Respecting Personal Pronouns
by Serena Gestring, staff writer
May 2021 – Bio-Med Science Academy strives to foster an environment where students, staff, and community members are respected, connected, and inspired. This type of environment creates a sense of community, one of the six Bio-Med attributes. One of the necessary pieces required to reach this goal is respecting personal pronouns.
Oxford Languages defines “pronoun” as “a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this).”
Personal pronouns are used when referring to a person being talked about. There are many personal pronouns with which individuals can identify, and while some are more common than others, they are all valid. Below is a guide on how to use different pronouns from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center.
One step towards accepting personal pronouns, especially ones that may seem new or unfamiliar, is to recognize that pronouns and their usage have not always stayed the same; they have changed throughout history. Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, and for decades has studied the history of pronoun usage. He has compiled his research into his book “What’s Your Pronoun?” Beyond He & She.”
So far, Baron’s list contains over 200 coined gender-neutral pronouns, the earliest being from the late 18th century. He believes these words failed for a variety of reasons, such as not being adopted by enough people, not reaching a wide audience, and being too strange or difficult to read or speak.
One exception to this is the singular “they.” Those who are opposed to the use of the singular “they” claim it is grammatically incorrect. However, according to Merriam Webster’s website, people have been using “they” as a singular pronoun since the 1300s.
People today use singular “they” all the time in everyday conversations. For instance, Oxford Languages lists one definition of “they” as “used to refer to a person of unspecified gender,” and gives an example sentence: “Ask someone if they could help.”
Using the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun for someone who does not identify with the pronouns he/him/his or she/her/hers is a more recent development. Nevertheless, Oxford Languages lists another definition of “they” as “used to refer to a person whose gender or sexual identity does not correspond to the traditional binary opposition of male and female.”
The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary also gives a definition of “they” for this usage. The 2017 Associated Press Stylebook includes guidance on using singular “they” as well. The APA Style Guide also accepts this usage: “Use of the singular ‘they’ is endorsed as part of APA Style because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender. Although usage of the singular ‘they’ was once discouraged in academic writing, many advocacy groups and publishers have accepted and endorsed it.”
Also, “you” used to only be used as a plural pronoun, along with “ye.” “Thee” and “thou” were used as singular pronouns instead. “You” was not widely used as a singular pronoun until the 17th century, and the use of the singular you is not disputed today. This is an example of how a pronoun’s usage can change and become generally accepted, which is now being seen with the singular they.
So why are there those who are still adamantly against individuals identifying with pronouns other than he and she? That comes down to not a grammar issue, but an issue of respect.
Matthew Fowler is a senior undergraduate student studying public health and sociology at Kent State University. He also interns at the Kent State LGBTQ+ Center, where he advocates for pronoun usage across the campus.
“Even though I’m cisgender and I use he/him pronouns, personal pronouns is something that I have been made aware of. Throughout my years growing up on the internet and trying to educate myself about queer issues in queer spaces, pronouns have been one of the earliest things that I learned about in terms of gender identity and respecting others,” Fowler said.
Fowler has friends and has met many people through his internship who are not out or whose personal pronouns are not completely validated in other parts of their life. He believes that by respecting pronouns, he is helping to validate and create a safe space for those individuals.
“[Pronouns] have a lot of personal weight in them when you use it to validate or unfortunately invalidate someone. I totally understand that, in the grand scheme of issues with gender identity, and within the trans and gender nonconforming community, pronouns are not the only thing to be worried about; however it is that baseline of decency and respect. When we talk about issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., first unfortunately we have to aim for the baseline. [To] me, pronouns is [the] least you can do when you’re fighting against transphobia and general gender discrimination,” expressed Fowler. “Furthermore, it’s just a personal piece of respect, because if you identify a certain way I should respect that. That’s not my life. That is not my thing to judge or to critique or comment on.”
However, not everyone feels this way. In public places especially, Fowler has seen many people be directly misgendered, or the wrong pronouns used in reference to someone outside of the conversation. He explained that while he has never personally been triggered by these instances, he sympathizes with those who have and understands the feelings of sadness, frustration, and anger that come with it.
“At this point I’m used to it. I’m used to seeing it and like I said, as a cis person, it’s not as if it is a personally traumatic experience for me. However, I do respect the trauma that it does promote and…that it creates for people who are not cisgender,” said Fowler.
In those moments, Fowler has pushed himself to step in and correct and educate someone, providing it is a safe space to do so and he has permission if the misgendering was towards someone in particular.
