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Retraining the Brain: Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Yes sir! Here’s your coffee.”

It happens in a flash, at the clinic, or at the coffee shop. Someone looks at you and makes an assumption about whether you are male or female.

And they get it wrong.

Sometimes you laugh it off; let them off the hook, but underneath, you’re hurt.

Being misgendered can be devastating to gender nonconforming people. Everyone who walks through our clinic doors deserves to be treated respectfully and kindly. So when someone “reads” us as the wrong gender, or doesn’t ask what pronouns we use, it can cause unnecessary pain and anxiety.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

If we all work a little harder, we can make the world more welcoming for all of our trans, queer, genderqueer and nonbinary friends, colleagues and clients.

We just need to gain some awareness, and to practice.

The challenge
What is challenging about using gender-neutral pronouns is breaking the habits of language and perception that have been socialized into each of us. We have learned that how we greet and treat people depends on our understanding of what gender they are. Unlearning our gender socialization and bias takes practice.

And here’s the good news: Moving away from the constraints of binary gender definitions frees us to be more authentic, less judgmental, and more truthful! People get to define their own gender; it’s up to each of us to change how we think, speak and act.

Pay attention to pronouns
Learning to be gender-neutral takes practice, and being conscious of pronouns helps our genderqueer, trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming friends and clients feel welcome and seen. Learning to do so can help change the world. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

“We can do this!” says Lindsay King-Miller of ReWire News in her post titled “How Do I Stop Accidentally Misgendering My Co-Worker?”

“The trick to replacing a bad habit with a better one is to repeat it over and over until it becomes muscle memory,” she says. In other words, we can retrain our brains.

Two of our clinicians at Alliance Health Project—Charlie Dunkin and Adrienne Lovelund—offered training on using gender-neutral pronouns with clients in our clinic, a practice that also applies to colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. The workshop facilitators invited the attendees to “reflect, practice, and grow.”

This is a straightforward step to learning something new, but what happens if we get it wrong?

Practice getting it right
According to Dunkin and Lovelund, practice makes it easier, and practice using gender-neutral terms in all cases will make it easier to address people who identify outside of he or she. Examples of gender-neutral terms that are used by some nonbinary folk include: ze/zie/hir/hir or they/them/their/ or

ve/ver/vis,  and per/per/pers.

Addressing clients in ways that uplift rather than alienate them is a critical part of our mission at AHP. It is part of how we, “support the health and wellness of the LGBTQ and HIV-affected community.”

Some examples of using gender-neutral terms with clients include: instead of asking “Do you have a wife or husband?” ask if the person is in a relationship. Rather than announcing that a client has arrived by saying, “She/he has arrived for her/his appointment,” you can say, “Your client is in the waiting room,” or “They are in the waiting room.”

You may think you know by looking at someone what pronoun they use, but visual cues are not reliable; asking is a great way to learn. Getting in the habit of letting people know what gender you use, and asking what gender they use, is one way to prevent the awkwardness of referring to someone as the wrong gender.

When we stumble, apologize
How do we correct ourselves when we stumble or misgender someone? Immediately, humbly and simply. We don’t need to justify or defend, but simply to say, “I’m sorry, I assumed your gender, but don’t actually know. What pronoun should I use when referring to you?” According to Lovelund and Dunkin, your response should be “concise, immediately corrected and focused on the person you misgendered rather than yourself.” Later you can engage in self-reflection or talk to a peer.

Lindsey King-Miller suggests that the way to retrain our brains is to practice in private, regularly using actual people in our office, or in some other part of our lives. Getting mad at ourselves or apologizing profusely isn’t productive, but practice is. King-Miller suggests we practice even “if this sounds or feels weird,” then “run through it again until it doesn’t.”

Have fun practicing, but whatever you do, be sure to lift up the gender nonbinary, trans, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people in your life.

You’ll have a great start on changing the world.