Proactive Personal Pronoun Use: Creating a Culture of Inclusion in Your Practice
by Dane Whitaker, DVM, MPVM
BEING AWARE OF PERSONAL PRONOUNS and the impact they have on the wellbeing of our coworkers and colleagues helps to create an inclusive culture. I identify first as a transgender man and second as a transgender veterinarian, so this topic is especially important to me, and I believe it is one of the best initial steps to creating a culture of inclusion for LGBTQ+ folks in your practice or workplace. With just a little bit of awareness and some simple changes in behavior, you can show your community and your coworkers that you support them and value their contribution to the veterinary profession and to the world.
So what are personal pronouns, and why are they important?
Pronouns are words that are used to take the place of a noun. There are many different types of pronouns; here we are going to focus on personal pronouns. Personal pronouns often refer to a specific individual and are used in place of their proper name. They also often carry the assumption of that individual’s gender, such as she or her to refer to a woman or girl, or he or him to refer to a man or boy.
Why is something that we took for granted as we learned English grammar in grade school now becoming so important in respecting others?
It is not uncommon for the individual to whom you are referring to have a different gender identity from the one that is implied by their appearance. All those years of grade-school grammar have taught us to make assumptions about someone’s gender based on their appearance and, therefore, automatically choose a personal pronoun for them. These assumptions can be hurtful and disrespectful if that person does not identify within the gender binary. If we think of gender as a continuum with male on one end and female on the other, then it is easy to see how some folks may identify somewhere in the space in between or outside the two binary extremes. These folks might consider themselves nonbinary or gender nonconforming. They need pronouns that reflect and support their identity.
Folks who do not identify as male or female and instead have a different gender identity are often uncomfortable when someone makes an incorrect assumption about their personal pronoun. Being aware of personal pronouns and how they can affect nonbinary folks is one of the most basic ways to respect the gender identities of others. It is a way to demonstrate to transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals that they are important and are valuable members of the community.
Not having to worry about the personal pronoun that someone will choose for you based on your appearance or gender expression is gender privilege. As a transgender man, I know what it feels like to be on both sides of this privilege. Before I transitioned from female to male, I would have to think about what pronoun someone might choose for me based on the way I looked. I often found myself in uncomfortable and even hurtful situations because of someone else’s assumptions. When I transitioned, I gained gender privilege, as now what folks see on the outside is what society thinks should match what I feel on the inside. If you have this privilege but fail to respect someone else’s gender identity, not only is it hurtful, but it is a form of oppression. In recognizing the importance of personal pronouns and advocating for their use, we can start to create a culture of inclusion for those around us and begin to eliminate this form of oppression.
Some Dos and Don’ts: The Basics of Personal Pronoun Use
Do state your pronoun when you introduce yourself. What does this look like? Perhaps one version goes like this: When I walk into an exam room, I say, “Hello, I’m Dr. Whitaker, my pronouns are he, him, and his. How is Fluffy feeling today?” With this introduction, I have created a space where folks of all gender identities and expressions are acknowledged and valued, and there is now room for the person to whom I am speaking to identify their personal pronouns if they would like to. This is really the first step in creating a culture of inclusion for gender-nonconforming folks in your practice or workplace.
Don’t call them “preferred” pronouns. Asking someone what pronouns they would prefer you to use implies that it is up to you whether to use them. This is not about your choice; it is about respecting someone’s personal identity, and it is not an option to use these pronouns or not. “These are just my pronouns, plain and simple. They are not optional.” In some cases, it may be okay to ask someone what their pronouns are, if you offer yours first. The important thing is to not make a hurtful assumption.
Do apologize and move on if you mess up. We all mess up; I still misgender myself sometimes, believe it or not. Often when I am referring to myself in my own mind, I use female pronouns—it’s hard to break a 40-year-old habit!
Don’t make a big deal about your mistake. That ends up making the person whom you have just misgendered feel that they need to take care of you and make you feel better. That is not their responsibility; it’s yours. So apologize, use the correct pronoun, and move on.
