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Challenging norms - why language is important

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Challenging norms - why language is important

5 February 2018

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month and provides a perfect opportunity for us to explore our understanding of what being LGBT+ means, as well as show our support for colleagues, friends, family and service users who identify as part of this community. Here, Tobi from the Kirklees Young People’s Service tells us about the importance of getting language right when talking about gender identity and trans inclusion.

I don’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, a decision made on my behalf based on the configuration of my body parts. Transgender people are often reduced to body parts. It’s important to remember that we are far more than that. I have a strong sense of who I am yet am consistently misgendered by people who make assumptions based on my body shape. This is an example of cisnormativity (the assumption that everybody is cisgender, their gender matching the sex they were assigned at birth, or that being cisgender is the norm). An explanation of some of the terms used around gender can be found here.

I recently invited my colleagues to join me in adding their pronouns to their email signature as a small step towards challenging cisnormativity.

A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (I or you) or someone or something being talked about (she, it, them or this). Gender pronouns refer specifically to the people you are talking about (she/he, etc.). It’s impossible to know what someone’s pronouns might be, just by looking at them - remember we are not our body parts and an individual’s identity may not always match cultural assumptions.

It is a common misconception that English has no gender-neutral, third-person, singular pronoun but the use of singular ‘they’ has a long established history. There are examples of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun used by Shakespeare, Chaucer and Byron. In these examples ‘they’ was usually used for someone whose gender was not known or where gender was not relevant. Those of us who work with young people in particular appreciate that language is always evolving to reflect our changing world. Now singular ‘they’ is commonly used in English, often, but not exclusively, to refer to someone who is non-binary (whose gender does not match binary categories of male or female). The use of the singular ‘they’ is now so common it was declared Word of the Year 2015 by the American Dialect Society.

When I am referred to with the wrong pronouns I feel unseen or dismissed. If you are unsure what pronouns to use when referring to someone, ask them and use this opportunity as a chance to learn more about what it means to be trans and how you can help support colleagues, friends, family and service users who may be trans too.

Stonewall’s recent Trans Report highlighted that transgender and non-binary people face profound levels of discrimination. Half of trans people have hidden their identity at work due to fear of discrimination. Click here to read the full report and for further info on LGBT History Month click here.