulling at the threads of resolve. Sometimes she is in full-on assault mode, attacking the very core of belief, ego and confidence. Sometimes she lingers. Sometimes she disappears as rapidly as she appears, but not before she has darkened things, unsettled all and left a tumultuous mess.”
― Anne M Reid, She Said, She Said: Love, Loss and Living My New Normal

As speech-language pathologists, it’s crucial to learn to use they/them pronouns and encourage others to do so as well. We are the ones who feel called to give a voice to the voiceless, both figuratively and literally. We have the power to alter grammatical structures, words, and their definitions. We know very well that language is fluid, adaptable, and always evolving. Let’s embrace it.

What if I mess up?

It’s okay! Everyone makes mistakes. It takes at least two months to change a pattern of thinking. If you mess up don’t make it a big deal. Just apologize quickly, correct yourself, and move on. [3] If you make it a big deal, you end up drawing more attention to someone who might not want it. If you portray that you are sorry and you try harder next time, it’s going to be okay. [4]

What if someone else makes a mistake?

To be an ally, quickly and kindly correct them, don’t make a big deal about it. For example, “Actually Ty uses they/them pronouns.” [4] Make sure to speak up in a situation where people are consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone. To be an ally, you never give up on the people you want to help which means doing things outside of your comfort box. Often gender non-conforming people get sick of correcting their peers, and having a friend to do so for once is nice.

How can we make speech therapy goals more inclusive?

Some SLPs think we should do away with pronoun goals in their entirety because “focusing on pronouns in a case like this is unlikely to have a global impact on language use because it’s not the root cause.” [2] But regardless of their goals, students need to be taught that there is more than “he” and “she.”

As I was writing this blog and brainstorming ideas, I connected with a person from the community. We talked over the phone bouncing ideas off of each other regarding the scenarios mentioned at the beginning of this blog. I explained that data from the goals targeting pronouns are often collected based on trials of a child being shown pictures of a female or male and determining whether or not they are called “he” or “she.” Often the pictures depict a drastic difference between males and females that is unrealistically binary. Females wear dresses, males wear pants. Females have long hair, males have short hair. Females are shorter, males are taller, females wear make-up, males don’t. These binary stereotypes become problematic when a person one might incorrectly assume at first to be a woman has a masculine gender presentation. Asking if a man/woman is called “he” or “she” becomes subjective which is why these outdated archetypes must undergo a transformation.

Quote on tan background with rainbow and green text, "I would like them to understand that we are people. We're human beings, and this is a human life. This is reality for us, and all we ask for is acceptance and validation for what we say that we are. It's a basic human right." By Andreja Pejic

Ideas for the future of pronouns

My friend and I came up with a couple of ideas to create more inclusive goals that take into account intersectionality.

First, we could all start the shift in terminology by referring to a person as they/them until you have asked for their preferred pronouns. Practice doing this yourself. You can’t expect to master a skill. You must break the habit of assumption. Additionally, explicitly teach this rule of thumb to your students who can grasp it. If that is difficult based on the child’s needs, you can model it and make sure to include inclusive pictures to encompass the spectrum of gender identity and expression.

For example for “she/her” pronouns, present inclusive pictures of a variety of gender expressions of females assigned at birth such as CIS women, masculine-presenting females, trans women, females in pants, males in dresses, females with short hair, females of color, and females with disabilities.

For “he/him” pronouns, present inclusive pictures of a variety of gender expressions of males assigned at birth like CIS men, feminine-presenting males, trans men, males in a dress, males with long hair, males of color, males with disabilities.

For “they/them” pronouns, present inclusive pictures of trans people with mixed masculine and feminine presentations, non-binary individuals, gender fluid individuals (e.g., same person, different gender expressions).

quote with horizontal rainbow stripes that reads, "Remember this, whoever you are, however you are, you are equally valid, equally justified, and equally beautiful. By Juno Dawson

Now let’s look back at our introduction.

Imagine this:

A new student comes up on your caseload. Their name is Rebecca. You go to grab them from class for a 5th-grade group therapy session. When you arrive, the teacher asks Rebecca to stand up. When they walk through the hallway with you, you ask, “Do you prefer to be called Rebecca or a different name? They respond, “Becket, thank you for asking.” Next, you ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?” Becket responds, “they/them, please. You tell Becket which pronouns you use. When you arrive at the speech room, you introduce them to their peers. You explain, “Becket is our new student. They just moved from living with their mom to living with her dad. They prefer they/them pronouns.” You ask each of the other students to introduce themselves with their preferred names and pronouns. You notice Becket smiling. They are grateful for an accepting environment that’s priority is to make sure everyone is comfortable and addressed appropriately.

Now imagine this:

Another new student comes up on your caseload. He is a 5-year-old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You look at his IEP and one of his language goals is the accurate use of pronouns for gender identities (e.g., he/him = boy, she/her = girl, plural = they/them). You create a goal that is inclusive of all genders. First, you teach your student that it’s polite to ask what someone would like to be called. You also have pictures cards with a variety of gender expressions.

Additional Resources:

  1. What to Know About Gender Pronouns, How to Use Them
  2. So your friend came out as non-binary: here’s how to use pronouns they/them | Life and style | The Guardian  
  3. What are personal pronouns and why do they matter? 

References:

  1. LGBTQ Inclusion: Glossary | UW Medicine 
  2. Pronouns goals don’t belong on a language IEP. Here’s why. 
  3. How to Change a Thought Pattern You’ve Had Your Whole Life
  4. Pronouns | Center for Inclusion and Social Change | University of Colorado Boulder 

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