Ask Pawan: I want to be more inclusive of gender identities

“Dear Pawan,

I’m new at UBC. There are a lot of cultural differences that I’m unused to, especially when it comes to gender identification. I want to be more inclusive — what do I need to know?”

Coming to Vancouver opened my eyes to a host of new experiences — new foods, friends, streets and signs were abundant in every corner of the city. I was thrilled with each discovery. Unfortunately, I was also woefully unprepared for the culture shock that came with adding myself to the mosaic of people that make up the city, especially when it came to matters of the gender spectrum. From a combination of personal experience and the counsel of others, here’s my advice.

The first thing I recommend you do is try to extricate yourself from thinking in a binary when it comes to gender. Gender has been seen as an incredibly nuanced spectrum for decades and you’ll have to keep in mind that outward appearances like manner of dress or physical characteristics don’t necessarily signal someone’s gender identity. Whether someone identifies as a man or a woman, nonbinary, genderfluid, transgender or by another term is a very personal part of their life and should be treated with respect and tact, rather than assumption and confrontation. It is also not your right to know how someone identifies.

This leads to my second bit of advice: asking someone their preferred pronouns, even when you’re 99 per cent sure, never hurts. If you’re wondering about someone you just passed on the street, I’m willing to go on a limb to say that it’s not imperative that you can confidently identify their preferred pronouns, so don’t make it your business. When it comes to folks you may have more consistent face-to-face interaction with, such as coworkers or someone in your tutorial, it’s important that you get it right. Some people are totally fine with explicity telling you their gender identity and wouldn’t mind shouting their preferred pronouns from the top of the Ladner Clock Tower. However, there are also a lot of folks who aren’t okay with being asked how they identify, especially in a public setting where they may be unsure of how every single person in the room would react. Asking someone their preferred pronouns in a private, respectful manner is a safe way to make sure you are reaffirming their gender identity and not basing your interactions on assumptions.

Thirdly, when in doubt or without the opportunity to ask, use the singular “they/them” to refer to someone whose pronouns you do not know for certain. As time goes on and the concept of a gender binary continues to erode, use of gender-neutral pronouns in everyday language is on its way up. You wouldn’t be gawked at if you simply referred to your lab partner using “they/them/theirs” pronouns or perhaps their name, if you’re unsure of what they prefer. This also serves to help put emphasis on someone’s chosen name, and the importance of respecting that.

Pay attention to someone’s chosen name. Changing one’s name is a tool that is often, though not always, used to reaffirm one’s gender identity to the world around them, often leaving one’s previous name as the “dead name.” If you’ve known someone before they chose the name that better fits who they feel they are, you may find yourself slipping up and accidentally saying their dead name. It’s important that you don’t let this stop the flow of conversation, but also don’t skate by it. If you F-up, own it: say sorry, correct yourself and don’t go over the top with your apologies as that situation can end with the person you slighted feeling obligated to console you. Name usage is a simple, very accessible tool one can use to reassert one’s identity to the world around them.

The last piece of advice I have is about reflecting upon and challenging your preconceived notions of gender identity. Too often, someone’s excuse for not respecting someone’s pronouns is that they are “too confusing” or seem like a “first-world problem,” to which I have a nice, hot take: read a book. Gender identity has been a topic of discourse and dissent across all continents for longer than many realize. As I tried to become more conscientious of issues around gender identity, I found that reading up on the underreported, morose history of freedom of gender expression movements really entrenched an appreciation for the importance of respecting someone’s gender identity. When so many people fought so hard for their right to simply exist without persecution, the very least anyone could do is read up on the efforts that got us to where we are today, to understand how far we have to go.

Discussions on gender are only going to become more common as we move farther from the rigidity of binary identities and fully embrace the concept of gender as a spectrum. This is why I wish to stress that this article is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discourse on gender and the nuances of identity. This article is simply meant to give you a few tips that you can incorporate into your daily life while you strive to do your own research on the topic.

This is not something that you can learn on a Googling spree — time, patience and respect should be kept at the forefront when trying to better your understanding of gender identity. To help you along, there are plenty of resources that work hard to ensure that inclusivity education is readily available. From UBC’s Pride Collective to the Vancouver non-profit Q-munity, there is a variety of inclusivity resources at your fingertips, so you don’t place the work on your friends to explain their identities to you.

Inclusivity is something that you may never really think about because you may think it doesn’t apply to you or that, y’know, you’re pretty open and would never mean to insult someone’s gender identity. The reality is that many members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community have to think about inclusivity a lot, partly because it is a more dangerous world out there for them simply because of who they are. You can tap into their expertise on issues of inclusivity by researching relevant authors, cracking open a book and going in with good intentions and an eagerness to learn.

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