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Sacred Fire Creative hosted a dialogue on LGBTQ issues entitled “LGBTQ Awareness: The Importance of Pronouns” and facilitated by Addison Smith of Addison’s Agenda.

About Addison Smith

Addison J. Smith, also known as Addi, describes their day job as a librarian. More importantly, they are a consulting educator. They use their teaching experience, personal experience, and research skills to help others understand issues surrounding the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people.

Addison holds two master’s degrees: one in music composition and the other in digital storytelling. They were pursuing a doctorate in music and aiming to become a music professor. However, they decided to change fields after realizing how poorly professors are treated in this country.

Addi came to accept being transgender while working on their digital storytelling degree. To understand themself, they did research on modern gender theory. They came up with an eight-part video series on gender theory called “The Gender Project” for their final project. They got to know themself better through their project. Afterward, they decided to get into public speaking and help people understand gender from a more scientific viewpoint.

As someone in their 50s, Addison shared that what we know about gender now is different from what we knew about gender back when they were growing up. Discussions on gender issues didn’t even come up unless it was on a TV program like The Jerry Springer Show. They felt that we have moved beyond that since then. Additionally, they felt like helping people understand gender issues was something they can do to give back to the community.

Defining pronouns in today’s society

Addison defined pronouns using Merriam-Webster: “Any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in context. We have:

  • The first-person singular “I” and the first-person plural “we.”
  • The second-person “you.” It works both as a singular and a plural noun. Addi noted that “you” used to be exclusively plural, but it gained usage as a singular pronoun over the years.
  • The third-person singular pronouns he/she/it and the third-person plural pronoun “they.”

Why are pronouns important in today’s society? It’s because we are starting to understand that transgender and non-binary people may not use pronouns as we traditionally used them or wished that they’d be used for them. For instance, for trans-men, it’s proper to call them he/him/his. At the same time, trans-women should be referred to as she/her/hers. For non-binary people, they/them/theirs are the most common, but there are also many others.

According to Addison, the technical term for this is neologisms or using new words for non-binary pronouns. These are not as popular as what we’re used to hearing, though. For example, the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “theirs” are considered plural but are used as a singular term by non-binary people.

For some reason, Addison shared, pronouns have become a political issue, and they really wish people would honestly stop doing that. The importance of using someone’s proper pronouns is simply this: It conveys respect to that person.

If we’re going to keep this simple, Addison said, we could basically end the conversation at this point. However, more information and context are needed as to what this is all about.

The traditional view of gender

From the traditional viewpoint, when you ask what gender is, most people will tell you that if you’re a man, you use he/him/his pronouns. If you’re a woman, you use she/her pronouns.

The thing is, they’re talking about biological sex there, and sex is not gender. We have to break this down even further. So, what is gender? Traditionally, gender is actually a set of roles, rules, and expectations assigned to people based on sex. Many people also hear the term “assigned at birth,” and they’re not sure what that means.

Let’s take a look at what that actually means. So you have a baby, and inside that diaper, you find a penis. You automatically assume this is a boy, and this boy will grow into a man. So we’re going to paint everything blue, and we’re going to buy that child all the boys’ toys—the trucks, the play guns, and the various things that are coded for masculinity in our culture.

Of course, boys will be boys, and they will play in the mud, and they will get into fights. And you’re going to have to channel that aggression because all boys are aggressive, and maybe put it into, like, an instrument like the drums or, better yet, football.

And when they get older, they’ll take care of you when they’re nice and rich. Of course, he will marry a woman, and then he will wear a tuxedo because that’s the only thing men are allowed to wear to formal events. And, of course, boys don’t cry. Addi joked that they’re dating themselves by using a Cure reference.

That’s what we talked about men assigned at birth. These are all culturally based. So when we say “assigned,” we’re referring to people’s genders based on their sex, and we’re assigning these roles and ideas to two people. In our culture, this is what we call the gender binary.

The gender binary is learned behavior.

We have actually divided up a large portion of our society, even our assumed psychology, based on the gender binary. For instance, men are supposed to be independent, while women are dependent. Men are stoic, and women are emotional. Men are aggressive, and women are passive. We have all these diametrically opposed ideas of what it is to be a man or what it is to be a woman. And the thing is, none of this is intrinsic—the gender binary is learned behavior.

We teach children from a very young age to be masculine or feminine in the ways we talk to them. Thus, the gender binary is conveyed through communication—not just verbal communication but also the way we act toward each other.

But in language, we have things like phrases for praising—“who the man,” “you the man,” “atta boy,” “atta girl.” We praise people based on their biological sex and what we think a man or a boy or a girl should act.

