What’s the Deal With Gender Pronouns?

Hello, blogosphere! My name is Shea, I work at the UC Davis School of Medicine, and my gender pronouns are she/her/hers.

If you’re new to LGBTQ+ terminology, you might wonder why we ask you for your gender pronouns during conference registration, and why we will place those pronouns on your conference name tag. And if I introduced myself to you in the manner above, you might think: well, duh, Shea. You look like a woman and you seem to identify as a woman. Of course “she” is your gender pronoun. Why would you need to specify?

Here’s why: because not everyone identifies as “he” or “she.” And moreover, even someone who may “look like a woman” may not identify as a woman. (By the way, “looking like” any one gender is more subjective than you would think, but that’s a conversation for another time.) I identify as cisgender, meaning that my gender identity (woman) is congruent with the sex I was assigned at birth (female).

istock_000062050250_largeAs such, I am generally perceived as a woman without question, and I am very rarely “misgendered.” However, those who identify outside the “male/female” binary are often met with confusion, fear, misunderstanding, and hatred. This constant misgendering has been shown to correlate with negative health outcomes. Misgendering also leads to harassment, assault, and other kinds of violence: 2016 was the deadliest year on record for trans Americans. By misgendering someone, especially in a public venue, you may be putting them in harm’s way – even if it wasn’t your intention.

This is why it is essential to ask patients for their preferred names and pronouns – especially in medical settings, where trans patients are often required to disclose their legal names for insurance purposes. (Changing one’s legal name and gender marker can be an expensive and time-consuming process, depending on state of residence.) And now that the use of “they” as a pronoun for a single person has been adopted by the Washington Post Style Guide, mainstream culture is finally starting to take notice.

So even though I am a cisgender woman who has the privilege of being able to take pronouns for granted, I don’t want to do that. I list my pronouns in my email signature and on my social media profiles because it’s a way to start the conversation about why we should ask in the first place. I won’t lie; it’s tricky to start asking. You’ll feel weird about it and you’ll probably mess up at least once. And that’s okay. When you feel uncomfortable, just think about the discomfort that your patient may feel from having to correct others on their pronouns – even in the face of harm. By asking, you can immediately make them feel more comfortable and safe in your care.

Here are some more resources on gender pronouns:

Shea Hazarian is an Academic Programs Analyst at UC Davis Health and the Improving OUTcomes Conference coordinator. She earned a BA in Sociology from the University of San Francisco and currently works to develop multiple LGBTQ+ health initiatives at the Health System.