No, really. Pronouns are way more important than you’d think. When pronouns don’t match perceived gender, or when switching pronouns from ones previously used (i.e. moving from using he/him/his pronouns to using she/her/hers pronouns), “Preferred Pronouns” is usually what the pronouns a given person is requesting are referred to as. That’s wrong, though. There is no preferred pronoun—“preferred” implies that that although one set of pronouns is more acceptable than others when referencing a given person, other pronouns are still okay-ish to use. When I say my pronouns are they/them/theirs, those are not my “preferred pronouns;” they are my required pronouns because they are my pronouns. The word “prefer” implies the presence of a choice, the presence of an “okay, but . . .,” or the presence of an abstraction that under certain circumstances it’s okay to choose to not use them.
When someone refuses to use requested pronouns, they are saying myriad things—none of them even remotely positive. That person is saying “I don’t respect your identity.” That person is saying “that makes me feel uncomfortable, and my comfort is more important than your emotional safety.” That person is saying “but you’re not a [insert given identity here].” That person is saying “you’ll always be [insert incorrect pronouns here] to me.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that slip-ups in requested pronoun usage are unacceptable. In fact, mistakes are expected—mistakes are part of learning, mistakes are critical to understanding. Mistakes lead to mutually beneficial conversations about given topics, in this case gender identity and how pronouns reflect an identity, and how misuse of pronouns or misgendering impact a person. What I am saying is that deliberate refusal to use a person’s pronouns is extremely disrespectful. Will it be hard to remember sometimes? Yes. Will you need to be corrected sometimes? Sure. Is that okay? Absolutely.
There is a certain etiquette in responding to reminders and corrections on proper pronouns (and names), though. What is unacceptable is turning a reminder into a strange sort of self-flagellation. Responses like “Oh! Oh goodness, I’m so sorry! Please don’t be mad, really, I forgot—I’m such a bad friend. Crap, crap, crap, I’m sorry” just isn’t great. It kind of turns the situation around onto you, and it has the potential to blow a simple slip-up out of proportion. I, for one, end up feeling like the bad guy when this reaction is the result—which makes me want to not tell people my pronouns, or correct people on them, because I feel as if I’m victimizing, persecuting even, people for forgetting, even if I’m not. (And, not reminding them of my gender pronouns often leads me into bouts of dysphoria both bodily and socially.)
The best response is “right, sorry, my bad” and continuing whatever without making it weird. Because mistakes are understandable. I’ll let you in on a secret: because I am gender fluid, even I misgender myself sometimes! Mistakes don’t equal malice; making a point of refusing to use certain pronouns equals malice.
“JayJay and I went to school together, and she used to do this thing where she would—”
“Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt, I love this story, but my pronouns are neutral.”
“Right. JayJay and I went to school together, and they used to do this thing where they . . .”
It’s as simple as that. It’s hard at first for some people, but it’s appreciated.