This is one way to convey what it is to be a boy or a girl and how we should act in general. We also have behavioral tips when people see somebody acting the way they think they shouldn’t act. Again, boys don’t cry; girls don’t play with that. You can go to any toy store, and you’ll see a little girl pick up something. You’re sure to hear parents say something like, “No, no, let’s put that down. Girls don’t play with that; only boys play with that.” Or vice versa.

Addison shared a story where they once leaned against a low wall with one foot propped behind the other. A man came up to them and told them, “Don’t stand that way. You’re a man. Women stand that way. Stand right.” The man was furious. Addison recalled surprising this person 20 years later.

Gender-based social sanctions

Addison said we also have social sanctions, which are phrases or words mean to punish. For example, suppose a man shows many feminine personality traits, such as calmness, non-aggression, docility, or being emotional. In that case, people tell him, “Don’t be a pussy.” At the same time, if a woman acts like having masculine personality traits, like if she is aggressive or ambitious, she’s being a “complete bitch.” Any strong woman will have been called that at some point in her life.

Look at the dynamics there. Men who are not acting like men are told they’re acting like a woman using a crude vernacular for the female genitalia. Women, on the other hand, are told they’re less than human. That’s why people hate these words so much.

For clarity’s sake, Addison defined the slang “pussy” as coming from the word “pusillanimous,” which means to act timidly or cowardly. It’s just been shorted over the years to the point that nobody even knows the word “pusillanimous” anymore. However, they do know the phrase “don’t be a pussy.”

There are even more social sanctions against the LGBTQ community. One of the most powerful is simply stigma. People who are against LGBTQ rights claim that members of this community are mentally ill, socially deviant, choose to live the way they do, sexually predatory, or child abusers.

The community is often used as scapegoats for politicians and preachers. We see this very often when someone is trying to deflect from something else. They will bring up the “gay agenda.” Addison said that if there is a gay agenda, it’s this: Just leave us alone. Let us live. Of course, there is harassment. People in the LGBTQ community are attacked in public, at work, in school, and even by their own families.

There are ways of communicating that if you do not fall into the gender binary, the way we believe you should, you’re going to be punished. You’re going to have those social sanctions against you until you start acting the way we think you should. That’s what stigma is.

The psychological effects of misgendering

Addison said that part of stigmatizing the LGBTQ community is misgendering. Misgendering is intentionally calling somebody by the wrong pronoun, honorific, or name. Addi gives themselves as an example—they hate it when people refer to them as he/him/his, as “sir,” or with their given name or dead name instead of their chosen name.

This is also done to cisgender LGBTQ people—gay men being called “missy” or gay women “sir.” When we do this, it’s like trying to tell them you’re not what you’re supposed to be. Misgendering isn’t exclusively for trans people like Addi. It’s also something used to attack people who are in other parts of the LGBTQ community. However, intentionality is the key.

Accidentally using the wrong word or term for someone isn’t considered a malicious act unless you don’t correct yourself. If you’re doing it on purpose and keep doing it, and you’re not trying to change it, it becomes a problem. The LGBTQ community sees this as you trying to attack them. What misgendering says to a trans person or a non-binary person, or even a cisgender person who is from the LGB part of the community, is this:

  1. “I know you better than you know yourself. I know what you’re supposed to be. You don’t get to determine who or what you’re supposed to be.”
  2. “I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I speak about you. I just don’t care.”
  3. “Your sense of safety is not important to me.”
  4. “Your identity is not real and should not be acknowledged.”
  5. “I want to teach everyone around me to disrespect you.”
  6. “Offending you is fine as long as it makes me feel more comfortable.”
  7. “I can hear you talking, but I’m not really listening.”
  8. “Being who you truly are is an inconvenience to me.”
  9. “I would prefer it if you stop being honest with me.”
  10. “I am not an ally, friend, or someone you can trust.”

If someone goes after a member of the LGBTQ community, misgendering them all the time, that someone is a person to stay away from. In a workplace situation, that can be very detrimental.

Mis-gendering is basically just bullying. It’s something people in the LGBTQ community have to deal with all the time. The effects of bullying are actually quite severe.

Almost all youth who attempt suicide experienced some kind of mistreatment, including insults or criticisms made for them to feel guilt and humiliation. LGBTQ kids are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide when their family rejects them. Young people who have lost friends after coming out are 20 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

Each episode of LGBT victimization, be it physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average. We’re not just talking about suicide when it comes to self-harming behavior. We’re talking about cutting, unsafe sex practices, or drug use. And every time a kid—a gay kid or a trans-kid—is bullied for being gay or trans, it increases the likelihood that they will do something to harm themselves.

