Preferred Gender Pronouns 101, with gender educator Mel Reiff Hill

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The practice of asking someone’s Preferred Gender Pronoun (PGP) has been making the news these days, so 429Magazine had a chat with Mel Reiff Hill, co-creator of “The Gender Book,” on the intention behind the practice, ways to support trans and genderqueer people in your community, and the (exc)uses of grammar.

Originally from Houston, Texas, Hill first encountered PGP at a Drag King Conference in Baltimore in 2010, where asking someone’s gender pronoun was a commonplace occurrence, albeit a transformative one for Hill.

“It was the first time I was consistently asked what my preferred gender pronouns were, and it was striking because being from Texas—no one ever asked,” he said.

Being asked what pronoun you prefer grants genderqueer and gender nonconforming people the chance to be seen for who they really are, and represent themselves in a way that aligns with their gender identity.

On why asking someone’s PGP is important, Hill said, “it’s more about being understood, and being seen.”

“I am a bit of an introvert, and a shy person generally, and having a gender element added to that builds on that social anxiety—[I think] are they just not going to see me? Are they going to be confused about who I am?”

In social situations and relationships, the whole point is to get to know the person you are meeting—and for some people, their preferred gender identity makes the difference between feeling recognized and understood, or being ignored and silenced.

“If someone can’t see you—it’s much harder to connect. There’s less intimacy there,” said Hill.

It can be frustrating—for both ends of a social situation—when gender pronouns come up, since on the one hand, trans and gender non-conforming people find themselves playing the role of the educator again and again, constantly bringing their gender to the table in every conversation. For those not familiar with the terms or lingo, PGPs can be foreign, complicated, and annoying—a new language that has not been explained but that they are now being asked to follow.

Hill’s experiences with feeling validated and supported by the practice of asking for PGPs, as well as his awareness that gender non-conforming people and their friends and family alike experience difficulty in talking about the issue, inspired him, and a few collaborators, to create “The Gender Book.”

The idea behind the book is to educate friends, family, and allies of gender non-conforming people on ways to talk about issues around gender, so that the burden of explaining doesn’t always fall on the queer or trans person in the room.

“I think a lot of people who would be allies, or who would want to support their friends through transition experience anxiety around having conversations, ‘What if I don’t know what to say?’, [and they]can do with more tools—knowing what questions are okay to ask, or how to talk about it,” said Hill.

“It’s to ease those coming out moments, and make more tools readily available to people.”

Some of the topics covered in the book are “what is gender,” “gender versus sex,” and the “transgender umbrella,” which features a pictograph explaining the different terms and identities that fall under the term “transgender.”

On those that complain that certain PGPs, such as “ze,” “ou,” or “they” are not grammatically correct, Hill had a very simple answer: it all boils down to respect.

“I would invite people who use grammar as an excuse to not respect people’s preferred gender pronouns to ask themselves ‘why is this a good excuse for not respecting someone’s preference?’”

“The bottom line is, are you willing to respect this person’s wishes or not? You don’t have to, but it is a common courtesy. It’s not a trans thing, it’s not an ally thing, it’s just common respect. Call people what they want to be called, it doesn’t have to be complicated.”

“The Gender Book” project has recently launched an Indiegogo campaign where you can pre-order hardcover editions of the book, as well as support the collaborators in making this community resource available online.

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