Your Pocket Guide to Trans/Nonbinary Inclusion

If you’re someone who is unfamiliar with transgender and nonbinary terminology and need a simple guide on how to be inclusive, this is for you! Here are six straightforward steps to take in your everyday interactions:

  1. Understand what these LGBTQ+ gender terms mean. Every person’s gender identity means something different to them personally, but it’s good to have a general idea of the common definitions for these identities.
  • LGBTQ+: An extremely diverse and resilient solidarity community that includes people of non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender identities. The acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer. The + reflects that there are many more identities included within this community. A longer version you may see is LGBTQIAP+, with the last three letters referring to Intersex, Asexual, and Pansexual.
  • Gender identity: What someone feels that their gender is and how they describe their gender to others. Gender identity is distinct from sex, which refers to the anatomical label for the body based on reproductive organs, such as male, female, and intersex. Gender identity cannot be assumed based on someone’s name or how they appear, act, or dress. Gender identity is also not determined by physical sex.
  • Cisgender: You are cisgender (cis for short) if you have never seriously questioned your gender identity, and are comfortable with the sex and gender you were assigned with at birth. For example, your birth certificate says that you were born female, and now you identify as a woman.
  • Transgender: (Often shortened to trans) Someone whose gender identity does not match the traditional gender standards culturally ascribed to the sex they were assigned with at birth. For example, a person who was assigned female at birth but realized in his life that he is not a woman and identifies as a man could be transgender. People who are transgender are no less of a “real” man or “real” woman than cisgender men or women.
  • Nonbinary: Nonbinary gender reflects the fact that gender is a spectrum, rather than a strict set of two either-or genders. A person whose gender is nonbinary is neither a man or a woman. The distinction between being transgender and nonbinary is that (usually, but not always) transgender people are men or women, and nonbinary people’s gender is unassociated with being a man or a women. Nonbinary people typically want to be referred to with gender-neutral language.
  • Queer: A term often used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people that many of us have proudly reclaimed to describe our diverse identities, including both gender and sexuality. For example, I describe myself as a Black, queer, nonbinary person. For me, “queer” is a umbrella term that reflects my LGBTQ+ identity without having to specify my sexuality. Because queer is a reclaimed slur, you should never use it to refer to a LGBTQ+ person unless you are a part of the community and you have that person’s permission.

This list is noncomprehensive — there are so many more identities and terms out there. To learn more of them, check out this list of definitions.

2. Ask for and introduce yourself with pronouns.

Pronoun sharing is an essential inclusive practice, so normalize introducing yourself with your pronouns and asking others for theirs! When you meet new people or are facilitating introductions between other folks, be sure to lead by example in providing and asking for pronouns, regardless of whether you are cis, trans, or nonbinary yourself. Here’s an example interaction:

  • Person A: “Hi, my name is Madalyn Williams and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
  • Person B: “Nice to meet you! I’m T’Challa. My pronouns are he/him/his.”

And if you need to prompt them to provide their pronouns:

  • Person A: “Hi, my name is Madalyn Williams and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
  • Person B: “I’m Steve Rogers. It’s great to meet you.”
  • Person A: “We’re glad to have you, Steve. What are your preferred pronouns?”

The reason that you should share your pronouns is to signal to everyone that you are an ally to LGBTQ+ people, and that it is safe for them to be their authentic selves around you. Of course, trans and nonbinary people do not always feel safe sharing their pronouns with people that they have just met, because what they say may disclose the fact they are not cis. Do not push anyone to share their pronouns if they express discomfort. I promise you that more often than not, if you initiate pronoun sharing with an unexpecting non-cis person, it will bring a smile to their face.

3. Abandon gendered language.

To use gender-neutral language means that to be inclusive, you use terms that are not masculine or feminine and make no implications about anyone’s gender. For titles and professions, examples are saying “Mx.” instead of “Mrs.” or “Mr.”, or “firefighter” and “postal worker” rather than “fireman” and “mailman”.

A common gender-neutral pronoun set that many transgender and nonbinary people use is the singular they/them/theirs. Unfortunately, lots of cis people still react negatively to singular gender-neutral pronouns, arguing that they aren’t grammatically correct. That simply isn’t true. (It also doesn’t matter. A lot of LGBTQ+ peoples’ lives are experienced as having identities that traditional society doesn’t deem “correct”.) These pronouns are indeed “grammatically correct”, and have been in use for centuries. We use gender-neutral language all the time to refer to people whose gender we have not yet identified. For example, you tell your roommate that your friend is coming over, and she asks “Do they want to join us for dinner?” Your roommate didn’t know your friend’s gender, so she said “they”. You can likewise use “they”, “them”, “their”, and “themself” to refer to someone who tells you that those are their pronouns.

When you refer to someone who is transgender or nonbinary by the wrong pronouns, or with a gendered term that does not match that person’s gender identity, you are misgendering them. An example of this is calling someone who is a transgender male “she” or “her”, or referring to a group of people as “gentleman” even when someone is present that does not identify as a man. Regardless of whether it is intentional or accidental, misgendering is deeply uncomfortable for transgender and nonbinary people, and some even consider misgendering to be an act of violence.

4. Avoid assumptions.

Binary thinking can be very exclusionary for trans and nonbinary people, and it rears its ugly head in these kinds of assumptions:

  • Assuming someone’s gender identity.
  • Assuming their sexuality or the gender of their romantic partner.
  • Believing that there are only two correct sets of pronouns to identify individuals: he/him/his/himself and she/her/hers/herself. There are many sets of pronouns out there, and all of them are valid.
  • Assuming someone’s gender identity based on how masculine or feminine you judge their appearance to be.
  • Using gendered nicknames, titles, and terms to refer to people. Regardless of whether someone is cis, trans, or nonbinary, it’s rarely appropriate to use gendered terms for situations when a person’s gender is completely irrelevant.

5. Actively adjust and be accountable — a.k.a., “What do I do if I mess up?”

It’s okay to mess up — everyone gets tripped up sometimes! Especially if you are completely new to interacting with people who use gender-neutral pronouns, it may take some time for your brain to adjust to filing in the appropriate words. If you continue to have trouble with getting it right, do what it takes to train your brain. Catch yourself if you start to make assumptions and judgements about people based on their appearances alone. Dedicate yourself to working gendered terminology out of your vocabulary. Practice using gender-neutral pronouns out loud. Be patient with yourself, but be accountable for your mistakes — it’s not intent that matters here, it’s impact.

It can be quite awkward when you mess up someone’s pronouns in a group setting, but I guarantee you that you’re not as uncomfortable as the person who just got misgendered is. (For a lot of us, it happens to us every day. We get really tired.) You don’t need to make a big deal out of of the slip-up, you just need to correct yourself, apologize if you think it’s appropriate at that moment or later, and move on!

6. Spread the word. You are reading this guide because you want to be welcoming to trans and nonbinary people, and you want to commit to making all social spaces inclusive for every gender. But it’s not just about non-cis people’s interactions with you directly — it’s about engaging in normalizing these practices in every conversation, so that eventually wherever they go and no matter who they’re talking to, trans and nonbinary people will be safe in those spaces. Following everything in this guide is the absolute least that you can do to set that vision in motion. By leading by example in your interactions, you can also expose and encourage people that may be in unfamiliar with these practices to take them up, and thereby strengthen this form of inclusion as a general social norm.

Please reach out to me if you have any questions about anything described here. For more details on transgender and nonbinary issues and inclusionary practices in the workplace, check out my Medium story How to Make Your Workplace Safe and Inclusive for Trans and Nonbinary People.

they/them. Black, queer, and nonbinary creative, policy wonk, and organizer.

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