Breaking down the gender binary

Addison notes that the good thing about the gender binary these days is that it’s breaking down. They said it’s always good for people like them, whose roles are changing. It’s good that it’s now acceptable for a man to stay home and take care of the kids. In the years past, that was unthinkable. It’s still unthinkable to a lot of people. Still, in general, it’s more and more accepted that roles are being broken and expectations are being shattered. They cited as examples Captain Kristen Griest, one of the first two female Army Rangers, and James Charles, the first male CoverGirl ambassador. Additionally, they showed a picture of David Bowie dressed as Tilda Swinton, posing with Tilda Swinton dressed as David Bowie.

Addi posed the question, “What is gender today?” Instead of the cultural construct of the gender binary, where culture tells you who you have to be, the new way of looking at gender is a psychological construct. You figure out who you are and project it to the world.

There are five components to this psychological construct:

  • biological sex – because the way you relate to your body and the way others relate to you because of your body is part of gender, though it’s not all of gender
  • gender identity – the way your brain is hardwired to understand yourself in terms of your gender
  • sexual orientation
  • romantic orientation
  • gender presentation

In general, what modern gender theory says is this: Gender is between your ears and not between your legs.

What is biological sex?

Most people say biological sex is either male or female. XY chromosomes belong to males, and XX chromosomes belong to females. But there are also intersex people—people who show traits from both of the typical sexes.

And then, we have research showing that there are people who have chromosomes that are XYY, XXX, XX/XY, XX/XXX, XY/XYY, XX/X0, and so forth. Any genotype can produce any phenotype, which means any combination of six chromosomes. Based on many different factors, they can produce either males, females, or intersex people.

Because of this type of research, many biologists who study human development don’t see human biological sex as either/or anymore. Typical males and typical females do make up the majority. You also have subtle variations where, if you look closely, you will see that people have some tertiary or secondary traits that belong to the other sex. In some people, these variations are even more pronounced. You can see pretty easily that they are showing two different types of presentation in their body.

So, the question becomes: “How do you tell if someone is male, female, or somewhere in between?” According to Dr. Eric Vilain, the Director of the Center of Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles: “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.”

In other words, just ask if you’re not sure what somebody’s biological sex is and what they know themselves to be. Ask them, and they will tell you.

Another question that Addi posed is this: “Why are we talking about biological sex in a pronouns discussion?” It’s because we need to understand that biological sex is related to gender identity.

What is gender identity?

Addison said that the way that people commonly define gender identity is that someone has a male brain or a female brain. There’s no such thing. The idea of male brain versus female brain is an old belief and not that great science. Yes, there are a few areas of the brain that are different between men, women, and people in between. They usually refer to hormone regulation, social behavior, sexual behavior, sensory perception, and motor monitoring. Motor monitoring means that whether your hands are up or down, your brain knows it without having to look.

But there’s evidence that your brain has a map of what you’re supposed to look like. Your brain uses this map to make those determinations. Sometimes, the map doesn’t match what’s in the mirror. This brings us to transgender people. People will have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex. This is actually an umbrella term, and underneath that, you have binary people and non-binary people. So, trans-men and trans-women, and a whole lot of different ways of saying what somebody is.

People have different ways of looking at themselves, and surgery is not required. For some reason, a lot of people think that you’re not trans until you’ve had surgery. Trans is about your brain, not about the way you have altered your body.

We have DSM-5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. It’s basically a big list of everything that can go wrong in the brain. Being transgender can’t be found in DSM-5, although it was in DSM-1 through 4. Back then, experts said that if you think you’re of the wrong sex, then there must be something wrong with you. However, they did the research and finally determined that being trans is not a mental illness or psychological condition. Thus, they took it out of DSM.

So, it’s not about having a male brain or a female brain. It’s about having a transgender brain, which is slightly structurally different. Structures that make the differences between male brain and female brain can also be found in a transgender brain. Structures you’d find in women can also be found in trans-women. The same is true with men and trans-men.

There’s also the matter of functionality—for instance, the sensory perception. Women have a stronger sense of smell than men. Trans-women also have a stronger sense of smell than men because their brains are wired that way.

Being a transgender person is most likely about your neurology and endocrinology. More and more evidence also says it’s about genetics. Being trans is not a delusion or any other form of psychiatric condition. That’s why it’s not in DSM-5.

Some hypotheses state that the same factors that go into biological sex also shapes the brain. Thus, there’s probably a continuum of gender identity. So, we have cisgender. The only thing that “cis” means is that it’s a Latin prefix for “on the same side.” Someone who is a ciswoman has their biological sex and gender identity on the same side of the continuum.

“Trans,” on the other hand, is Latin for “on the other side.” A transgender woman will have her biological sex on one side and her gender identity on the other. And then, you have non-binary people. They can come from any part of the biological spectrum, but their gender identity will be somewhere in the middle.

