Listening and Learning This Pride Month
By Shosh Cohn
[Edited on 6/9/21]: After publication, we received constructive feedback from one of our amazing team members that the term “enby” is not meant to be an umbrella term used to describe non-binary individuals, and that its usage is a personal choice. With the author ‘s permission, we’ve edited this article.
Happy Pride month everyone!
When I first let the people in my life know I was going to be writing something for Pride month, I asked them a question: When you think about having a trans colleague, client, peer, or family member, what questions come to mind? The answers I received were not only helpful but plentiful. My goal, then, is to try to tackle a few of these questions. Before I can do that, however, I want to break down some terms that may be unfamiliar.
Gender: An abridged glossary
I want to make this very clear: the information I will be providing about gender in this piece is just barely skimming the surface of gender and its infinite variety. While I am just going to be sharing the basics, please know that there is always more to learn. Let’s start from square one – what does it mean to be transgender? A person who is transgender is someone whose gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth; conversely, someone who is cisgender is the same gender as the one they were assigned at birth. Breaking it down even further, there are binary trans people, and non-binary trans people. Let me give an example.
When many people think of gender, they often think of something such as this:
There’s ‘man’ at one end, ‘woman’ at the other end, and non-binary is some mix of man and woman. There is very little flexibility or variability in what the experience of those genders can be; it is overall, limited. This is the way I prefer to think of gender:
You can be at any point on the spectrum regardless of your gender. Binary trans people are people who are trans and fall within the gender binary (so a trans man or a trans woman). Non-binary people (sometimes shortened to enby) do not fall within the gender binary of man or woman – they can be a mix of the two, part of one binary gender and part non-binary, they can have no gender whatsoever, and more. The possibilities are expansive, endless, and wonderful. Gender is all about how you feel, how you would like to present yourself and be perceived. I challenge you to take the time to sit with your gender and think about why you are the gender you are.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get into some specifics.
“How can I ask about pronouns without making it awkward?”
I was so happy when I received this question, and then that happiness faded into some more conflicted feelings. This is a super complicated subject. In addressing this question, I want to say that I am speaking solely from my perspective and lived experiences. Other trans or non-binary individuals may have different opinions, and those are just as valid as my own. Here are the steps that I suggest:
Normalize asking for pronouns by using your own when you introduce yourself
Whether you’re conducting an interview, running a training, or serving as the technician for someone’s first direct overlap, the best way to ask about someone else’s pronouns is to model it yourself. This indicates that you are a safe space, and also normalizes the entire conversation. It also takes the onus of starting that conversation off of the trans person and places it more squarely on the shoulders of all individuals within the conversation. As an LBT, I work to share my pronouns with the people I am training to not only let them know who I am but also to let them know they are free to be themselves. Model by example.
Accept the answer you’re given
No matter what pronouns someone tells you, take those without question. Even if you’re 99% sure that individual is trans or non-binary (which, how can you know for sure?), maybe they’re not quite ready to come out or they haven’t decided the environment is safe yet. Whatever it is, it is that person’s choice whether or not they share their pronouns and identity with you. Don’t take it personally, and respect that person’s autonomy and decisions, whatever they may be.
Make yourself a safe space
Aside from introducing yourself using your pronouns, there are other steps you can take to indicate to others that you are a safe person to confide in. Having your pronouns in your email signature, using inclusive language, and using others’ correct pronouns are all ways to show your trans colleagues that you are someone that can be trusted. Additionally, know that some people may not be comfortable coming out to a group but may be willing to do so individually. If you are unsure of someone’s pronouns, consider asking them outside of a group setting where they may feel safer interacting with just you.
In my opinion, the best way to ask for someone’s pronouns is model by example. It is not solely the responsibility of our trans team members to initiate those conversations; as cis people, initiating that conversation helps to normalize asking for and sharing pronouns and makes it easier (and safer) for trans people to share if they so choose.
“My team member is trans – how do I go about telling families?”
First, props to you for wanting to be as supportive of your colleagues as possible. It definitely means a lot. I do want to put in a word of caution, though – sometimes we get so caught up trying to do what we think is right for someone, we forget to ask what they actually want. If you have a team member come out to you or share their pronouns with you, the next step you should take is to ask what they want. Get their consent for anything you may be considering doing and ask them what their preferred course of action is. For myself personally, I don’t like coming out to a family until I have the chance to get to know them. Then I can make the choice when and whether I share that part of myself with them. Some people might want to be out immediately, and some may prefer to go stealth. Whatever they choose to do is entirely valid and should be respected.
This Pride month, I encourage you all to seek our queer and trans voices (especially queer and trans voices of color) and learn about their lived experiences. Learn about the side of society they encounter and listen to what they have to say about being allies. My voice is not the only one out there, and I speak from a position of privilege in many ways. Seeking out and amplifying those voices who experience marginalization different from my own and your own is critical to being a well-rounded, supportive ally. Then, I challenge you to extend that practice beyond this month. How can you be supportive in your day-to-day practice, rather than just when the spotlight is on the community? It is up to us to model those behaviors and make it known that ABA is a space in which queer and trans members are welcomed, heard, and appreciated. Your work may start here, but it cannot end when June ends.
If your team member does want to come out to families, here are a few tips I’ve come up with:
- Again, model by example. Supervisors and other team members should use that person’s correct pronouns when in conversation with the family and the client, even if that team member isn’t present. Not only does it show respect, but it’s a very subtle way to potentially modify someone else’s behavior.
- Depending on the preferences of the team member, you could arrange a meeting with the family, or you could send out an email. If the team member wants their pronouns shared immediately, a great time to do that would be when you are notifying the family of a change in teaming. Something like: “Hello! We have a new team member for your, their name is [name] and their pronouns are [pronouns]. These are the days they would be scheduled to see your child”. Making it casual like this helps to normalize sharing pronouns rather than making it a big deal, which could further other your team member in the long run.
- Don’t be afraid to provide and accept feedback. If you misgender your colleague and get corrected, accept it as graciously as possible. Sometimes people tend to over-apologize or demonize themselves when they misgender someone, but ultimately what that does is shift who is the victim in that situation and forces the trans team member to comfort you when they were the one who was misgendered. If you are corrected, a quick “Whoops! My bad”, fix the pronoun, and move on is all you need. Providing that feedback to others if they misgender your colleague reinforces the appropriate use of pronouns and demonstrates a respect for that individual’s pronouns and gender.
People to listen to:
Ashlee Marie Preston, ig: @ashleemariepreston
Blair Imani, ig: @blairimani
Chella Man, ig: @chellaman
Devin-Norelle, ig: @steroidbeyonce
Jake Graf, ig: @jake_graf5
Laverne Cox, ig: @lavernecox
Liz Kleinrock, ig: @teachandtransform
Munroe Bergdorf, ig: @munroebergdorf
Raquel Willis, ig: @raquel_willis