You have probably heard people introduce themselves with their name as well as their pronouns. Do you wonder why some individuals share their pronouns so frequently? The simple answer is that we all have pronouns – sharing them up front minimizes the chance of someone using the incorrect ones. Accidentally using the wrong pronouns for someone can feel awkward and having to correct someone on your pronouns can be uncomfortable as well. Sharing them when you introduce yourself can help avoid this situation, which is one of the many reasons it is important.
Let’s dig a bit deeper, though, and recognize how pronouns relate to identity, expression, and gender. Then, lastly, how being aware of these differences and using these techniques can help with suicide prevention.
Biological Sex vs. Gender
Many people wonder what the difference is between biological sex and gender, or if there is a difference at all since for a long time these two terms have been used interchangeably. As social norms and scientific research around this topic advance it has become clear that these are two distinct categories and should be treated as such. There have been many scientific studies, including this one by the Yale School of Medicine, that clarify the differences. The most direct way to explain it is by saying biological sex is physical or external and gender is psychological or internal.
Biological sex is what is most often described as “male” and “female” and is determined by which set of reproductive organs an individual has or by their chromosomal makeup. So, when a baby is born, doctors will determine a biological sex and this is what we refer to as “sex assigned at birth.” In some cases individuals can be born with sets of both reproductive organs or a chromosomal makeup beyond XX or XY. In these cases a person’s biological sex would be considered “intersex.”
Gender, on the other hand, is a person’s internal sense of self and how they fit into social and cultural norms. If you are assigned female at birth, view yourself as a woman and are happiest being perceived as a woman by others, the term for this is “cisgender.” Same goes for being assigned male at birth and having an identity that aligns with that assignment, this is also cisgender. Being “transgender” means that an individual’s biological sex and gender identity don’t align. Most transgender individuals don’t feel that they fit into the social and cultural roles that go with their sex assigned at birth and search for a gender identity that fits their experiences best.
Lastly, there are the terms “gender non-conforming,” or “GNC” for short, and “non-binary.” Non-binary typically refers to an individual who feels neither attached to or represented by the male or female gender expectations and identifiers. Whereas, GNC individuals may feel an attachment to multiple gender identities, sometimes in combination, sometimes at different times or sometimes to varying degrees. With that being said, some individuals will use the terms gender non-conforming, non-binary, and transgender interchangeably or as broader umbrella terms in describing their gender experience. There are also many labels that describe very specific gender experiences that individuals may use instead, or in tandem with the terms described above.
Although someone’s label may change over time, it is important to know that each individual understands their own experience of gender best. Whatever label they use to describe that experience is what is right for them.
Identity and Expression
Now, that we have gone through the differences between biological sex and identity, it is time to understand expression. Identity is how you perceive yourself and expression is how you display that identity to the world. This expression is most commonly achieved through how someone dresses, wears their hair, or does their makeup. It can also be observed, in more subtle manners sometimes, through things such as body language and inflection/ tone of voice.
Many people use expression to show the world what gender they identify with through the use of social and cultural norms. So, a woman dressing in a way that is traditionally considered feminine, or a man dressing in a way that is traditionally considered masculine. This type of expression can be very helpful for some transgender folks. By dressing in a way that socially aligns with their gender, as opposed to their biological sex, they may feel more comfortable, confident and happier. This can also help Trans and GNC folks be more readily and correctly identified by others.
What’s important to note though is that gender identity and expression do not always align, nor do they have to! Men can wear dresses or use makeup and still be straight and/or cisgender. Women can wear suits or use power tools and that doesn’t make them any less of a woman. The same goes for transgender and GNC people. Just because someone’s identity may be more masculine or feminine, doesn’t mean that everything they do or like will be too and that’s okay!
The important thing is that we respect others’ identities and don’t make assumptions based solely on expression. How someone presents themself to the world may be an indicator of their identity, or it may not – which is why it is important that we get comfortable asking for people’s pronouns and sharing our own.
Safety and Support
So, what does all of this have to do with suicide prevention?
Living a life where you feel as though you constantly have to justify who you are to others can be very draining. Always worrying about discrimination, bullying, or even where/when it’s safest to use the bathroom can take a toll on someone’s mental and physical health.
A recent study out of The University of Pittsburgh shared that out of the 1,148 transgender adolecents surveyed, 85% reported “seriously considering suicide.” This is alarming data, but luckily there are little things each and every one of us can do, daily, that could help reduce this number.
Here are some things anyone can do to help transgender and GNC individuals feel safer and more supported:
- Share your own pronouns.
- The more cisgender people share their pronouns, the safer and more comfortable it feels for transgender and GNC individuals to share theirs.
- If you mess up someone’s pronouns, correct yourself and move on.
- The more attention you draw to your mistake, the more the individual may feel like a burden.
- Ask the transgender or GNC people in your life to correct you if you make a mistake.
- This will hold you accountable, let them know you care about their identity, and take away any discomfort they may have around correcting you.
- For any kind of registration process or documents, add a spot for people to include their pronouns (if for some reason you need someone’s legal name, always include an option for what name they go by as well).
- Avoid using the term “preferred pronouns” – instead, just say “pronouns.”
- Adding “preferred” makes it sound as though someone’s gender is a choice.
- If you work with youth and they share their pronouns with you, ask if these are the pronouns they go by at home.
- Some transgender or GNC youth may not be ready to come out to their caregivers yet, so for their comfort and safety, know what to use when speaking to their guardians.
Please know that these are not the ONLY ways to support transgender and GNC folks. If there is someone in your life you are looking to support who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, do some research on how to be a good ally. Having one less thing to explain to people can be a relief, so doing your own research as an ally is important. Afterwards, if you still have questions about how to support a specific person in your life, ask them if they would be willing to have a conversation about it! This is a great way to show your respect and care, not only about their identity, but about their time and mental health as well.
The more we are able to respect and validate these identities, the more lives we can save. Gender, expression, and identity are a few of the things that make each and every one of us unique. You won’t experience gender or identity the same way as every person you meet, but you can respect them and be open to learning more along the way!
Jace Troi, DEI & Program Assistant
NAMI New Hampshire