Edit: For a guide to the terminology used in this post, plus some extra words you might come across while talking about transgender issues, please see this post on transgender terminology.
A transgender person is a person whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. This can mean someone who was AFAB (assigned female at birth) identifying as male, someone who was AMAB (assigned male at birth) identifying as female, an AMAB or AFAB person identifying as non-binary or genderqueer (terms which mean identifying outside of the male-female gender binary) or an intersex person (someone whose chromosomes are neither XX or XY) identifying as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.
One of the most important things for a transgender person is for other people to respect our pronouns. For example, I was AFAB but I identify as male, and for me, people using ‘he/him/his’ pronouns for me and referring to me as male is as important as it is for people to use my correct name.
You might think that pronouns aren’t important. You might think ‘we are all special, gender isn’t important, I don’t see gender’ but that is because you are cisgender (not transgender) and you have never had your gender identity questioned. When you say you are male or female, people believe you without question. For a transgender person, it is often a constant battle to ‘convince’ people that we are the gender we say we are. Having people respect our pronouns is one part of that battle; to have people affirm with the language they use, that we are who we are.
When someone uses the wrong pronouns for a transgender person, it can be very, very upsetting. It can bring back memories and flashbacks of past abuse for that person. Often we have been emotionally abused by people who used the wrong pronouns for us deliberately to make that abuse hurt more. Often we have had the wrong pronouns hurled at us while being physically abused by people who hated us simply for our gender identity.
When you use incorrect pronouns for us, you are telling us that your assumption about our gender is more important than our own truth. You are telling us that it is more important for you to offend us and make us feel uncomfortable, upset, or even suicidal, in order to make yourself feel more comfortable.
When you misgender (use the wrong pronouns for) us, you are saying that our lived experience does not matter. You are saying that you know us better than we know ourselves, and you are saying that hurting us is more important than changing the tiny words you use to refer to us. It is not difficult for a cisgender person to use the correct pronouns for a transgender person. We all make mistakes, but neither is it difficult to own the mistake, apologise and move on.
Another important thing about using the right pronouns is the safety of the transgender person. When you use incorrect pronouns for us, you run the risk of ‘outing’ us (telling other people that we are not the gender we were assigned at birth). This can put us in danger of abuse, or even physical violence.
But most importantly, when you use the wrong pronouns for a transgender person, you are telling us that you are not our ally, you are not our friend, and you are not someone we can trust. You are telling us that your decision to make assumptions about our gender is more important than our dignity as human beings. You are telling us that your comfort is more important than the validation of our identities, and you are telling us that your convenience is more important than our emotional and physical safety.
I hope that this article has helped you to understand a little bit about why using the correct pronouns for a transgender person is more than important, it is essential for the safety and well-being of the person, and that you will go forward armed with a little more knowledge and compassion, and that you will do the right thing. Transgender people don’t deliberately upset you with the language we use to refer to you; please afford us the same respect.