15. Pronouns: a simple primer and a workshop

Most of the humans on this planet are cis-gendered. For the unitiated, this means that most of us perform the gender that we’ve been born with, and are comfortable with that. Or in other words, I was born with a male body, think of myself as a male, and am completely ok with people thinking of me as male.

That makes me cis-gendered, and until a few years ago it wasn’t even something I thought about.

Not everyone has it this way, though. Some are born with a body like mine, and identify as female. Some don’t feel that either male or female do the trick. Some are fluid about these things. In fact, there is a whole colourful spectrum out there, full of people of all sorts.

Sadly, most languages aren’t built to encompass that diversity. There’s a “he” word, a “she” word and their correspondinh him/her and his/hers. If I have a friend who doesn’t fit either the “him” or the “her” category, how do I talk about … ?

Some languages have solutions for this. English doesn’t really have an elegant one. I’ve been introduced to using “them/they/theirs” as a way of dealing with this issue. It’s not perfect, especially when you’re in situations where you need to point out an individual in a group. But for people who deal with constant misgendering, it’s a lot better than nothing.

And what if someone like me gets slapped with a “they” instead of a “he”? Well, we get correctly gendered by most of society all the bloody time, so I think we’ll survive. Especially if it helps some people who have a daily struggle with language and labels, just because they are who they are.

At the wizard larp, New World Magischola, they/them/theirs was the default pronoun, and to make people more used to that, a short workshop was run. It was very simple, but a bit of an eye-opener for many people.

I was one of the people helping run workshops before the larp. What we did was that we paired people off 1-on-1, and then let them change partners every 20–30 seconds. They then had to talk about their last conversation partner’s clothes, but were not allowed to use he/she/her/his, etc.

Every time someone failed, the partner would say “pronoun”, do the sign language sign for P (optional) and move on without it being a big thing.

It sounded extremely easy, but by throwing a curve ball or two it became obvious that this isn’t easy, even for people who are used to being around gender-queer individuals.

“Oh, they had a red sweater. How interesting. Who were you talking to?”

“That gentleman over there. Oh. Hehe. Facepalm.”

Small changes are also changes

But it was easy, it was fun, and it helped create a relaxed atmosphere, where it was obviously ok to correct people and where everyone did their best to be aware.

Did it work? Well, most people still called me “he”, but that’s what it said on my pronoun name tag as well. And some of those who are used to being misgendered said that they appreciated how people really made an effort.

It’s not a method for changing the world, but it’s making a small part of it a little better for some people who deal with enough shit to not need any more if it can be helped. That’s a success to me.

But the best part is that it’s ridiculously easy to copy. I hope some of you do.

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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