On Using Pronouns

diverse women showing respect to each other while holding hands

When I was asked for the first time about my pronouns, I was confused.

English is not my first language, so I thought this was one of those subtle things they don’t teach in school, just like the correct use of “actually” or “literally.”

I am a white/cis/male. I grew up in Italy during the ‘80s and ’90s. No one ever questioned my identity, I never felt unheard, and before my 30s, no one ever took the time to introduce me to the concept of privilege.

I know now I was raised as a privileged person, and there is so much I don’t know I don’t know (yet).

This explains my confusion about declaring my pronouns.

<< Aren’t my pronouns clear? My developed facial hair says it all; why should I bother? >>

10-years-ago me

Dear 10-years-ago me, let me tell you why you should bother.

First and foremost, assuming the gender of another person based on appearance or name isn’t always correct. The act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message — that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.

Not every person who wears facial hair identifies as “He.” I know you have been raised thinking this way, but it’s just wrong.

<< What do you mean wrong? I’ve also been raised respecting others; was that wrong too? >>

10-years-ago me

No, the intention of respecting others is fine, but actions are more impactful than intentions. So all I’m saying is that culture evolves, and some of the things we thought were right, we now know they were not. But if your premise is to respect others, we are already on the same page.

The way to respect a person is to respect the language they use to refer to themselves. Transgender people, in particular, have been forced to find new ways in the language to make space for their very existence. Some choose new names for themselves; these aren’t “false,” “nicknames,” “aliases,” or “preferred” names—they are their real names even if they don’t have the resources or ability to make them their legal names.

A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, female, or non-binary. For example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers, a female person could use they/them/theirs, and a non-binary person could use he/him/his.

Also, there are more than two, three, four, or five genders in the world. Therefore, there are more than two, three, four, or five pronouns. All are equally valid. Some people don’t use any pronouns at all.

<< Do you think that changing the language is enough to achieve equality? >>

10-years-ago me

No. But it’s a part of it.

When we, as a society, did realize that cars had a terrible social cost in terms of injuries and deaths, we started to roll out programs with the intent to make cars safer. Seatbelts that now we take for granted were seen as a terrible idea. 

The Wisconsin State Journal in 1957 argued the value of seat belts had yet to be proved, especially in cases of keeping people from “being thrown out of the car.” They argued that door latches could accomplish this without preventing speedy escape from an auto going into a stream or catching fire, which used to be not infrequent events.

As a result, some car owners cut the seat belts out of their cars.

In 1957, did anyone really think that seatbelts would make cars completely safe, eliminating the risk of injury or death? Not at all.

However, with the systematic introduction of safety features, in 20 years (from 2001 to 2020) in Europe, the death rate in car crashes was reduced by 63.40%. (source)

Moving away from a binary perspective on gender will take some effort and our language impacts how we think.

Adding your pronouns in the signature of your emails, to your online profiles, on your business cards is not the definitive solution for inclusion. Still, it signals respect, dignity, and alliance towards those who have to fight for their existence.

Sincerely,
Luca Sartoni (he/him)


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling TsengLetizia BarbiLivia Iacolare, Simone Silverstein.

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead a team of engineers across three continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

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