What pronoun do you look like?
Having somehow become the leader of a modest student organization, I like to have introductions or name games to start things off. It’s kind of important that people get to know each other in a social club, and without constant reinforcement, I really can’t remember names. You, meanwhile, don’t want to realize your club president can’t call you by name two months into fall semester.
To elaborate, my (awesome!) group is UNO‘s Queers & Allies, which welcomes the whole spectra of sexual orientations and sex and gender identities. To expand: lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, straight allies; transgender, genderqueer, gender-questioning, intersex, cissex allies, cisgender allies — and variations and combinations galore.
If you know anyone who’s come out as trans or genderqueer, you’ve probably rolled right along in a conversation about that person until you suddenly stopped to think — he, or she? This is such an unusual question when you’re used to just guessing pronouns based on names, looks, voices. When it comes down to it, though, it really is a guessing game, because one’s sex is out in the open, but gender is all in the mind — and not your mind, either.
Inquiring, “What pronouns do you prefer?” is the best way to get in his, or her, or zir, head. Sometimes you’ll even find out someone isn’t sure how to be called yet, or how to be called today, or tomorrow. Male pronouns? Female? Both? Neither? Strictly neutral? The common human will look at you funny for not knowing his or her nature, but for a not so small minority it’s polite and it’s appreciated.
This background aside, as the good little social matchmaker I am, I ask for and practice names, but I also ask for and practice pronouns. This is harder, because when I don’t know names, I’m just lost; but when I don’t know pronouns, my first instinct is to look and listen and judge from there. I have to override this instinct for my trans and genderqueer friends — which shows how silly it is to use your outside observation to conceptualize any other person’s gender.
The good news is that, just like the names, remembering the right pronouns comes over time. In the meantime (this is a tip), I talk about my friends, pronouns and all, in my head before a meeting or a meet-up. It takes work, but it’s less work than phrasing all my sentences so that I avoid any pronouns beyond “I,” “you,” and “they.” Sounds better, too.
For the record: My name is Jon, and male pronouns are fine, thanks for asking. Good to meet you.