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Pronoun badges: why they are so important

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Edinburgh University Student's Association recently attracted criticism for encouraging their new students to wear pronoun badges during freshers week, but what's the problem?

For the vast majority of people, we don’t even have to think about our pronouns.

When we go out and someone refers to us by “he” or “she”, it doesn’t make us uncomfortable, doesn’t disrespect our identities and doesn’t cause us any dysphoria. 

We are happy to let people assume our gender because we present in a certain way and we’re not trans. 

Indeed the vast majority of the population are cisgender, or 'cis', meaning that the gender you were assigned at birth matches the gender you identify as.

For example, I was assigned female at birth and I identify as a woman and use she/her pronouns. 

I also present in a fairly feminine way and never have to worry about being mistaken for another gender.

I write this article knowing that the above facts mean I am in a very privileged position to talk about an issue that doesn’t necessarily affect me directly. 

However, I have worked closely with a number of transgender people throughout my university career, making an effort to educate myself, and have come to realise what exactly the role of an ally is in transgender liberation.

If someone is transgender, or 'trans', they identify with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. 

Trans people can often identify as another binary gender, for example where a transgender woman was assigned male at birth, but many do not feel like they fit within the binary confines of ‘man’ or ‘woman’. 

These people are known as non-binary, and there are a huge number of identities that come under this umbrella; gender is very fluid and non-binary identities can vary hugely.

If I decided to cut my hair short and present in a more masculine fashion, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable correcting people who misgendered me as a man as this is one of the privileges afforded to me as a cis woman. 

However, many trans and non-binary people do not have this privilege. 

Transphobia is rife in our society, especially in recent years where a small minority of women in the Labour Party have left the party over the move to allow trans women to stand on all-women shortlists. 

Equally, with almost half of transgender pupils in the UK attempting suicide, it’s clearly a huge issue. 

Trans people can come up against incredible hostility for merely existing, something cis people like myself can’t even fathom.

This is where pronoun badges come in. 

For cis people, pronouns may seem relatively unimportant.

However, for the trans community, when people use the correct pronouns for you it can be hugely affirming.

Similarly, when someone uses the wrong pronouns for you, such as those of the gender you were assigned at birth, it can be a horrible experience which makes you feel invalidated, disrespected and dysphoric. 

This act is often known as misgendering; where someone makes the wrong assumption about your gender identity. 

Much the same can happen with names; using an individuals 'dead name', that is the one they used before transition, of a trans person is hugely disrespectful, and can be really damaging.

Many may not feel able to correct people about pronouns.

Indeed, 99% of the time it is a cis person who misgenders a trans person, where there is an obvious power imbalance due to the privilege cis people hold. 

It is this problem which the Edinburgh University Students’ Association are trying to combat by introducing pronoun badges during Freshers week, which begins next week. 

They will be available at receptions of Students’ Association building as well as being handed out at liberation events.

In addition to she/her and he/him, Edinburgh are also including they/them pronouns for non-binary students who prefer it.

Wearing pronoun badges means that there is no need to verbally correct someone, making it unlikely for there to be any misgendering in the first place, and as such seems like a sensible solution.

So what’s the problem?

The move has sparked a huge amount of media attention, with people saying they’re unnecessary and put people into boxes.

However, a key thing to remember here is that these badges are not mandatory, and members of the student union staff won’t be greeting you and forcing you to wear a pronoun badge as soon as you arrive at university.

They also aren’t just another issue of the ‘snowflake’ generation; as I’ve said above, pronoun badges can be incredibly helpful for trans students, and they can help cis people to learn more about pronouns and trans issues. 

Another issue raised is whether cis people, if they want to, should wear the badges.

The answer is yes!

This normalises the idea of expressing your pronouns; some companies ask employees to put their pronouns in their email signatures, and many people put them in their Twitter bios too.

If you want to be a good trans ally, this is somewhere you can start.

As a recent graduate of Edinburgh, I’m really happy to see my alma mater do their bit to help trans students on campus.

Sadly, the unnecessary media attention towards something relatively minor has meant there has been an influx of transphobia on campus, especially on Facebook posts and towards sabbatical officers.

If you don’t like the idea of pronoun badges, feel free not to wear one.

But please don’t stop others from wearing them; they might need them a lot more than you do.

Image: Keith Murray

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