TW/CW: misgendering, deadnaming, suicide, depression
Most people wouldn’t intentionally hurt others. You wouldn’t randomly kick a coworker or punch a stranger (I hope). Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe most people care about other people.
Many people who are otherwise kind, loving people will scoff at any mention of pronouns (as if we don’t all use them). But when someone refuses to use the correct pronouns for a transgender or nonbinary person, it’s the same as a punch in the gut (or worse).
Being gender-inclusive—including using people’s authentic pronouns—isn’t political. It’s just part of being a kind human. And as I’ve said before and written into the Inclusive Learning Pledge, I believe we in L&D have a responsibility to lead efforts to be more inclusive.
So I hope that, even if your political or religious ideology is different from mine, you can read this post with an open mind and heart. And if you’d like to have a respectful conversation to better understand this topic, I’m open to that too.
First, Some Terminology
One of the most difficult concepts for many people to understand is the difference between sex and gender. We’ve been taught to see them as synonymous. We throw “gender” reveal parties when an ultrasound reveals the sex of our babies. (Because “genital reveal party” just sounds wrong.)
But studies have shown that gender is determined in the brain and that transgender people’s brains align more closely with their authentic gender than with the sex they were assigned at birth.
We’ve also been taught that there are two genders, whereas in reality, gender is a spectrum. If this idea doesn’t sit well with you, I encourage you to stay curious and seek further education. I’ve included resources at the end of this post.
I’ve created a simple interaction using Sam Killermann’s Genderbread Person as a tool for understanding the differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression, and attraction. Select the image below to view it.
Here are some other definitions you may find useful to become more gender-inclusive:
- LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, PLUS intersex, asexual, pansexual, two-spirited, and more identities other than cisgender and heterosexual.
- A cisgender person is one whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
- The acronym “afab” means assigned female at birth.
- The acronym “amab” means assigned male at birth.
- Intersex refers to when a person’s body has characteristics of both sexes.
- A nonbinary person is one who does not identify with one gender. Other terms include gender fluid, genderqueer, and agender. These terms are nuanced and may mean slightly different things to different people.
- A transgender person is one whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. The term “transgender” is an umbrella term that generally includes nonbinary individuals, although some nonbinary people do not consider themselves transgender.
NOTE: In this article, I use the term “authentic” gender rather than “chosen” or “preferred” because a person’s gender is not a choice or preference. It’s part of who they are.
7 Tips for Being More Gender-Inclusive
Here are my seven tips for being more gender-inclusive, which I’ve learned from being mom to a nonbinary adult and “bonus mom” to another.
1. Don't assume anyone's gender.
As discussed in the Genderbread interaction, gender expression and gender identity are different. You cannot tell from looking at someone what gender they are. And they might not disclose their gender to you, because they might not feel safe to do so.
Nonbinary and gender fluid people don’t necessarily look like the androgynous Pat from the old Saturday Night Live sketches. My nonbinary daughter (yes, they prefer the term “daughter”) may look like a sparkling fairy princess one day and a lumberjack the next.
I wish I knew who said it first, but nonbinary people do not owe the world androgyny.
Nonbinary, transgender, and even cisgender people may be unintentionally misgendered because someone else is trying to address them respectfully by calling them “sir” or “ma’am,” or “Mr.” or “Ms.” However, these forms of address are not respectful if used to misgender someone, even inadvertently. The most inclusive option is to drop these formalities.
Some nonbinary people prefer “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) as a nongendered form of address, but not everyone does. It’s best not to make assumptions. Ask people what they prefer to be called.
2. Use people's authentic names and pronouns.
Pronouns save lives. I’m not saying that to be dramatic—it’s true.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community are at increased risk of depression and suicide. In fact, LGBTQ+ youth are nearly four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cisgender peers.
Nearly 30 percent of young LGBTQ+ adults have attempted to die by suicide. In a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than half of the transgender male participants had attempted suicide. Nonbinary people are three times as likely to experience suicidal thoughts as LGBTQ adults who identify as men or women.
These are terrifying statistics, especially for this LGBTQ+ mama bear.
Let me be clear. LGBTQ+ populations do not experience greater mental health challenges and suicidal ideation because of their identity or some inherent weakness. Rather, it is society’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people that places them at greater risk.
Studies have shown that when transgender people feel accepted by others in their lives, their mental health improves dramatically. They are less likely to experience symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts. In fact, one study showed a 56 percent decrease in suicidal behaviors when transgender youth were able to use their authentic pronouns in various contexts.
It can be difficult to retrain your brain to use different pronouns for someone than the ones you’re accustomed to using. But it’s important that you try—and keep trying. When you get it wrong (and you will), correct yourself and move on. Don’t apologize profusely and make it all about you. If the person you’re speaking about knows you’re making a genuine effort, they’re unlikely to be offended. Don’t say things like “I’m never going to get it right.” Correct yourself—every time—even if the person isn’t around or if you’re only just thinking about them.
3. Respect the terms people use for themselves.
The words people use to describe their identity are personal, and they differ from person to person. For example, of three nonbinary people in my life, one uses exclusively “they/them” pronouns, one uses “they/them” and “she/her,” and one uses any pronouns.
English is full of gendered language such as “niece” and “nephew.” In recent years, nonbinary alternatives have been created for many of these, such as “nibling” instead of “niece” or “nephew.” However, we should not assume that a nonbinary person prefers these words. For example, my nonbinary (afab) adult child likes being called “daughter,” “sister,” and “aunt,” but not “woman,” “girl,” or “lady.” These words feel very different to them. When in doubt, ask what terms the person prefers.