Let them be who they are.

Addison said if you’re wondering what someone’s gender identity is, let them tell you. However, it’s not always great to ask, especially in a business situation. So just let them be who they are. If they want to share how they identify, they will find a way to communicate it.

When you’re talking about the LGBTQ community and people who look at modern gender theory, there’s often a lot of self-mockery involved. The way some members of the community identify themselves can be pedantic or esoteric.

But most importantly, they want to be referred to as a person, just another person. And this includes using the pronouns that are appropriate for them. Basically, letting everybody be themselves and respecting a person’s pronouns and presentation is part of that. Knowing what somebody’s pronouns are and using them consistently shows respect and allows them to be them.

What are the effects? If you look at youth trends, when you use a transgender youth’s chosen name at work, at school, with friends, and at home:

  • It reduces depression symptoms by 75%.
  • It reduces thoughts of suicide by 34%.
  • It reduces suicide attempts by 65%.

Moreover, students who attend schools with gay/straight alliances, compared to students who don’t are:

  • 36% less likely to be fearful for their personal safety.
  • 52% less likely to hear homophobic slurs.
  • 30% less likely to experience or observe homophobic victimization.

That’s, in a nutshell, why it is important to respect someone’s pronouns, their proper pronouns. A lot of people will say preferred pronouns, but it’s not. It’s not a choice.

Questions asked during the forum.

How do you explain to folks that pronoun isn’t a preference?

When people refuse to use someone’s proper pronouns, they’re communicating disrespect, harm, lack of trust, and other messages that misgendering conveys. When someone asks to use their proper pronouns, they’re asking to respect and not harm them.

There will always be people who will refuse to believe that being trans is a biological process rather than a psychological one. It doesn’t matter what evidence you show them. However, this is a problem in a business setting. To explain to people that pronouns are not a preference, you might tell them that not respecting pronouns is detrimental to their own goals and to the company’s goals.

What’s the appropriate way to ask someone’s pronouns if you sense that someone’s gender identity could be along the middle of the spectrum?

It’s always respectful to say, “Hey, I’m not sure if these are the right pronouns for you. Could you tell me what are the right pronouns for you so that I don’t screw it up?” However, the person you asked may not know what you mean, especially if they see themselves as masculine or feminine. But for someone in the LGBTQ community, it’s a sign of respect.

You can also introduce yourself with your own pronouns. They’ll come back at you with their own pronouns. But this depends on your audience and location. If you’re in a safe space, introducing yourself with your pronouns encourages them to do the same.

Is it right to assume “them” as a default?

It’s always much better to ask than to assume. If you refer to a person who is cis-hetero or transgender as they/them, you’re misgendering them. You may be trying not to be offensive, but you’re misgendering them nonetheless.

When you’re working with other people’s kids, introducing pronouns and properly using them can be a tricky issue within a school system. Any thoughts you have around creating brave spaces for students, even if that classroom is the only space where they may properly gender?

The best thing you can do is to get with an organization like PFLAG or GLSEN. They actually have teacher packets that you can use to help people set this up. Many different groups out there have ways of introducing gender or building gender-safe spaces in class and classrooms.

You can start with normalizing using pronouns, especially with young kids, as they don’t really talk about gender that much. But if a kid does come out as transgender, using their appropriate pronouns and making sure that other children are using them is an excellent way of doing it.

However, if you think a student is trans or non-binary, it’s not recommended that you ask them to come out. They might be afraid to come out because of their situation at home or in the community. It may not be safe for them to come out, and you can really end up doing some harm to the kid. Coming out is always a very personal journey, and it’s best to let the kid come out when they’re ready.

If someone was to misgender someone accidentally, what is the best way to correct ourselves or steps to take to avoid further harm?

It’s really simple: Apologize and do better. If you keep stumbling over the same thing over and over, you will be seen as not making an effort, and you don’t really mean that apology. An apology without a behavior change is basically meaningless.

In a book called “Love Lives Here,” the author claims we should try and avoid the word “transgender.” What are your thoughts on this?

In Addi’s personal opinion, if we don’t use the word “transgender,” how will we talk about transgender issues? We can’t talk about gender issues without the words “transgender” and “cisgender” for comparison. Addi is pretty sure that the author is coming from a good place. But it’s almost the same as white people saying they don’t see race because they do.

Addi doesn’t see the value in trying to erase the word. They can see value in not making a big deal about it. There are so many people out there who are like, “the trans agenda is to turn everybody trans and to take over the world.” If there’s a trans agenda, it’s actually to get people to stop bothering them and to see them as a person.

Sacred Fire Creative continues the conversation on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging with these events. Please join us in these conversations.