A couple of years ago, I had an experience in the Co-op checkout line that made my day. The cashier turned to another staff person and said something like, “Can you show them where the extra boxes are for their groceries?” referring to me. I was thrilled. You see, I identify as non-binary and go by they and them instead of he or she. People often incorrectly assume I identify as a woman and use words like she/her/girl/lady/ma’am when talking about me. When the cashier chose to refer to me with the gender-neutral pronoun they, I felt warm and bubbly inside. I swear I floated out of the store that day!
There is a growing understanding in our culture that some people do not fit the labels of woman or man. These folks have embraced words like non-binary or genderqueer to describe their gender identities. (A multitude of cultures around the world already have more expansive understandings of gender beyond the man/woman binary.) Personal pronouns are part of a blossoming of language used to reflect the nuances of gender diversity. The most common gender-neutral option being used in English today is they.
There are plenty of resources that explain how to use they, them, and theirs to refer to an individual. (One of my favorites is mypronouns.org.) But today, I’d like to talk about why. The flip-side of my warm-and-fuzzy experience at the Co-op is that for me, being referred to with the wrong pronouns (also called “misgendering”) is distracting at best and distressing at worst. Misgendering is part of a pattern of exclusion, discrimination, and violence faced by trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people—even here in Vermont. This contributes to disproportionate rates of mental illness, poverty, and homelessness experienced by trans people. Using people’s chosen pronouns—or defaulting to gender-neutral language when you’re not sure—is an active and impactful way to create a more welcoming environment and help reverse these trends.
Maybe this is the first time you’re hearing about this whole pronouns thing. Maybe you don’t know how it works and you’ve been too afraid to ask. Or maybe you want to be respectful but are uncertain about using they to refer to a single person. Wherever you are, there’s no better time to polish your pronoun skills. Beyond the mechanics, it comes down to having a loving and learning attitude. Here are a few tips:
- Practice: Build a habit of referring to people you don’t know with gender-neutral language. “Who was that person on the phone? What did they want?” If there is someone in your life who uses they/them pronouns, take time to practice using their pronouns when they are not around. Try practicing with someone you trust so you can remind each other when you make a mistake.
- Be Polite: You will slip up. We all do! Correct yourself as soon as you notice, apologize briefly if you feel you need to, and move on. Dwelling on how bad you feel or how hard it is for you to get it right is inappropriate.
- Be Patient and Persistent: It takes time, intention, and repetition to re-train our brains. Keep at it, and remember why you’re working on this—you just may make someone’s day!
Our Co-op is by us and for us, the member-owners. By participating in our Co-op, we can put our values into action and lead the way in transforming dominant worldviews. We do this not just with our food choices, but in how we choose to show up in community with each other. The staff and board are already prioritizing efforts to embed principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into the daily operations and governance of the Co-op. Shifting our language to be more inclusive of the diversity of our community is one small part of this ongoing work. Will you join us?
Ollie Cultrara is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member