“I often try to assess the situation and see if I, with my cis privilege and the respect that I may have from certain people that I talk to, if I can insert myself in that moment and try to make a change, even if it’s just temporary,” stated Fowler.
Depending on the circumstance, he will try to give the person doing the misgendering the benefit of the doubt.
“Maybe they just don’t understand. Maybe they never looked [for pronouns] if it’s an online thing. Maybe they just need [to be] educated on how to be respectful of that person,” Fowler said.
“Sometimes there are people you can’t talk to. No matter what, there’s nothing you can do that will change their mind, change their attitude, make them feel bad for what they did and try to get them to apologize,” Fowler explained.
In those specific instances, his thought process is: “If I’m going to be mad about it, if I’m going to feel resentment and frustration, how can I funnel those feelings into something productive?”
Fowler does this through his advocacy work at the Kent State LGBTQ+ Center. If there is a frustrating update within the university, or something on the news or online, he gets together with another LGBTQ+ Center intern and they discuss their feelings, thoughts, and ideas of what they can do.
“It’s really nice to be able to funnel that energy now into a specific project that we’re doing that is contributing to the overall topic of personal pronouns, gender identity, and stuff like that. So it’s really nice to have an outlet,” said Fowler.
On a more personal level, Fowler opened up about a cousin of his who uses he/him/his pronouns and a name different from the one he was given at birth. Unfortunately, the cousin’s parents and the majority of his family were unsupportive, and this led to him giving up on trying to get them to use his correct name and pronouns.
“I just couldn’t imagine having to go through that; going home and just accepting the fact that you are going to be misgendered, you are going to be called by your dead name, and you just have to exist as an invalid person there,” Fowler stated.
This is a widly different reaction from when Fowler came out as gay to his family and was met with lots of support, especially from his aunt, the mother of his cousin.
“It’s so hard because I’ve always loved my aunt to pieces. She’s been my number one supporter,” Fowler said.
Fowler learned of his cousin’s coming out during a conversation with his aunt about the situation and her feelings in regards to it. He offered to provide some resources to help with understanding, and to revisit the conversation in the future.
“I try to stay close with her just because I know these conversations aren’t over yet. I have hopes that I can do something meaningful and impactful when the perfect time arises,” said Fowler.
Fowler pointed out that sometimes people make mistakes, and that is okay. He gave the example of Kent State’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Lamar Hylton, using the wrong pronouns while talking about someone during a virtual meeting Fowler had attended. Immediately after, Hylton apologized, corrected himself, and then continued the conversation.
“That’s nice to see what we describe as the perfect scenario of someone messing up, correcting, and moving on. That was, you know, nice to be like, “Oh, well one of the top heads at Kent State University made a mistake, which sucks, but then immediately realized that they made the mistake, fixed it, and then just moved on,’” he described.
Fowler is grateful to say he frequently sees people being respectful, or making an effort to be respectful, of others’ personal pronouns in the circles he is in. When someone he knows comes out online by readjusting their pronouns, he is happy to see the vast amounts of support shown to that person.
“It gives me hope that there is a future where it just becomes normalized. That is the fight for everything. Pronouns aren’t a legal issue, we’re not talking about name changes, we’re not talking about gender identification, we’re talking about informal verbal communication,” Fowler said. “How can we shift the mindset of a culture to not always assume and to not be afraid to ask and to make mistakes and to readjust your own language? And so when I see these good things happening it gives me hope.”
Theo Peppeard is a senior at Bio-Med Science Academy who uses any pronouns at any time, including she, he, and they. Peppeard believes when people are respectful of others’ pronouns, it means they are respectful of who those people are.
“It makes me happy that other people are willing to acknowledge that I’m not just a ‘she’, but that in my case, I am fluid in my identity,” Peppeard stated.
Peppeard praised BMSA on creating a comfortable and respectful environment for its students.
“[Bio-Med] is definitely a school that accepts students for who they are compared to me walking into Ravenna or Southeast schools. There are some students who either don’t understand, which I am happy to help them understand, or just flat out refuse to use preferred pronouns and names. I can’t ever force them because if they are set on their beliefs, they are set on their beliefs. I believe in a way, [Bio-Med] is far up there on the understanding scale,” said Peppeard.
Kaden Starkey is a BMSA senior who uses he/him/his pronouns and is a female to male transgender individual. When he started high school four years ago, he was not out to anyone. Being at a new school and having a fresh start but remaining in the closet was very difficult.
