Q&A: He, She, They

By Dan Verderosa, October 10, 2019
IC’s LGBTQ director explains why pronouns matter.

On Wednesday, October 16, people and organizations all over the world will celebrate the second annual International Pronouns Day, a special occasion created to make respecting, sharing and educating about personal pronouns commonplace.

Luca Maurer, director of LGBTQ education, outreach and services at Ithaca College, helped organize International Pronouns Day and sits on its executive board. IC News spoke with Maurer about the importance of personal pronouns and ways people can encourage the use of more inclusive language.

IC NEWS: Why is it so important to use a person’s personal pronouns?

MAURER: Because referring to people using the pronouns that they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. It’s the way we show respect for each other.

Celebrate International Pronouns Day at IC

Stop by the VIP Room in the Athletics and Events Center from 11 a.m.-1:45 p.m. on October 16 for a celebration of all things pronouns, pumpkins and pride.

Visit the Events Calendar for more information.

IC NEWS: What advice do you have for people who might feel awkward asking someone about their pronouns?

MAURER: I think part of the awkwardness is that there’s no exact right thing to do in every situation. I don’t recommend people just jumping into every space and saying “Hey, let’s all give our pronouns right now.” That can be awkward and it can also put some folks in a position where they have to decide whether or not it’s safe to share the pronouns that they use. I always suggest that people look at the context. For example, if you’re part of a longstanding group of people, you can take the opportunity every once in a while to ask group members to share the names and pronouns that they use, recognizing that they may change over time.

What if you’re talking with someone and they use the wrong pronoun to refer to another person? Again, it’s all about context. Usually what I suggest is to gently, unobtrusively correct them. If you’re unsure what to do in such a situation, you can also approach the person privately and say, “Hey, I wanted to check in with you. Sometimes I’m in situations and other people use the wrong pronouns. Is that something that you’d like me to say something about, or is that something that you’d rather I let go and you handle it however you want to deal with it?”

I would encourage people to think about all the ways that we can treat each other with dignity and respect every day, and encourage people to think of pronouns not as one more thing to pay attention to, but one more way that we can recognize each other’s value and worth.

A man standing on a wooden bridge

Luca Maurer, director of LGBTQ education, outreach and services at Ithaca College, helped to create International Pronouns Day.

IC NEWS: How should people share their personal pronouns? Should everyone do so, or is it only important for people with pronouns that others might not expect?

MAURER: I think it is a best practice for everyone to share their pronouns, because there’s really no way for us to know what pronouns people use unless they let us know. And a person’s pronouns may change not just over time as a person comes to understand themselves, but also depending on the situation, depending on a person’s sense of safety. It’s not just something for transgender or non-binary folks, or people whose pronouns aren’t what we expect. It’s for everyone. And it should never be mandatory. Because again, that can put people in uncomfortable situations.

I think it’s very powerful when non-transgender people model using their names and pronouns in a very seamless way. During fall orientation at IC I was at some events where a couple of speakers did that. The topics of their talks had nothing to do with pronouns or gender, but the act of introducing themselves and their pronouns was very powerful, I think, for everyone. It made people whose pronouns are a source of contention for others feel seen. And maybe for people who have the privilege to not have to think about their own pronouns, they had one moment to think, “I wonder why they did that?” Even I was struck by that. Folks can work in solidarity with LGBTQ people by making that a practice. LGBTQ people sometimes face risks for stating their pronouns, whereas people who use the pronouns we might assume of them probably have the most freedom and privilege to model for everyone else how we can interact with each other in a respectful and kind way.

IC NEWS: What should someone do if they accidentally use the wrong pronouns when referring to another person?

MAURER: Mirroring what I said earlier, if you used the wrong pronoun and you realized it during your conversation, try to catch yourself right away and say, “Oh, I used the wrong pronoun. I’m sorry.” Acknowledge that it happened, give a brief, immediate and sincere apology, and then move on. Everybody knows what it’s like if somebody apologizes and they’re not sincere, and many people have had the experience where they’re owed an apology but the other person blew it up to such a proportion that it started to feel uncomfortable. So be immediate, brief and sincere, without making a big deal about it.

“I would encourage people to think about all the ways that we can treat each other with dignity and respect every day, and encourage people to think of pronouns not as one more thing to pay attention to, but one more way that we can recognize each other’s value and worth.”

Some folks may have to practice if someone uses a pronoun they’re unfamiliar with, or if someone’s pronouns change. Sometimes it might take a little action on our part, but we do that with people’s names all the time, right? There are some really ingenious, fun and private ways that someone can practice. During International Pronouns Day on our campus, we’ll have a couple of handheld devices so that we can demonstrate some of the pronoun apps that are available.

I don’t think that anybody changes their behavior because they feel shame or blame. I do know that people want to be able to master these ideas at their own pace and without a lot of fanfare. Whether it’s taking five minutes every day to say someone’s name and pronoun out loud, or using an app, it’s all in the service of interacting with each other and conferring human dignity on each other.

IC NEWS: Besides pronouns, are there other ways people can adopt more gender-inclusive language?

MAURER: It comes down to being intentional. There are lots of words in the English language that are gendered for no particular reason except for quirks of history, or because of embedded bias. We’ve inherited a lot of those words. We have to think about when the words that we’ve just always used don’t really represent or don’t really suit everyday life. For example, you could say “freshman” or you could say “first-year student.” You just have to take the extra step of thinking it through. And there may be times that we want to use gendered words. That’s OK, too. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no gender. That’s not my goal. My goal is to live in a world where everybody can be who they are.

Learn more

For more information on personal pronouns and gender-inclusive language, visit pronounsday.org or mypronouns.org.