“What is the big deal?”
It is a question that I have seen and heard repeatedly whenever the issue of respecting pronoun use comes up.
Typically, the inquirers are cisgender heterosexual persons who frame their question in a way of dismissing or mocking LGBTQIA individuals.
Pronoun use is a big deal. Even if someone does not want to be called a pronoun at all, it is a big deal.
The pronouns and words we use are deeply attached to our identities and our humanity.
This week, I was referred to as “Mr. Kline.” My preferred first name is “Sam,” so I expect it. I thought about how this expected misunderstanding caused me no pain or offense, for I have lived as a cisgender heterosexual person within a heteronormative society. When one does not live with this “advantage,” the same experience can understandably be extremely offensive and hurtful.
I recalled an interaction I once had with two women. One was an acquaintance and the other I had just met. As we were laughing about an incident that had occurred, I referred to the new person, River, as “he.”
As soon as the word came out of my mouth, I knew I had made a mistake.
Have you ever said something, and you wish you could tangibly reach out and grab the words in the air before the recipient could hear them?
I read the micro-expression on River’s face.
I recognized and empathized with the pain.
If I had not looked her way, I would have missed it because the pain flashed in less than three seconds. Afterwards, she laughed as if nothing happened.
How many times had she picked her battles?
I could relate. Sometimes, one does not want to make a teachable moment or scene.
Some days, nothing would get done if I had to stop and teach every time someone said or did something problematic.
As we continued talking, I tried to remain present. I wondered how many times had she experienced these microaggressions over the course of her day or even her life?
Here, I had contributed to a possible cumulative pain, and I could not take it back.
I felt horrible for what I had done. I did not intend to hurt her and keeping true to my teachings, I recognized that my intentions did not matter. Indeed, it does not matter how caring I am if the outcome was that I caused River pain.
Good intentions are not enough.
I seized a spot in our conversation where I could address my comment.
“I apologize,” I said as I looked at her with intention and seriousness. “What is your pronoun?”
River appeared pleasantly surprised. She was probably used to people calling her whatever they wanted without thinking about how she felt or even apologizing.
She shook her head as if it was “no big deal.” She replied, “It’s okay. She.”
I thanked her and the three of us continued our light-hearted conversation.
I noticed for the rest of the discussion that River’s engagement and body language was even more open and enthusiastic.
I felt grateful for her forgiveness and understanding because she did not have to demonstrate either.
I thought about the many times I bestowed the same kind of responses during these “mess ups.” By honoring her humanity, River reciprocated by allowing me that room to grow and make it right.
It is one of the reasons why I teach that all of us will make mistakes as we learn to engage each other across diversity and build an inclusive world together.
We need to be able to discern when someone is behaving as a bigot, an equal-opportunity jerk, or a person who is sincerely trying.
Instead of criticizing and mocking individuals who want the world to honor pronoun use, we can choose to make empathy and respect a big deal.
When we recognize each other’s full humanity, a cisgender heterosexual man who does not want to be called “she/her” can better empathize with a transgender man who does not want to be called “she/her,” either.
Let’s respect each other.
To honor a person’s pronoun respects another individual’s personhood. We do not lose anything from empathizing and learning to treat each other with dignity.
And when we mess up-whether it is race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability or age, own it. Seek a way to apologize and restore, knowing and accepting that the offended party is not obligated to forgive or give us another chance.
Regardless of the outcome, we can take action to grow from our mistakes.