FROM THE EDITOR
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Recognizing gender diversity and related pronouns
By Susan Weiner
I winced when the museum docent asked the child with long, curly hair, “What do you think, young lady?” When the docent repeated his mistake, the child muttered, “I’m a boy,” too low for the docent to hear. His parents didn’t say anything to the docent (and neither did I), and I wondered what any of us could have done differently. That incident is one of the reasons why I signed up for a webinar on “An Introduction to Pronouns & Gender Diversity” delivered by Shannon Peters, a licensed psychologist who teaches at Boston University.
Sex versus gender
One of Peters’s first topics was the difference between “sex,” which is identified visually at birth, and “gender,” which is self-identified. History makes binary—male/female—gender appear natural, but it isn’t, she said. She defined terms related to gender and sexual orientation, some of which I’ve wondered about, such as “queer.” Her slide said: “Historically a derogatory term for gay individuals, this word is now used positively by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and allies. It is sometimes used to describe an open, fluid sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression.”
Peters also discussed gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics that don’t “associate a gender with the individual who is being discussed.” The most common gender-neutral approach is to use they/their/theirs for an individual—which is what the NAPFA Advisor typically uses. However, alternative words have developed. I am intrigued by Mx., a gender-neutral honorific for use instead of words like Ms. or Mr. That would be handy for starting a formal email to a person with a gender-neutral name like Blake or Carey.
Using an individual’s preferred pronouns is a serious matter, Peters explained. The Human Rights Campaign has concluded: “Using someone’s preferred name and pronouns is suicide prevention.”
One of the lessons from Peters is that we can avoid causing discomfort by removing gender from our sentences.
Thinking back to the boy in the museum, the docent’s “What do you think, young lady?” could have been “What do you think about that painting?” In examples from Peters, “Alright, boys and girls, it’s story time” could become “Alright, everyone, it’s story time”; and “He is here to meet with Meghan” could become “Meghan’s 3 p.m. meeting is here.” As with any suggestions for changing how we speak, we’d all benefit from practicing these new approaches so they become natural for us.