I often talk about pronouns in this blog, but I’m not sure just how much I’ve been able to emphasize how important they, and inclusive language in general, are in our day to day lives. Of course this is an English blog so I can’t speak for other languages or members of the transgender community whose primary language isn’t English. Every language is different, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for transgender individuals in countries where the primary language is extremely gendered.
Whether we like it or not, one of the first things people see about us is our outward presentation of gender. Clothes, hair, voice, how we stand, how we move, all has some effect on how we’re gendered by people around us, and thus how we’re treated. Something as simple as being referred to as “he” or “she”, or “sir” or “ma’am” can make or break someone’s day. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the society that we live in.
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always been the most inclusive minded person. It took a lot of work to get my common speech to the point of being inclusive, and I still mess up more times than I care to admit. However, the work it takes is worth the time and effort if it can improve someone’s day.
The easiest way to start with inclusive language is the use of singular they. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns and aren’t able to ask for whatever reason, there is absolutely nothing wrong with defaulting to they/them. Of course it’s better to ask, but that has its own problems. I both love and hate people asking my pronouns. I love it, because it shows me that the person cares, and wants to get it right. I hate it, because it means I’m not passing yet, and that’s problematic in its own way.
“Passing” is what is generally used to refer to someone who is unmistakably the gender they identify as. A lot of transgender people put a lot of stake into whether or not they pass, while others argue that passing isn’t everything, and that people should accept you for who you are, regardless of how you present. Both points have merit, and it really comes down to personal preference and what you want out of your transition. Things are even shakier for non-binary and gender nonconforming individuals, where it’s near impossible to pinpoint what “passing” should actually mean, let alone whether it’s a goal that needs met.
I really wish that the standard would be to simply ask everyone’s pronouns all the time. Better yet would be on introduction to provide your own pronouns all the time, but that just isn’t the way society works, at least not yet. I’d love to see that happen, but as a transgender person it feels that I can’t work towards that kind of change without immediately outting myself as transgender every time I meet someone. Change like this really needs to come from cisgender individuals to normalize it.
I’ve been to support groups where it’s normal to introduce yourself with your pronouns, and it was so nice, especially when I was freshly out and not at all passing, to be accepted and validated as my identified gender and pronouns. However, I’ve also been in positions where that feels just as othering as being the only one asked for their pronouns. When you’re in a women’s only group, and are the only transgender woman, it can feel like everyone introducing themselves with the pronouns are only doing it for your sake. Even if that isn’t the reality, it can feel that way.
Recently, the subject of pronouns and inclusive language in the board game industry came up on my Twitter feed. A game designer tried to argue that using inclusive language doesn’t actually have any real benefit. I disagree wholeheartedly. Language is a tool for communication, and proper communication means respecting both the listener and the speaker. If you’re not using someone’s correct pronouns, you’re not respecting them, and therefore not effectively communicating. This conversation shifted quickly to the topic of exclusively using “he” in rulebooks for board games.
Inclusive language in the case of board games creates a sign that says who is welcomed and expected to join the fun. If a rulebook for a board game only uses “he/him” pronouns, it alienates 50% of the audience. It tells me, as a woman playing your game, that I was not given the time of day to be considered as someone who might possibly play your game.
In my own rulebooks, I do my best to only use singular they to refer to players and their actions. It means a lot to me to make sure that everyone reading my rules can feel comfortable doing so. I can’t tell you how often I’ve read the rules out loud to my group of friends, almost exclusively women, and cringed at the exclusive use of “he” to refer to the players. I do my best to reword the rules as I’m reading to be he/she or they, but it takes effort and it’s exhausting.
I’d like to think that if I got published that whatever publisher I sign with will be inclusive in the final rulebooks. Maybe even guarantee it in whatever contract I sign. I’d love to say I’m brave enough to argue for that, and that I’d pick a publisher that stands by inclusivity.
In my spare time I help run a board game convention in St. Louis called Geekway to the West. I’ve only been on the board of directors for a little over a year, but at my first meeting we all discussed putting pronouns on badges. To me, this is an awesome stepping stone in the right direction. We ended up putting a required pronoun question on registration.
The question had He/Him, She/Her, They/Them, prefer not to say, and contact me. Contact me ended up being extremely problematic. Almost all of the contact me questions were confusion about what pronouns were, why we needed them to register, or people really mad that we were asking for pronouns. Someone even requested “your majesty” as the pronoun they wanted on their badge.
The reason we went with putting them on badges instead of using stickers, ribbons, or buttons as most conventions do is because we wanted it to be as important as the attendee’s name. If all we used were completely optional stickers, the only people using them would be those who are already on board with why pronouns are important, and transgender people. Forcing them on badges, and requiring the user to take an extra step with the option of opting out or using custom pronouns if he/she/they weren’t good enough, felt like a much better solution.
The goal in how we use pronouns is to create an environment where the people we want to be around are comfortable and feel welcome. Exclusively using “he”, or ignoring pronouns entirely, sends a message that you don’t want to be sending to your audience, and therefore limits the audience you get. It’s important to do everything in your power to include those who are in the minority, and to strive to create equity where you can. Even if that means offending a few bad apples that refuse to change with the times.