They, them, their. You’d think “they” sounds “grammatically incorrect” when referring to a person, but if Merriam Webster has announced ‘they’ as the pronoun for “a single person whose gender identity is non-binary”, and declared it word of the year in2019, there’s reason to sit up and pay heed. Have you been going the English route and identifying people as “he” or “she”, as the language pronounces? If so, there’s a little correction that’s the need of the hour, and the queer community is adamant to make it happen.
To be fair, It’s not your fault entirely if you’ve been misgendering people. Even activists and people from the queer community have said there’s very little information for people, especially in India, about gender-neutral pronouns and how to use them. The first step, however, is to understand what binary and non-binary pronouns mean. Binary means two, which essentially is he and she in English, and non-binary pronouns are used by people who don’t fall into a “he” or “she” category. Spoiler alert: There’s no exhaustive list here, a gender-neutral pronoun is what a person is comfortable with you calling them. It’s that simple.
From a global perspective, several countries have been normalising gender neutrality for a long time now. In the UK and US, ‘they’ was made part of some newspaper style guides around 2015, a Vogue article reports. Canada introduced Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and to the Criminal Code that includes gender identity and gender expressions to protect individuals against discrimination. Several international celebrities, like Sam Smith and Indya Noore, have spoken about being non-binary too. Meenakshi Gandotra, a social researcher and ally of the queer community, believes the challenge is education about genderneutrality within the community and outside of it. “The two hurdles are ignorance and fear. A person from the community should let go of a “you should know who I am” attitude, and a person who is addressing them should be humble enough to admit they don’t know the person’s preference,” she advises.
The most important and easiest way of using gender-neutral pronouns is by simply asking someone’s permission instead of assuming their gender when identifying them. Aanchal Narang, a psychologist, says misgendering may harm someone who is trying to affirm their identity. “The problem is not misgendering, it is understanding and acknowledging misgendering. If you were a dude and I called you madam, you will slap me,” she says. Arvind, a softwar engineer, points out that you need to define if you really need to know someone’s choice of pronoun. “There’s a tiny flip side to asking this question, because it can become a shorthand for outing someone. Let’s ensure what context we are asking someone their preferred pronoun in,” Arvind adds. So how can you incorporate changes at workplaces, family or social circles, to normalise using non-binary pronouns? Arnab Biswas, an LGBTIQA+ inclusion evangelist and blogger who works for a finance company, sheds light on how companies these days are taking efforts to promote inclusivity and has changed policies as well. “Our company changed our policies to make it inclusive, we have been training people to move to words like “friends” instead of “ladies and gentlemen”, avoid starting emails with “gents”, etc. At a corporate level, we’re trying to figure out if we can ask to identify the person’s gender at the time of induction so that the HR database will have that information and they can be addressed how they’re comfortable,” Biswas says.
“The bigger change would be genderneutral washrooms. When you have a form, the options are male, female, and other, or do you keep gender as a blank?” Narang questions. Gandotra believes whether it’s filing for a voter card, or a workshop on sex education, the conversation has to happen in all circles. “After Section 377 has gone down, it’s high time India takes a nonbinary stand,” she states. They suggest a few ways to sensitise oneself to gender neutrality and make it a more inclusive environment. “Start with smaller changes in everyday dialogue,” Biswas says.
“The first thing that people need to understand that gender and the sex you’re born with are not connected to each other, and are socially constructed. If you want to know my gender, just ask me,” Arvind adds. Narang explains, “Observe how people refer to themselves, and you’ll know. Or the simplest way is to call people by their name if you’re not sure of their pronoun instead of opting for ‘sir’ or ‘madam.’”