Happy Pride Month, folx! Tis the season of rainbow flags, Cher remixes, and the brief, fumbling embrace of major corporations.
It would be easy (and so gratifying) to do another roundup of poorly conceived Pride campaigns— this is when my gender studies degree and decade in advocacy really get to shine. However, I recently saw something within my own actions that warranted serious critique.
In this month’s article on the insidious presence of gender in marketing, we advised against requiring your customers to choose from standard gendered titles in their contact information. We stand by that. But just yesterday I suggested that my colleagues add their preferred pronouns to their LinkedIn profiles. I also stand by that. LinkedIn and Instagram have taken this simple but important step to normalize a person’s authority to choose how they’re addressed. It’s equally simple and important to fill out those fields even if (especially if) you take for granted that others will address you as you would like.
Gendered titles: bad. Declared pronouns: good. What’s the difference, really? Do I know what I’m talking about here? Is this what people mean when they refer to the PC Police, or that it’s all too confusing?
I evaluated this by my own self-imposed standards for how to talk to and about others:
- Is it respectful?
- Is it accurate?
Gendered titles fail by both standards.
Forcing someone to identify themselves using certain predetermined terms with implicit social values denies them respect—for both their privacy and their autonomy. As noted in that article about gender in marketing, someone’s status as a doctor or a married woman is rarely relevant when trying to ship your product to their home. To be clear, this isn’t an argument against gender-neutral honorifics. Referring to a judge as Your Honor is always a good move.
Gendered titles can also be inaccurate. Anyone whose pronouns are they/them doesn’t have an option. English-speaking countries don’t yet have a popularized gender-neutral title. While Mx. might someday be adopted, it seems equally likely that the formality of titles will fall mostly out of use before then.
So, why is asking for someone’s pronouns better? Isn’t asking an even greater invasion of privacy? Isn’t it rude or disrespectful to suggest someone’s gender isn’t obvious?
Ask with respect and you will be respectful.
In any written medium—outside of the direct provision of healthcare services—declaring one’s pronouns should be voluntary and, frankly, easy to avoid if one chooses not to identify. In the rare circumstance where you have just met someone and you need to know how to address them, just ask. But do it equally across the board. It’s an act of respect and acceptance, which only becomes rude when it’s done selectively. Do not allow this to become another way to explicitly or implicity privilege people who appear gender conforming.
When it comes right down to it, the difference is asking vs assuming. Ask the people around you who they are, what they want, and how they wish to be addressed. And if it’s difficult for you to ask, consider what it’s like for all the people who were not allowed to answer for themselves.