group of people at a conference table.

Greetings, fellow humans. Today is International Pronouns Day. My name is Brandy, and I use the pronouns she/her. 

I grew up never really thinking about my pronouns. People referred to me as “she” or “her.” Those words fit, and I never questioned them. The privilege of having the pronouns people used for me match my sense of self stunted my understanding of the fact that other people aren’t as lucky.

Plenty of people lead lives where others refer to them using pronouns that don’t match their self-image (this is often referred to as “misgendering”), and every use of “she” or “her” for someone who identifies as “he” or “they” can feel like an attack. 

It’s important not to assume which pronouns someone prefers based on their name or appearance. When someone applies at Detroit Labs via our Getting to Know You (GTKY) form, everyone at the company has the opportunity to review that person’s application and make comments on it. 

For a long time, we made assumptions about the applicant’s pronouns based on their name. But what about when a name isn’t strongly associated with either binary gender? What about when the applicant has a name that leads us to believe they’re a “she” or “her,” but they actually prefer “they” and “them”? 

We never addressed this directly. There was no all-company email tackling the subject of applicant pronouns. But things did change: one day, we started to notice that some reviewers were using “they” and “them” to refer to all candidates. It caught on and spread like wildfire — now it’s very unusual to see a candidate referred to as anything other than “they” or “them” until we’ve had a chance to ask that person what pronouns they prefer to use.

people in a meeting.

I’ve heard some people say they don’t think being addressed with the wrong pronouns is especially harmful to the person being misgendered. And I’ll be honest: I don’t know either. I can’t fully imagine what that’s like; my ability to empathize is limited by my personal experiences as a person who’s never been misgendered. 

So, I choose to trust. I trust those who have courageously shared their experiences, and I believe them. I recognize that I don’t have to understand what it’s like to live an experience for that experience to be legitimate. It’s not up to me to determine what is real for others. It’s up to me to trust my fellow humans.

This kind of trust helps me accept that my experiences are not a universal “normal” and that what’s fine for me isn’t necessarily acceptable for everyone else. This evolution has taken work to remain open to experiences I haven’t shared, confront my biases, and recognize how those biases have impacted my decisions, behaviors, and relationships. It hasn’t been easy to undo years of learned behavior, yet it’s doable. It’s work that I know has made me a better person, friend, co-worker, and all-around human.

The work I mentioned above started with learning. I read through great resources like those shared by mypronouns.org. I also started listening to what folks were saying about the importance of using someone’s correct pronouns. Sometimes that meant I had to remind myself, out loud, that I was listening through my biases and that I needed to choose to trust and not judge. (I’m sure that might have looked interesting to folks who witnessed it, but I was more concerned with getting my growth on than on what talking to myself looks like!)

I continued my work by listening. In listening, I learned a lot. I learned that knowing what pronouns to use was as easy as asking. And when I’m unable to ask, like in GTKY comments, I use “they” or “them.” This is because using the correct pronouns for someone isn’t restricted to their presence. It’s about recognizing a person’s right to identify themselves and have that identity respected. So much for that biased voice in my head that once said it was too hard to learn “all these new pronouns!”  

There’s a lot we can do to normalize the sharing of pronouns and thereby reduce the pain of those who frequently experience misgendering. As someone with privilege in this area, I can leverage my social power to reduce the burden on folks without the same privilege. 

I’ve done this in several ways; you can take these easy steps, too. 

  1. Update your social media profiles to include your preferred pronouns.
  2. Mention your preferred pronouns when introducing yourself to new people.
  3. Add your pronouns to your nametag when you attend a meetup, conference, or convention

If people who are seldom misgendered normalize practices like this, it feels more “normal” when these practices are employed by someone who uses a different set of pronouns than most people would expect. It reduces the social stress of calling attention to themselves as someone “other.” 

There are even more things to learn and do about pronoun use, so I encourage you to explore more and start to leverage your own privilege. Let’s start by honoring International Pronouns Day and checking out https://pronounsday.org/ to deepen our understanding.