A set of paper cutouts of pronouns for different genders.

My partner is a transmasculine, queer person who uses they/them pronouns. Meeting this thoughtful, funny, brilliant human three and a half years ago turned my world upside down in so many wonderful ways. I fell in love with them, we married in 2020, and they continue to expand my horizons in terms of gender identity and expression. Every day, they resist being pushed into the “man” box or the “woman” box by others’ judgments. They certainly live outside the rigid boxes I was taught that define gender.   

I witness my partner get misgendered often (called by incorrect pronouns and “ma’am”-ed and “sir”-ed). Every time it happens, I experience a mix of emotions: frustration with our binary, gender-locked culture; embarrassed for the person once they realize their mistake; ashamed of myself in that brief moment when I consider whether to correct them or just pretend like I didn’t hear it; proud of my kids when they correct the person; and a deep ache and empathy for my partner, for whom this happens ALL THE TIME. Most recently during the pandemic, it happens when we have people come to do repair work on our house. In those moments, when someone references my “husband,” I have to quickly determine how safe I feel with this stranger in my house. Do I “out” myself and my partner, or do I remain silent? Is it worth the risk? 

You may be wondering, “Why can’t we rely on someone’s appearance, voice, clothing, etc. to know their pronouns?” Well, that is because gender identity is not the same as gender expression. That is, we cannot assume to know someone’s pronouns or gender just by looking at them. This is true for a lot of the characteristics that make people who they are. You can’t—and wouldn’t—guess someone’s name based on what they’re wearing (unless they’re wearing a nametag), would you?  

Like our names, our pronouns are something that reflect a part of our identity. Sharing them with someone is one small gesture of saying “here’s a glimpse of who I am.” Using someone’s pronouns accurately is a simple—yet crucial—way we can show Respect for the Individual, a core RTI value we all share.  

In a 2014 study by the University of California-Davis, people who were misgendered—being referred to by incorrect pronouns or having others make assumptions about your gender identity—reported feeling stigmatized, which led to feeling negatively and having lower self-esteem about their appearance.  

Unfortunately, misgendering happens in the workplace, and as a result, not all people experience a sense of belonging in the working environments where they spend much of their time. I often make a quick determination in meetings as to whether I am going to recommend colleagues share their pronouns as part of their introductions. How confident do I feel suggesting that staff share their pronouns when I don’t see them including pronouns on Zoom or in their email signatures? Maybe such colleagues have been misgendered in the past and choose to remain silent due to a less than affirming atmosphere.  

While changing our ingrained habits and behaviors is difficult and takes practice, it is exponentially more difficult to feel excluded, disrespected, or discriminated against in your own workplace based simply on who you are. Using correct pronouns isn’t the only way to affirm someone’s gender identity. Adopting gender-inclusive language—language that does not purposefully or accidentally exclude any gender—is one way to help people around you feel welcome. Some easy swaps include saying “everyone” instead of “ladies and gentlemen,” saying “Hi, folks” or “Hi, team” instead of “Hi, ladies,” saying “all” or “y’all” instead of “you guys,” which excludes every person who does not identify as a man. 

Imagine an environment where each of us feels truly seen and celebrated for all we bring to RTI, where we feel good about ourselves and can be exactly who we are and know that we are valued. Today, on International Pronouns Day, I challenge all my colleagues, especially cisgender allies like myself, to take action to help cultivate that sense of belonging in our workplace for people of all genders.