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Gathering for the holidays? Outright Vermont's executive director has some helpful pointers for nailing pronoun etiquette

An image showing a pink background with little colorful buttons saying she/her, he/him and they/them
Irina Ivanova/Getty Images
We all have pronouns. But for some folks in the LGBTQ+ community, using a person's correct pronouns shows respect and acceptance. The best practice is to never assume you know someone's pronouns and instead, ask.

Perhaps you or someone in your family or friend group is using different pronouns, but not everyone knows. What's the best way to make sure everyone feels included?

In its basic definition, the pronoun lets everyone know how you'd like to be addressed.

The pronoun can also carry a lot of things in it, like acceptance, inclusivity, and identity for many trans, nonbinary and other LGBTQ+ people.

So, ahead of holidays and gatherings, we thought we'd brush up on our pronoun etiquette.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Dana Kaplan, the executive director of Outright Vermont, whose mission is "to build a Vermont where all LGBTQ+ youth have hope, equity and power." Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: We thought we'd invite you in for a lightning round of a quiz we're gonna call, “Pronoun Etiquette for the Holidays.” Dana, first, what are your pronouns?

Dana Kaplan: Yeah, well done! Look at that. Look at how easy that is! "Hey, what are your pronouns?" My pronouns, Mary, are he and him. What are your pronouns?

Mine are she/they, thank you for asking. And is it as easy as that, just to simply ask someone's pronouns?

I think so. Whether people are practiced, and therefore it feels easy or natural to them, is a different question. But it is technically as simple as, “Hey, what's your name and pronouns? What pronouns can I use for you?”

And Dana, why are pronouns important?

Pronouns are important, because they help you to have a sense of who you are talking to, and how to accurately reflect that person. Right?

I mean, it's, again, it's sort of simple. I think a hidden question under that, that's important, too, is just that you don't, you cannot know somebody's pronouns unless they share their pronouns with you.

We have a misconstrued notion that we can look at somebody and know a lot of things about them. And pronouns are one of those things that you just don't know, unless you ask.

"You cannot know somebody's pronouns unless they share their pronouns with you."
Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont

Another thing that is important for us all to recognize is that it's not just queer, trans people that have pronouns, right? We all have pronouns.

So oftentimes, we sort of default to the dominant identity and say, “Well, we're just doing this because of the marginalized folks.” But the truth of matter is, we all have a pronoun. This is not a trans issue, and not a queer/trans issue.

So it's best practice for everybody to share their pronouns, because that normalizes that practice, and it's a way of saying, “This isn't just about you. This is about me, too. Here's who I am.”

People change. Pronouns change, right? I'm using a certain set of pronouns with you today. And if you'd asked me that question eight years ago, I would have shared with you a different set of pronouns.

So it's a matter of being present with people for who they are right now. And we all change over time. And it's important to just acknowledge that.

And to some folks addressing people and using different pronouns than they are used to using feels new or sometimes feels grammatically incorrect, especially when it comes to a singular they/them pronouns. What might you share with them?

When you're not used to doing something, it can feel clunky. That's just true. So validate that, yeah, OK, you're telling me that this is, this doesn't feel right to you, this is different.

We evolve and learn new skills all the time. So, I get that you're not used to doing this. And here's your chance to get practiced and get caught up.

I think that the bottom line is that just because something is not natural, or seems awkward to you, it doesn't trump the experience and the right of somebody else to be accurately acknowledged for who they are, right?

There's a difference between something feeling uncomfortable or unfamiliar. That's OK, and don't negatively make that impact the person that you're talking to.

Is it OK to always fall back on using a person's name instead of pronouns, especially when you don't know them?

I think that's a great suggestion. If I was going to have a conversation with you, and I wasn't sure of your pronouns, and I could say, “Mary and I are talking,” and, “Mary and I are having this fun conversation in advance of holidays to help people get it right.” You know, I think that absolutely works.

And approach the person afterwards and say, “Hey, you know, I noticed myself using your name because I wasn't sure of your pronouns. Help me out.”

And what if I make a mistake when using pronouns? 

Yeah, if you make a mistake when using somebody's pronouns, and you are aware of it in the moment, if you've just used the wrong pronoun, and you're able to catch it and hear yourself, you can say, “Sorry, my bad. I hear that I just used the wrong pronoun,” and move on. Don't belabor it. It is not about you, right?

There's the, I think that people that are used to the experience of being misgendered want to move on from that moment, with a relative quickness. And so, "Hey, I'm so sorry I did that. I will do better next time."

What is the context of a relationship? Is this somebody that you're never going to see again, and you just interact with them one time on the street? I wouldn't necessarily recommend running down the street after them to say, “Hey, I just realized I messed up your pronouns!" You know, but if this is somebody that you're in relationship with, absolutely.

There's opportunity to be able to recognize that, that impact and say, "I'm going to do better next time."

More from VPR: 'We Are Everywhere': New Bennington LGBTQ Group Reaches For Visibility

So here's sort of a situational question based on let's say, a holiday gathering. You invite a friend over. You worry that the other guests of the gathering who don't know that friend might misgender them. What should you do? And what should you not do?

There is not a one-size-fits-all here. And it's important to let that person lead, right, let that person determine for themselves.

I think so much of what's hard about being a trans or nonbinary or gender-fluid person is having your self-determination be taken away from you.

And so I would ask that friend ahead of time, “Hey, I want to make sure that this night goes as well for you as possible. What would be supportive and helpful? You know, do you want me to let folks know ahead of time? Or is that something that you want to navigate when you get there?”

Our ability to just be direct and transparent and say, "Here's what I'm, here's what I'm wondering, and how can how can I get it right for you?" really, really matters.

And you know, that answer might be different from one day to the next based on that context. So just keep those lines of communications open.

Here's a question about addressing, let's say, a group of friends, when we don't want to assume and address the crowd as boys and girls, or ladies and gentlemen, what are some helpful, inclusive group names?

Yeah, so you're talking about the importance of not using binary language, right?

We know that there's much more than just boys and girls, right? So, a couple of examples: "Good morning, friends!" "How's it going, people?" "What's up, folks?" "Hey, beloveds!" There's lots of other words to be able to use. "Y'all!" It takes a minute. It takes a correction of an ingrained pattern.

My husband uses, "Hey, fellow Earthlings."

Well, there you go. I love it. I love it!

For more resources, try Outright Vermont's glossary of terms and definitions and this 101 on gender-neutral pronouns. And there's even an app.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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