From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
South Asians still have a long way to go when it comes to learning about gender pronouns and inclusivity: Here’s a beginners guide
Recently, I found myself in an argument with a work acquaintance over pronouns. They were adamant that I include mine in my work email signature and I said that I simply don’t want to. While this person was coming from a place of bitterness because of a background we have with which I won’t bore you, the incident led me to explore and learn more about pronouns and understand why it mattered so much to the queer community. To be honest, I did not have much exposure to this before this incident- was it just the lack of conversation around this topic in our community or was it sheer ignorance on my part? I think it was a bit of both because it actually baffles me that despite being an active journalist in Singapore, how did I not find myself having this conversation or being a part of this much relevant and important discussion before.
Well, I am glad that I decided to delve deep and understand things a bit better by having open conversations with some friends from the LGBTQ+ community and by reading up from relevant sources. I learned that for transgender people and non-conforming individuals, using the correct pronoun to respect their gender identity means the world to them — this can be a simple yet significant step towards inclusivity and equality.
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights has made significant progress, but the path towards equality has still a long way to go. People who identify as transgender or non-conforming are still one of the most disadvantaged minorities in society. Trans people are constantly subjected to discrimination and harassment, and much worse, they experience violence to the extent of being murdered just because their identity or expression is in conflict with their biological sex.
So, how do we help and reach out to them?
We need to be open to learning and educating ourselves
According to the Human Rights Watch Campaign, gender identity is one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither — individuals choose how to perceive themselves. Gender identity can be aligned or different from the sex assigned at birth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that gender is a social construct — what people perceive as feminine or masculine. In Western cultures, people have a rigid association that acting feminine or masculine immediately equates to being a man or a woman, but this construct varies in different cultures.
Gender pronouns, on the other hand, are words that people use to refer to others without using names. These pronouns typically include she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, and in some cases, people may not even use pronouns to refer to themselves. There are also gender-neutral pronouns such as ze/zir/zirs.
Gender identity is typically associated with a specific minority within the LGBTQ+ community. They include:
Transgender: People whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth or from their biological sex. A transgender woman lives as a woman but was assigned male when she was born. A transgender man lives as a man but was assigned female when he was born.
According to the National Centre for Transgender Equality, some trans people either do not identify as male or female or identify as both. People who are not entirely male or female use terms to describe their identity, such as non-binary or genderqueer.
Gender Fluid: People whose gender changes over time. They may identify as a woman one day, and then a man as next. Their gender changes either quickly—in hours or days—or slowly, even months or years. Gender fluidity refers to the change over time in a person’s gender expression, identity, or both, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Why respecting gender identity matters
The world has become more inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ+ people. We have a shared responsibility to treat transgender people and non-conforming individuals with dignity and respect. Many organizations have outlined the proper way and decorum on how to address a person’s gender identity.
Here’s how you can be respectful:
- Do not assume a person’s gender identity. When in doubt, ask. You can be courteous by simply asking, “What gender pronouns do you use?”
- Never address them as “it” or “he-she” as these are derogatory slurs.
- Do not ask their old names.
- Be an ally. Stand up for them when they are harassed or bullied.
- Get to know them more. Listen to their stories and be more empathetic.
Using correct pronouns empowers trans and non-binary people
Part of respecting gender identity is acknowledging and using the correct and personal pronoun of a person. However, people tend to assume all the time they know a person’s gender identity. When you use wrong pronouns, you exclude and alienate that person, showing disrespect.
Using the correct pronouns fosters a more inclusive environment. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, using the right pronoun and the chosen names of transgender youth can significantly reduce the risk of suicide. Another 2016 study concluded that affirming a person’s pronouns raises self-esteem.
What does this mean for South Asian queer communities?
India forever changed the course of LGBTQ+ rights history when it decriminalized homosexuality in a Supreme Court ruling in 2018. The decision to deem Section 377, a colonial-era law banning gay sex, as unconstitutional, was perceived as a progressive step in the fight for human rights.
That decision also came from another historic precedent when Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2007 decreed legal protection for LGBTQ+ individuals as well as official recognition of the third gender. This ruling produced a domino effect—similar legislation that acknowledges the third gender was enacted in conservative South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.
However, this landmark and legal victory is still being contested as discrimination and abuse are still prevalent in local communities in South Asia, and even down to a personal level.
For South Asian queer communities, recognizing and affirming one’s gender identity is a brave and defiant act, as one may be ostracized and persecuted. There are still people who repress their identities for fear of retaliation and violence. It is still considered a stigma and taboo due to colonization, societal norms, and patriarchal values. As such, being accepted is still a privilege only enjoyed by a few.
Affirming one’s gender identity has consequences. There is a tendency for families to disown their non-conforming kids. Dating may be difficult as one may encounter transphobia. When your identity isn’t accepted, it may cause mental health issues, which can be detrimental to one’s well-being.
There is still a long way to go, and little by little, we can take meaningful steps to become more inclusive. For example, in 2018, Burnt Roti magazine featured diverse and trailblazing LGBTQ+ creatives on their cover, a breakthrough in representation. People are starting to be mindful of asking for pronouns, and this practice may soon become a norm in society—a sincere way of showing empathy and respect to one another.
Representation is a significant step towards inclusivity, and noted personalities have used their platforms to advocate gender identity and acceptance. Angela Ponce made history as the first transgender woman to compete for the title of Miss Universe in 2018. Although she did not win, her advocacy and speech made waves, especially among transgender people. She earned a standing ovation.
“We’re living in a century where we can’t keep repeating the patterns of the past. To eradicate intolerance, I think it would be very important to foster values from a young age,” Ponce said. “My hope is for tomorrow to be able to live in a world of equality for everyone. Simply for us all to understand that we are human and that we must make all our lives easier together.”
“That reality for many people is going to change,” Ponce declared. “If I can give that to the world, I don’t need to win Miss Universe.”
She uttered the most powerful phrase. “I only need to be here.”
Recently this year, actress and singer Demi Lovato shocked fans when they announced they now identify as non-binary. Demi changed their pronoun to they/them.
The 28-year-old came out during the opening of their podcast, 4D With Demi Lovato.
Demi said in an Instagram video that their pronoun represents the “fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and am still discovering.”
They also explained why they are sharing this news with fans. “I’m doing this for those out there that haven’t been able to share who they truly are with their loved ones. Please keep living in your truths and know I am sending so much love your way xoxo,” they captioned.
It’s not rocket science to understand that showing basic decency and respect to fellow humans is important, especially when we are living in such uncertain times where isolation and depression are becoming a norm. By starting with small yet significant steps, we can combat discrimination and support the welfare of transgender and non-binary people.
Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram