Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Why are we still debating pronoun checks?

By Fionuala McCarron

Fionuala McCarron discusses the importance of pronoun checks in the context of debating and beyond. 

It has always struck me as odd that it is largely older and more Conservative people who refuse to use a person’s preferred gender pronoun if they don’t believe it matches a person’s gender identity. After all, it is this group that is stereotypically more concerned with good manners. Often, people of a certain generation have very strange nicknames and I imagine they’d be appalled if you refused to honour them. I dread to think of the battle of getting my Uncle Jeremy to use “they” pronouns for a friend, yet I know he would be simply appalled if we started referring to him as Hugh, his birth name. I personally have never understood why pronouns and the introduction of them became a culture war issue. To me, they have always been a matter of courtesy; just as I call Uncle Jeremy by Jeremy rather than Hugh, I have called people by their preferred gender pronouns, even before I really understood the importance of doing so. 

“Fin or Fionuala, she or they.” I have said this line hundreds of times in the last few years. Before university, I don’t think I had ever even thought about my pronouns, but throughout my time here, I’m likely to have said this once or twice each Tuesday and Thursday, and five times or more on weekends. This is because I have spent my time during university competitive debating and, for many years now, it has been an international policy that, before a round of debating, you introduce yourself by your name, whether you were speaking first or second in your team, and your preferred gender pronouns if you had any. 

This policy was introduced in 2014 by a trans woman who argued that a standardised policy would be the most inclusive towards trans and gender-non-conforming people. In fact, it was at a competition in Glasgow where this policy was first introduced. 

I spoke to Crash Wigley, the woman who first suggested the policy about why she wanted to see it implemented at competitions, and the importance of pronoun checks more generally. She explained that her experiences of being misgendered, including people interrupting her speeches to offer a point of information by shouting “Sir” at her, made it difficult to enjoy and carry on with the hobby she loved. 

The pronoun policy in debating is a significant step towards making people feel included in these spaces. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve met most of the trans and gender non-conforming people I know through debating and have rarely seen people misgendered, and almost certainly not more than once. Crash put a great deal of thought into her proposal that – one that ended up being adopted almost verbatim – and included provision for those people who were genuinely uncertain of their gender pronouns or who were not out as trans or gender nonconforming in all situations and worried about either outing or misgendering themselves. 

For that, we can say we have no preference or decline to say which are useful alternatives to stating our pronouns. Of course, this is a little open to misinterpretation (I remember a man from Glasgow being invited to a Woman and Nonbinary people’s social because he defaulted to no preference when giving pronouns). The fact that the policy means that you restate your pronouns about five times during a competition allows space for experimentation. 

It has also surprised me just how many people I would have ended up misgendering if we didn’t have the pronoun policy in place. It was definitely my first experience of people whose pronouns didn’t match their gender identity, something that isn’t exclusive to trans people either. The confusion I have seen from people who are otherwise strong allies and very informed about trans and gender-non-conforming people to the existence of lesbians who use he/him pronouns but otherwise identify as women is somewhat surprising. One of the reasons that Crash thinks that having more pronoun introductions is useful is: “You always have to make guesses and assumptions about other people’s genders and how they want to be referred to. And whenever you do that, you’re bound to make mistakes.” 

But what if a person doesn’t use he/him or she/her or they/them? Alternative neopronouns such as xe/xem/xir exist, although they are pretty uncommon. Considering just about 1% of people fall under the trans umbrella, and around half of those are binary trans people who use either he or she pronouns, the proportion of people who don’t use binary pronouns is already a tiny minority. Neopronouns are now a minority within a minority, and as they/them pronouns get more mainstream acceptance it is likely that this minority will only shrink further. However, there are still people who dislike they/them pronouns for whatever reason and choose to use another pronoun: they/them pronouns are not a perfect solution. There is a fair argument that a language like English, which developed on the assumption that there are only two singular pronouns, simply does not have the words for those who do not fit the binary, and that existing words will not do. 

Overall, when in doubt, it’s usually safer to just ask. 


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