Opinion: Gender, And the Words We Use, Matter

After losing someone she loves to suicide this fall, Sharon Brisolara reminds the community of the dangers of stigma and the power of acceptance. The words we use, including our choice to use appropriate pronouns, are powerful. Brisolara explains why.

Content Warning: This article includes descriptions of the stigma experienced by those in the LGBTQ+ community and discusses how stigma can contribute to depression and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know struggles with thoughts of self-harm, please reach out to The Trevor Project or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255. Locally WolfPack Clubhouse also offers an LGBTQ+ supportive 24-hour hotline at 833-WPC-WOLF (833-972-9653.) Additional contact information appears at the bottom of this article.

You have likely noticed the increased attention that pronouns have received in recent years. Many people, myself included, put our own preferred pronouns in our email signatures. We’ve included them next to how our names appear for Zoom meetings. More people introduce themselves to groups by saying their name and the pronouns they use. It is more common, in some settings, for others to ask “What pronouns do you use?” or “Do you use pronouns?”

Like any new way of doing things, the practice encounters resistance. Some simply don’t feel it is important to change their behavior, others see the practice as virtue signaling, and some tell themselves it isn’t a big deal. It’s just a pronoun, right?

Consider the last time you were called by the wrong name, over and over, even though you had tried to correct folks. Imagine that people called you by a nickname you didn’t like or used your full name (say, Robert or Pamela) even though you go by, maybe were even legally given, a different version of that name (Bob, Pam). Think about how it would feel if others used a pronoun different from the one you would use to describe yourself to refer to you. Or expected you to behave in a way more consistent with their expectations of gender: wanting you to wear dresses and make-up even or suggesting you shouldn’t cry regardless of your grief.

In a country where we value our individuality, our ability to craft our identity, and our freedom of expression, asking people to refer to us in ways that feel respectful is common courtesy. So it is with pronouns. I was born a female child and I identify as a woman (that makes me a cis-gendered female). I identify with the pronouns she/her but don’t mind being referred to as they. My husband is a cis-gendered male and uses he/his pronouns. There are, however, many people in my life who are not cis-gendered or who do not identify with pronouns others use to describe them.

It is important to recognize that people often reduce gender to male and female categories determined by body parts. However, there are many factors that shape gender. Biological characteristics, particularly visible ones, are one factor. So are chromosomes; people with an X and Y chromosome have long been identified as male and those with X and X chromosomes as female. Recent years have brought debates about whether women with XY chromosomes and levels of testosterone consistent with male levels can compete as women. When such patterns of chromosomes, presence of specific gonads, or hormones occur, an individual may be described as intersex. In some cases, babies are born with ambiguous genitalia or secondary sexual characteristics. Approximately 1.7% of the world’s population is born with intersex traits, not all of which are visible. For perspective, a similar number are born with red hair.

Powerful forces are at work in shaping how we think of our own gender and how we express it, and these often begin before birth. Think about baby showers, the preparation that happens once a fetus’s gender is noted on sonogram, gender reveal parties. The moment of birth is, in itself, significant. Our gender is claimed, stated, written on a form usually based on our body parts. When those body parts are ambiguous or there seem to be male and female physical characteristics at the same time, the gender can be determined or assigned on those same forms and noted to the world. Indeed, some have taken more radical steps towards gender assignment, conducting surgery on infants or young children so that their bodies will conform to prevalent ideas of common male and female bodies. Amnesty International has been active in expressing concern about the practice of performing surgical procedures on infants born with visible intersex traits given the risks involved and the inability of the person to determine their own identity.

Regardless, a person may have chromosomes, hormones, and visible and invisible characteristics consistent with male or female, but not identify with that gender. The term transgender is used to describe people who identify with, choose, or have a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. Some people describe themselves as being gender non-conforming, non-binary (neither male or female or both), or gender queer. Like everyone, they want the freedom to determine their own forms of expression, dress, mannerisms, and how they are introduced to others.

Our gender is an important aspect of who we are; and it is shaped throughout our lives. Our families, religion, schools, the media, businesses influence the way we dress, how comfortable we feel expressing different emotions in public, how directly we speak or how others react to us when we speak directly. This happens throughout our lives and a few minutes viewing ads on TV or in magazines is instructive in observing the messages surrounding us.

Many of us in the field of education recognized early on the importance of affirming students for who they are in ensuring that they are engaged and supported. We ask students to share the names they use rather than just using what is on the roster. Marriages, divorces, and lifelong use of middle names as first names are important considerations. We call students by these chosen names and work to pronounce those names correctly. We no longer use “man” or “he” as a universal term to refer to all individuals. We have discussions about why we use or don’t use Mr. and Ms. And we ask for their preferred pronouns. Fostering inclusion in the classroom and in the workplace is enough of a reason for many people to push past their own discomfort and practice saying, “My pronouns are they/theirs//she/hers. What are your pronouns?” Our society is faced with serious challenges, ones that require collective efforts by a range of people and diverse perspectives.

Valuing respect and the dignity of other human beings is also persuasive for many. Although they may not have considered how misusing or not asking about pronouns could be profoundly disrespectful, once people with these values understand the impact, they choose to make the effort.

If neither of these have worked for you or someone you know, consider the impact of being invalidated. Of having your identity dismissed. Of stigma and what it feels like to live without acceptance of who you are and how you wish to live. Research by the National Institutes of Health and other sources have documented higher rates of depression, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts among young people in “gender minorities” when compared to their cis-gendered peers. The rates were even higher among those who identified as pansexual, bisexual, queer, or mostly gay/lesbian. It is not the fact of embracing a different identity, it is the acceptance, affirmation, validation, inclusion of us as individuals regardless of these facts that matters.

This fall, I lost someone I cherish to suicide; she struggled to feel accepted, affirmed and validated for who she was. She had a loving family, but experienced bullying, disparaging remarks, invalidations in her journey of just being. Such experiences accumulate and they can feel like too much to bear. Speak to someone in the LGBTQ+ community or someone who simply considers themselves gender nonconforming and you will hear what it feels like to be invalidated. Some of the vitriol, judgment, and shaming were on display this past June when the Shasta County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a proclamation designating June Pride Month.

We can’t control how the world treats our loved ones; but we can make an important difference in counteracting stigma and affirming people’s chosen identities. Data from the Trevor Project suggests that “having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent.” Similarly, transgender and nonbinary youth reporting gender identity acceptance from adults and other youth in their lives had significant lower rates of suicide attempts in the previous year. What we do and how we treat others matters. Sometimes what is required of us is a simple stepping outside of our comfort zone to ask a question about something as simple as pronouns. Sometimes we may need to challenge long-standing positions on gender, race, sexuality, religion, even politics in order to fully accept and love someone we care for. There are many ways to see people for who they are and to have compassion and empathy for different ways of being in the world.

If you or someone you know is longing for community related to gender or sexual identity, you can find local resources at NorCal Outreach, Wolfpack Clubhouse, or Stonewall Alliance. If you want to become involved in efforts to reduce the harm caused by stigma, check out the county’s Stand Against Stigma program.

Sharon Brisolara holds a masters in Human Service Administration and a PhD in Program Evaluation and Planning, with concentrations in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies, both from Cornell University. She is an educator, writer, program evaluator, and Resilience and Equity Coach. Her monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout discusses the equity challenges facing our community through a variety of lenses including poetry, research, resilience coaching, and sociology.

Do you have a question or comment?  Sharon will be part of the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Join us there!  You can also contact Sharon here, or email Shasta Scout with questions, concerns or comments, here.

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