4. Model—but don't force—sharing pronouns.
If you are a cisgender individual, sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself or sign an email is an easy way to show your support for the queer community. Some may wonder why this is necessary. For example, if you identify as a man, and others perceive you as a man, you might wonder why you need to tell them your pronouns are “he/him.” The reason it’s helpful for cisgender people to share their pronouns is that doing so helps to normalize the practice and makes it less awkward for those whose gender identity might not be perceived correctly by others.
Don’t take this advice so far as to make it a requirement for employees or learners. Some well-meaning leaders may believe that asking everyone to share their pronouns would help build a more inclusive workplace or learning environment. However, not everyone is ready to share their authentic pronouns at work or in a class. They might not feel safe to do so. Sharing one’s pronouns should always be a personal choice. So, for example, if you’re designing or facilitating instructor-led training, don’t include pronouns as a required part of an icebreaker or introduction activity. A better way to be inclusive would be to model sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself. That way, if others want to follow suit, they feel safer to do so.
5. Be mindful of your language.
Avoid gendered language whenever possible. Rather than writing “he or she” when speaking generically, embrace the singular “they.” Some style manuals have done so, such as APA Style. If your organization isn’t there yet, rewrite the sentence in the plural.
Don’t address a group as “ladies and gentlemen.” Even if you consider “you guys” as gender-neutral, many do not. It’s best to use inclusive terms like “everyone,” “folks,” and “y’all” (Being from Oklahoma, I’m a big fan of “y’all.”)
If you’re in a meeting with a group of people you perceive to be women, don’t address the group as “ladies.” First of all, because it’s often said in a condescending way, it can be very off-putting even to cisgender women. Secondly, it may not be accurate. Remember, you can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them.
6. Don't put people in a box.
Making people check “male” or “female” on a form leads to othering those who don’t fit neatly into those boxes. If you must collect gender data, add another option, but please don’t just call it “Other,” unless you allow people to type their own descriptor. “Other” isn’t a label many of us would want to claim for ourselves, right? Using something like “nonbinary/gender fluid/gender queer” is more inclusive.
Rethink gendered dress codes (or dress codes at all). A client I worked for had a dress code that required women to wear closed-toed shoes with heels and pantyhose. Men were required to wear a button-up shirt and tie. There was no in-between. If you work in HR or otherwise have input into your company’s policies, consider whether you even need a dress code. If your company must have one, consider rewriting it so it’s not based on gender.
Slight tangent: While we’re on the topic, consider that many neurodivergent people experience sensory issues that cause certain clothing items to be terribly uncomfortable for them. Meryl Evans recently shared another example of how certain clothing can be problematic for people with disabilities. So, if you’re in a decision-making position, before you decide what “professional attire” means for your organization, consider the potential harm you could be causing.
7. Don't use deadnames.
A deadname refers to the name a transgender person was given at birth, which is not the same as the name they have chosen for themselves. For many transgender people, their deadname may still be their legal name, because changing one’s name can be a multi-stepped process that takes time and money (as much as $500 in some states). That means the deadname might be what shows up on your class rosters or other records.
Do you know what it’s like to be called a name that isn’t yours? Maybe you have a name that people shorten without permission. Or one that people mispronounce. I go by my middle name, so I often get called by my first name at medical appointments and in other situations. And sometimes, when people who’ve only ever known me as Kayleen find out my first name, they start calling me that as a joke. (Cringe.) It doesn’t feel good when people get your name wrong.
For cisgender people like me, being called by the wrong name is an annoyance. But for a transgender person, being deadnamed can be traumatizing. It’s a reminder of the years they spent feeling like something was wrong with them because their insides didn’t match their outsides. It makes them feel like they’ll never be seen as they truly are. In short, it’s hurtful.
If you facilitate live training, you can avoid accidentally deadnaming people by asking participants to introduce themselves rather than reading names off a roster. Whenever possible, employees should be able to amend their information to add their authentic name in the learning management system, payroll system, and other places that require use of legal names.
I hope this article helps you in your journey toward becoming more gender-inclusive and that you’ll share it with others.
Together, we’ll build a more inclusive world! (And if that’s something that appeals to you, be sure to sign the Inclusive Learning Pledge.)
Here’s a recap of my seven tips to be more gender-inclusive:
- Don’t assume anyone’s gender.
- Use people’s authentic name and pronouns.
- Respect the terms individuals use for themselves.
- Model—but don’t force—sharing pronouns.
- Be mindful of your language.
- Don’t put people in a box.
- Don’t use deadnames.
Resources for Learning More
- Understanding Gender
- The Safe Zone Project (free LGBTQ+ awareness and ally training curriculum)
- LGBTQ+ Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
- Sam Killermann’s Genderbread Person
- Interactive Genderbread Person
- Facts About LGBTQ Youth Suicide
- Singular “They” – APA Style
- Acceptance of Transgender and Nonbinary Youth from Adults and Peers Associated with Significantly Lower Rates of Attempting Suicide
- Brain Sex in Transgender Women Is Shifted towards Gender Identity
- Chosen Name Use is Linked to Reduced Depressive Symptoms, Suicidal Ideation and Behavior among Transgender Youth
- More than 60% of Suicide Attempts among LGBQ People Happen within Five Years of Realizing They Are LGBQ
- Nearly a Third of Young Gay People Have Attempted Suicide, Study Finds
- Neurobiology of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
- New Study Reveals Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Among Trans Adolescents
- Transgender Brains Are More Like Their Desired Gender from an Early Age