There is a certain level of privilege that comes with being a cisgender, heterosexual man. One of those privileges is that you’re rarely going to be misgendered. This privilege may not feel like a significant one, but imagine if that identity could be called into question whenever someone spoke to you. What would it feel like to have your very identity challenged by people when they address you? What would it feel like to have to correct your doctor, or your colleagues, or your friends and family to get them to call you by the proper term?
Before we move on, let’s lay out what it means to be cisgender and transgender. Someone who is cisgender is someone whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth. Someone who is transgender has a gender identity that differs from their assigned sex. If you’re still confused, here’s a simple example: LaVerne Cox, famous for her role on Orange is the New Black, was assigned to the male sex at birth, along with her twin brother. Her twin brother, to my knowledge, still identifies as male, so he is cisgender. LaVerne identifies as a woman, therefore she is transgender.
There shouldn’t be a need to make the case that using people’s correct names and pronouns is a good thing. Nor should there be a need for someone like me, a cisgender man, to explain to other cisgender men why treating people with a modicum of decency is a good thing — but there is.
I think when it comes down to it, telling people what you prefer to be called should be all the reason they need to refer to you a certain way. If you meet a man named Robert, and he tells you that he prefers to be called Bob, you’d be in the wrong if you called him anything other than Bob. You wouldn’t tell him “Well, you were named Robert when you were born, so that’s what I’ll call you,” right? Of course not! So it should be just as easy to refer to someone by their preferred name or pronoun.
If common courtesy doesn’t convince you, maybe compassion will. A 2018 study from researchers at the University of Texas Austin found that use of a transgender individual’s chosen name led to reduced depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Another 2016 study from researchers at the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetime, compared to the suicide rate in the U.S., which is 4.6 percent. If my use of someone’s chosen name or pronoun contributes in any way in making someone want to go on living, I’m happy to do it. It takes minimal effort, and is the very least you can do for a person.
It may be a challenge to retrain yourself in how you use language, but think of the impact you can have on someone’s life if you try. It’s not about getting it right every single time; it’s about trying. If someone tells you that they prefer to be referred to as either “they” or “them,” try your hardest to refer to them that way, and apologize when you make a mistake.
If you grew up referring to people as either him or her, you may reflexively slip into using those pronouns. In which case, you can apologize. We all slip sometimes, but it’s important to own your mistakes. Don’t be stubborn about not calling people what they prefer just because it requires growth. Strive to be better.
People are who are they are, and all you need to do is respect that. If someone prefers to be referred to as she and her, they and them, he and him, all you have to do is oblige them. It requires a tiny bit of effort, and it will mean so much to someone. It’s something that is so small, so insignificant a gesture, that can have such an incredible impact on someone’s life.
Image from Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection