Blogger Public Awareness and Advocacy Committee

The Importance of Pronouns

Author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez is known for her award-winning bilingual (English/Spanish) books such as My Colors, My World and I Know the River Loves Me.  But this Progressive Educator and Independent Scholar/Researcher has also delved into the world of pronouns.  Call Me Tree was written without any gender identifying pronouns and she has since written substantially on the topic as well as writing and illustrating three children’s books on the topic — They She He Me:  Free to Be!, The Gender Wheel, and They, She, He Easy as ABC.  I asked Gonzalez to tell us about the importance of pronouns and that resulted in the following conversation.

Maya, why are pronouns so important in creating a gender-inclusive environment?

I believe, as we go through these changing times, keeping track of the big picture helps us make important connections and gives us a guide to steer by. When it comes to pronouns, the stated intention is to break gender assumptions and signal safe space. The questions become if we live in a culture that is by definition based on gender oppression, how do we effectively break assumptions, and what is safe space?

Over the last couple of years the response has been to share your pronouns as a way to signal safety and invite people to share their pronouns, or just ask people what pronouns they use. This interrupts the act of assuming a person’s pronoun when talking about them and is meant as an opportunity to claim your pronoun and be seen for who you are. All awesome sentiments. The trick is a one size fits all model seldom takes everything, or everyone into account.

Let’s go back to the big picture and focus on kids. Many don’t currently live in environments that support gender diversity, whether it’s at home, school, on the playground, at church or in their community. They may not feel legitimately safe to acknowledge the pronoun/s they want to use. I’ve heard firsthand how this can stress kids out and how some people even use it to “fish” out whether a kid will publicly claim a different pronoun than the one assigned at birth. Whether to maintain safety or because they’re not ready, these kids are then forced to mispronoun their self, adding to and complicating their current stress.

It’s noteworthy that it’s only the gender nonconforming kids who feel all the pressure and have all the responsibility in the situation. The kids who share a pronoun that they were assigned at birth fulfill assumptions and don’t experience stress or risk.

But how do we lift the pressure and responsibility off of gender nonconforming kids and more equitably distribute it?  One way is to use a formal, all-inclusive pronoun for everybody. I am not alone in suggesting that singular they become the default pronoun in public and educational settings. This maintains personal privacy, preempts assumptions and mispronouning by treating everybody equitably, fundamentally changing the social/power dynamics embedded in our language.

Why singular they? Since it’s already how we refer to someone when we don’t know their gender it’s been right there all the time. This makes it a familiar option.  What about personal pronouns? In most situations we don’t need to announce our pronouns to talk to someone. We only need a pronoun when we’re talking about someone.  In this framework, personal pronouns are reserved for more personal spaces and are part of actually getting to know a person without assumptions.

I teach the Pronoun Protocol which is 12 agreements that use language to create gender equity. The great thing is these are agreements not rules. You can do it alone, and others may naturally follow your lead because the format is familiar and easy to pick up.

When it comes to pronouns, if our goal is to break assumptions and create safe spaces, then tracking the big picture is our best guide. Ask questions like…is this interrupting or perpetuating the usual dynamic? Who is bearing the burden? Who is benefiting? Is power equitably shared? This is a joint effort. I know that together we can find unity and respect.

Thank you so much for your time and the opportunity to begin expanding this important conversation.

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