A Note About Pronouns, Introductions, and Safety

A recent workshop participant of mine said something along the lines of the following: “I’m not comfortable giving the pronouns I really want to use right now if other people might decide to use them outside of the workshop.”

At the beginning of all my workshops, these days, I introduce myself using my name and pronouns. I give a short introduction about myself, or at least a factoid that’s related to the work we’ll do together. Perhaps I also tell a funny story or relate where I was born or what country I’ve most recently visited other than the one we’re in.

While I am comfortable with either she/her or they/them pronouns for myself, I’ve defaulted, of late, to using only they/them pronouns when I introduce myself in a workshop setting. When I first started doing this, I had three goals:

  1. To make it clear that if people in the room were trans or nonbinary, I was a potential safe person to talk with about things.
  2. To give workshop participants unfamiliar with “singular they” the opportunity to practice saying it on someone who was being paid for the emotional labor of discussing it with them, if they had feelings or questions or if they made a mistake.
  3. To reinforce the fact that nonbinary people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, in case participants weren’t yet aware, and drive home the fact that people cannot assume correct pronouns based on appearance. (In work contexts, I frequently dress in a more femme manner than in non-work contexts.)

Given all of that, the idea that my workshop participant might not feel comfortable using the pronouns they wanted to in my workshop was initially surprising and a bit upsetting to me. I’m sure my face betrayed some of my emotions, because they explained further at the time (although obviously it was not their responsibility to offer me emotional labor, particularly in this situation!).

They didn’t want to default to using they/them pronouns in a professional setting because it might not always be safe to do so, even if during my workshop (which, after all, is touted as being trauma-informed and trans-inclusive), it would be relatively safe. There were some other participants in my workshop who were acquaintances of theirs at work. Thus, they didn’t try using they/them pronouns in my workshop out of concern for potential repercussions later.

A pronoun chart of options which begin with first person pronouns: (f)ae, e/ey, he, per, she, they, ve, xe, and ze/zie.
This is a chart of pronoun options I found via the University of Wisconsin – Milwaulkee. It is not exhaustive, but it is more inclusive than many I’ve seen online.

As I suspect is known to most readers of this blog, the safety of trans and nonbinary people around the world is far from assured. Despite nonbinary pronouns being established (at least in English) for centuries, popular culture has frequently rejected and erased their usage. Violence toward trans and nonbinary people has probably always existed, but recently people have been tracking statistics and studying the issue of transphobic violence more closely and studying nonbinary gender identity at all. Simply existing as trans or nonbinary is not a simple or safe proposition.

This is, of course, something that I can’t guarantee to anyone: safety. I can guarantee that I will do my best to foster a safer environment, to the best of my ability, and that I will push back against bad actors and bad behavior. Aside from overarching societal concerns, however, the nature of the work I do involves frequently facilitating workshops in a public setting (never guaranteed to be safe) or at a company where something has already happened to make people feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe.

Currently Implementing

I’m not sure that there is a permanent solution to this quandary, other than huge cultural shifts, such that we no longer struggle with cissexism (or any other oppressive tool of the kyriarchy) anywhere in the world. However, here’s what I’ve come up with for now.

I now try to start my workshops with my names, pronouns, and some information about myself. When it comes to introductions around the room, I am training myself to say, “Please introduce yourselves with the names and pronouns you want us to use for you today.”

Photo of Crystal in a blue striped shirt and black jacket.
Headshot of this author, hopefully approachable. Photo by Dan Noé

In addition to hopefully addressing the concerns at the top of this post, this language might be helpful in general for people who are not sure what pronouns or names they might want to use for themselves. Making a commitment to use a name or pronoun set for the duration of a workshop is much less of a commitment than the rest of one’s life (although more of a commitment than the name on your to-go coffee cup, I admit).

If asked, I’m happy to explain this reasoning in person at my workshops. I haven’t been asked yet, since implementing this change. I’m wondering if I should proactively offer an explanation, but I haven’t made up my mind on the issue yet. It might depend on the cultural context of the workshop — some things are different when giving my Impostor Syndrome Workshop at a LGBTQ+ center in an American university versus giving it at a corporate office where English isn’t the primary language spoken.

If you’re reading my blog for the first time, you may not be aware, but I’m a member of the board for International Pronouns Day. You might be able to guess that pronoun education, awareness, and acceptance is quite important to me. I’ve previously written on gender-inclusive forms of address and terminology, as well, which remains my most-frequently reference blog post. (That fact warms my heart, given how widely distributed my #MeToo blog post was last year.)

I’m working hard to make the world safer for trans and nonbinary people, where I can, is what I’m saying. I also recognize that my own practice and methods of helping the world in this effort have shifted over the past few years, and I expect they will continue to shift. I offer this blog post as a snapshot of where I’m currently at on this issue. I hope it’s helpful to those who read it! Please feel free to write a comment or suggestion below. (Due to stalker and trolls, comments are screened, but will be unscreened if I think them to be posted in good faith.)

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