“Whenever someone would refer to me with she/her pronouns, it felt like I was being stabbed in the chest, frozen in time due to the extreme emotional pain. I knew it was because they had no idea I was trans and that they didn’t intend to do it on purpose or cause any harm…but, it still didn’t help the extreme dysphoria that I would feel due to it,” explained Starkey. “I would spend hours, days, weeks trying to figure out what it was that told them I wasn’t male. It was an extremely negative and hurtful way of thinking, but it was a thought process I could not get out of…one that literally almost killed me.”
Starkey recalled the first time someone referred to him as a male, during his eighth grade school trip to Washington D.C: “I was going into the Smithsonian and the security guard gave me my belongings (after checking them for security reasons). As he’s handing me my bag, he says “Here you go sir,” and the engulfing amount of euphoria that poured through my body was an experience I have never experienced. I will never forget that moment because it was the single thing I held onto for that year. It was the thing I kept reminding myself of to make it through the day. Even though at the time, I could not envision a life where I was not hiding my identity from all but a select group of people, this moment gave me hope.”
Unfortunately, the idea of coming out still left Starkey terrified. He was concerned he would be kicked out of the house, alienated from his family, and lose his friends. Fortunately, he was attending Bio-Med, and eventually became comfortable enough to begin coming out.
“Compared to my homeschool and experiences there, Bio-Med made me feel like a human, one that wasn’t a nobody. I was out to all my teachers and a handful of classmates before I even came out to my family all because of how safe and comfortable I felt with the environment. Going into the school, I knew that they had a decent reputation for being LGBTQ+ friendly. But coming from a city school district, it was an entire atmospheric change, a positive one, that I was not expecting. Attending the school’s GSA, specifically freshman year, really helped me come to terms with myself and learn to accept my gender identity,” said Starkey.
Several months later, Starkey had a goal to legally change his name before the start of his sophomore year. Due to legal restrictions, this was not possible until a few weeks into the school year.
“On the first day of school, as I went to each class, I told all of my teachers that the name on the roster is incorrect and that I was going to be getting it legally changed soon, and that I would like you to call me Kaden and use he/him and stuff. I remember Mrs. Rickle was really excited and she would ask me almost daily, ‘Did you get it done yet?!’ All the other teachers were also really supportive and understanding,” stated Starkey. “Overall, the teachers in this regard are highly supportive and immediately started calling me Kaden and using the correct pronouns. There were a few slip ups at first, but that’s because we’re human and it wasn’t on purpose.”
However, Starkey believes there is always room for improvement. He suggested allowing spaces for gender markers and preferred names to be made available to all staff and on rosters, though he acknowledged that legal names can be difficult due to paperwork and legalities. He also described activism as being an important yet simple thing to do.
“[Teachers] could talk to their students and bring awareness and education to the topic. Inform them of the proper respect and ways to go about things. Offer more support to those that are struggling with these kinds of things; though, I know it’s hard when there’s not really ‘certified officials’ on campus to help with gender identity issues and things related. When students go to administration or a teacher about a student disrespecting one’s pronouns, that adult could be more supportive and understanding. And if this happens continuously, that the student [who’s] being disrespectful will actually be held accountable for their actions,” Starkey explained.
Today, Starkey has been doing hormone replacement therapy for two years, and gives himself weekly shots of testosterone.
“The changes that have occurred from taking it has allowed me to become more masculine presenting, and because of this people refer to me by the correct pronouns. Being referred to with the correct pronouns, has allowed me to feel more aligned, comfortable, and even a bit confident with myself. And because of that, it has helped my mental health tremendously,” said Starkey. “Just this year, I have finally been able to say that I felt comfortable in my own skin, and I would not have gotten here without people respecting my pronouns. Sure, there’s still some people here and there who misgender me, but I try my best to shake it off.”
Starkey believes being respectful of personal pronouns is a simple act of human decency.
“If you’re saying ‘During the summer she likes to ride her bike,’ all you have to do is replace she/her for he/him or they/them or another pronoun that one may identify with. I truly don’t understand why people feel the need to purposefully call someone by the wrong pronouns. What do they get out of it? Because if the tables were turned, they would be butt hurt if someone called them another gender. I honestly do not see the reason or need as to why people choose to attack another, verbally or physically. It’s not like they can change those things. People don’t just choose to identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. If they did and that’s how things worked, the mental health of transgender individuals would be drastically better. Some people think, “Oh it’s just some stupid words. Boohoo what if someone doesn’t say the ones you want?” But words are really powerful and more meaningful than what’s on the surface. If we could all just learn to accept people for who they are and not ridicule them over differences that one cannot control, that would be wonderful,” expressed Starkey.