Do call out misgendering when you witness it. If someone is using the wrong personal pronoun for someone else, say something. You can do this in the moment if it feels safe, or you can ask the person who has been misgendered if it is okay with them for you to remind the other person which pronouns to use. This is particularly important when the misgendering is intentional. This relates to the earlier point about privilege. Having gender privilege makes it your responsibility to stick up for the rights of those who do not have the same privilege that you do.
How Do We Get Started?
As stated earlier, the first step is to introduce yourself by stating your name and your personal pronouns. This is a great way to initiate the creation of a culture of inclusion. It serves as a statement about the value that you place on individual identity and a willingness to allow all team members to be their authentic selves. It also opens the door for folks to offer their personal pronouns.
You can state your pronouns verbally when you introduce yourself, or you can do it in writing—on your name tag, business card, or even a stethoscope clip. Personal pronouns can also be stated on email signatures or signed letters. You may want to include a link to online resources so that if folks are curious about why you are sharing your pronouns, they can do some research on their own. By consistently sharing our personal pronouns, hopefully we can normalize the practice and work to eliminate the automatic gender assumptions that people make based on appearance.
The next step is to understand how to ask about someone’s personal pronouns in a respectful and supportive way. In a one-on-one meeting, simply leading with your name and personal pronouns and then asking how the other person would like to be referred to is a good start. You could say something like, “Hello, my name is Dane, my pronouns are he/him/his. How would you like me to refer to you?” Hopefully, you will be prepared to answer any questions about why you are asking in case the person to whom you are speaking is unaware of the importance of personal pronouns. Providing information from local LGBTQ+ resource centers or websites that discuss why personal pronouns are important is a good way to keep the conversation going.
In larger team meetings, creating a space for folks to share their personal pronouns is essential to creating a culture of inclusion. This can be done by asking participants to go around the room and state their name and pronouns if they are comfortable doing so. A brief explanation of why this is important and how this exercise helps to acknowledge all identities can be especially useful in getting all team members on board. It is important to make sure that everyone knows that sharing personal pronouns is optional and not a requirement. It is encouraged and supported, but no one should feel forced to do so. Make it clear that if they only wish to state their name, that is okay, too.
The next step is to start incorporating proactive personal pronoun use into more aspects of your practice. Having team members participate in online trainings, holding workshops in which folks can practice stating pronouns and asking others, and role-playing what to do when clients misgender employees are just some examples of how we can take an active role in creating a culture of inclusion. Creating new employee forms that allow for individuals to state their pronouns as well as new client forms that do the same is an important step. This way, you can send the message to your clients and employees that your practice is a supportive environment and that misgendering of any kind will be recognized and corrected.
I know from personal experience what a huge impact acknowledging someone’s personal pronouns can make. In the beginning of my gender transition, I was struggling with my identity and had to make some tough decisions on how my desire to pursue my authentic self would affect my career as a veterinarian. A colleague whom I greatly respected asked me how I would like to be referred to and what my personal pronouns were. I felt seen and heard in a way that I had never experienced before, especially in a professional context. Knowing that I had an ally who supported my desire to live authentically made me a better person and, in turn, a better veterinarian. Let’s start to have these conversations about personal pronouns to help create this supportive and accepting culture, and to continue to make this profession a better place for all of us.
Dane Whitaker, DVM, MPVM, has been practicing veterinary medicine in the San Francisco area for more than 25 years. He completed his master’s in preventive veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, in 2017, and is currently providing small-animal clinical relief services across central California. He is also a relief veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, and, in nonpandemic times, he has provided clinical as well as field support for marine mammal research projects. Whitaker is the president of the Pride Veterinary Medical Community and takes an active role in promoting the ideas of inclusion and acceptance for all members of the community in the veterinary profession.
Photo credits: STEEX/E+ via Getty Images, Maulana Ahsan/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Anne-Marie Miller/iStock via Getty Images Plus, nadia_bormotova/iStock via Getty Images Plus