If someone calls you the wrong name and you have a “that’s not me” moment – you get it. Except, imagine everyone calls you by the wrong name. You correct them, but they keep doing it because it’s easier, more familiar. Imagine how confusing and belittling it would feel to have people disregard your identity through their actions and words.
First, a quick primer: sex, gender, and gender identity are different. NPR does a wonderful job of explaining these terms in more depth but the key is that sex refers to biology (chromosomes), gender is a social construct of norms assigned to a particular group and gender identity is a person’s internal sense of self and gender (and it’s not outwardly visible to others). ’Cisgender’ is an adjective describing a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender-nonconforming is an umbrella term for describing people who don’t conform to gender expectations assigned at birth.
I began identifying as gender-questioning about eight years ago, then genderqueer, and now nonbinary. I chose terms that felt right for me as I learned more about gender theory and more words came into my sphere. Growing up and even in my 20s, I never thought about my gender as part of me. I assumed everyone felt like me – void of a gender identity. It wasn’t until I met people whose sense of gender identity was strong enough that they had transitioned their pronouns and other parts of their lives that I realized not everyone felt like me. And I began to understand who I am and why I feel the way I do.
Gender dysphoria is the distress one feels when the way the world perceives your gender doesn’t align with how you identify. My chest tightens, my stomach drops, and I start to feel my self-confidence retreating. There are big moments of gender dysphoria – and little ones. When someone knows my correct pronoun, yet willfully doesn’t use it – that’s a big one. I’ve had incidences where people didn’t want to use my correct pronouns with clients to ’avoid confusion’ or for ’grammar.’ That made me feel awful, like who I am as a person would not be acceptable to clients, and their ease was more important than creating a respectful and inclusive work culture where I feel safe enough to be my authentic self.
Someone told me that what people remember about you is how you make them feel – and that holds true for brands and organizations. When it comes to the workplace, especially in creative fields, we must ensure that people feel accepted and included for who they are so they can do their best work. This is allyship – using one’s power, position, or privilege to uplift others. But we must be willing to make changes at both the interpersonal and organizational level.
Here are a few ways agencies can be better allies to gender-nonconforming colleagues and make our offices, cultures, and work more inclusive.
Firstly, normalize sharing and caring about pronouns, and help colleagues and clients ensure they’re using the correct ones. It’s imperative to integrate pronoun language into introductions and communications. If everyone introduces themselves with their pronouns, then you aren’t singling out gender-nonconforming people. Including pronouns in signatures is a wonderful step, but it only works if you check everyone’s signatures for their correct pronouns before addressing them. And these behaviors must go beyond just internal team and agency communications; it’s important to speak up if a client is using the wrong pronouns for a team member, especially when you’re in a position of power.
Secondly, use gender-inclusive language and design in your work because you may not know how your audience identifies. Let’s retire phrases like ’he/she’ or ’him/her’ and nix ’ladies and gentleman’ from announcements. Use gender-inclusive pronouns and phrases like, ’they,’ ’guests,’ ’attendees,’ or ’friends.’ When appropriate, use phrases like “pregnant people” and ’people with periods,’ instead of language that assumes ’women’ are the only people who can do these things.
When designing experiences, use gender-inclusive design principles, make gender-inclusive signage, and ensure that gender-neutral bathrooms are available. In your creative, such as 3D renderings, show a variety of gender representations. Gender-nonconforming people notice, and when we see elements of gender exclusivity, we don’t feel safe or welcome.
Expand your worldview, surround yourself with different people, learn from those willing to dedicate their time and energy, and share what you learn. Someone asked me how I came to understand gender identity and learn the right words to use and avoid. One way was getting involved in the queer community and building friendships that allowed me to ask questions and see different perspectives. The other was social media. Seek out gender-nonconforming and LGBTQIA+ people on social media and follow five new accounts every month. Absorb the information and notice the language they use. You’ll become less confused, more informed and empathetic.
If someone corrects you for using the wrong pronoun, don’t get defensive. When someone tells you their correct pronouns or name, it’s an offer of trust – even if it comes with a correction. See it as a gift and a desire for a relationship. And if you get it wrong, keep working at it. Thank the person for correcting or reminding you and repeat what you said with the right pronoun as a reminder. Practicing helps it become second nature.
I’m grateful to the people who corrected my thinking and widened my understanding to help me learn the words for how I felt. It made me understand myself better and broadened my view of the world. I hope others will have a similar awakening. Things that might have seemed trivial – using pronouns regularly during introductions, speaking up when others don’t use someone’s correct pronouns, having all-gender bathrooms, including different gender presentations in creative, etc – might just become a priority when you realize how they make people feel.
Meredith Sonnen (they, them), lead project manager, Jack Morton