In Ottawa, politicians are debating whether “gender identity” and “gender expression” should be added to the Canadian Human Rights Act. On campus at the University of Toronto, the dignity of people who use non-binary pronouns is being debated. And in two family courts this week, judges issued decisions that penalized parents for respecting their children’s gender presentations.
These conversations about gender are often fraught and adversarial. We could instead simply get on with the business of being respectful.
Most of us have already been trained in how to use gendered pronouns disrespectfully. These lessons probably took place in childhood: maybe someone called a girl “butch” or “too strong to be a girl,” or called a boy “girly” or “a sissy.” Perhaps we heard a sports coach telling a boys’ team not to play like “a bunch of ladies.” The people doing the name-calling knew they were being hurtful: they were being mean on purpose. Using gendered language in this way imposed certain norms, and was meant to teach us there was a “right” way to be a boy or a girl.
But knowing what’s unkind and hurtful gives us a starting point for what not to do if our goal is to use gendered language in a different way — if we want to be thoughtful and respectful of others.
While it’s not uncommon for expectant parents to throw “gender reveal parties” for their babies-to-be, gender itself is not something that can be read on the body. Gender is individual; it’s a deep understanding of the self, and it can’t be determined or inferred based on a person’s genitals.
In Ontario, gender identity (how we understand our own gender) and gender expression (the gendered behaviours we show the world) have been protected grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code since 2012. Before 2012, these protections were often “read into” other protected grounds, usually sex and disability. Specifically including gender identity and gender expression in the code didn’t change the protections offered to Ontarians; it just highlighted ones that already exist.
These protections are not just matters of language. The Ontario Human Rights Code protects people from being fired, denied housing, denied medical treatment, or driven out of educational programs because of their gender identity or gender expression. Ideally, it creates conditions in which people are able to live free from violence and have official government documents that accurately reflect their identities.
The language we use allows us to either create a more just and inclusive society, or signals to trans people that they are at risk. Hearing language that constantly signals you are unexpected or excluded is stressful. Constantly having to correct how someone addresses you is exhausting. Transphobic language often precedes transphobic actions, including violence.
Research tells us that trans people in Ontario are often at risk: they face increased rates of violence, poverty, unemployment and homelessness when compared to provincial averages.
Through our language and behaviour, we can show that all people are respected, safe and welcome:
Reduce unnecessarily gendered language
Many of us were probably welcomed in school with “good morning, boys and girls,” and since then and we’ve likely adopted the more adult “ladies and gentlemen.” This is common language, but using it emphasizes that gender is the most important thing about the people to whom you’re speaking, and limits them to one of two labels. Repeated studies have found that emphasizing these gender categories leads to increased tensions and harassment. We can instead look for ways to welcome all people, and doing so isn’t that difficult: it can be as simple as saying “Welcome.”
Avoid dividing people into assumed or perceived single-gender groups
This can happen without any consideration for how it may force some people to risk outing themselves if they are trans, make them to worry about changing to conform to gender standards, or cause them to consider leaving a group altogether. When creating a set of groups, people need to be allowed to choose their own identities.
Get people’s names right
It is a basic sign of respect to call people by their correct name — and this isn’t difficult to figure out. A person’s name is what they tell you it is, and it may not be the same as what's on their identity documents. Or they may change their name as they adjust their gender identity or expression. Yes, it may take some mental re-training for others to adapt, but this happens all the time. Think about someone you know who changed their name when they got married or divorced: with practice, you were able to use their new name easily.
Use the gendered words that feel right to an individual
Writer and educator S. Bear Bergman talks about how names and pronouns are often the first things a transperson has agency over as they start transition. Sometimes, this remains the only thing they have control over for quite a while. Our names, and the pronouns we use, are dear to us because they describe who we are. Acknowledging this in our everyday lives may mean using “they” or “ze” or a person’s name alongside “he” and “she,” but it’s not as radical a change as you may think.
For example, you’ve probably already used “they” as a single-person pronoun, in a question like “What did they say?” — something that was once considered a grammatical sin but now is common usage. Again, this is just a matter of practice. If we are unsure of what pronouns to use for someone, it’s okay to ask discreetly. In 2015, the American Dialect Society even named “they," described as the "gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier,” as the word of the year, so you’ll be very au courant.
If we are unsure, ask respectfully
The kinds of questions we ask can make all the difference. Asking “Steve, where did you get your nails done?” signals respect and support for Steve and his fabulous manicure. Change one word and ask “Steve, why did you get your nails done?” and you are instead questioning Steve and his gendered choices. It's also important to recognize that some questions are just not appropriate. If you’re having trouble telling the difference, ask yourself: is my question about the well-being of the person I’m talking to, or is it just to satisfy my own curiosity?
If we make a mistake, apologize quickly and quietly and move on
We want to let the individual know we regret the mistake and will do better in future, but we also don’t want to draw more attention our error or put someone on the spot and create an obligation to reassure us — that just isn’t their job.
j wallace skelton is a PhD student in education at OISE, a consultant on matters relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, and a parent. j's 2016 middle school book Transphobia: Deal with It and Be a Gender Transcender has been nominated for a Forest of Reading Award by the Ontario Library Association.
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