Last term I sat in a rehearsal room led by one student as they began a “meet and greet”. A circle of chairs with a group of individuals who were gathered to get to know each other and then work on a play. The director asked us each to introduce ourselves with our own name, our preferred pronoun, and the character or role we were taking in making this show happen. “I’m Chris, I’m he and I am the leader of the producing course, so my role is to watch and learn, and eventually mark the work of the producer in this room.”
As I have been running workshops over the last few weeks, and facilitated discussions I have also invited each person to tell us their name and preferred pronoun. In talking to my CGO colleague in New York, I learned that when she opens a class workshop at her arts facility in the heart of Manhattan she finds that around 50% of the young people she meets identify as gender fluid. Some may wish her to address them as “he”, “she”, “they” or “it”.
This week I spent time with a floating class of students over a number of workshops across a year group of different arts courses at a British University. To start each class I asked them to tell me their name and preferred pronoun, explaining a little of why. In a group of 20 each gave a name and then a “he” or “she” – usually with a giggle or a very strong assertion, as if I was testing their identity rather than inviting. But then one quietly asked whether they might own “it” as a pronoun, and the others began to see the point.
I should add that those far more experienced than I am suggest the term “preferred pronoun” is not helpful or welcomed. The question might be better phrased, “what pronouns would you like us to use for you during our session today?”. Preferred implies a choice/option, and for some there is a right pronoun, at that point, that they wish to be known by.
Another colleague has reminded me to be careful, in my enthusiasm to do what is right for everyone. By asking the question I am inviting, and maybe challenging for, an answer. Sometimes people may prefer to just say their name. For the moment, as I enter different worlds where pronouns are not questioned by the majority of those in a circle, then I feel I will continue to take the risk. I will seek to be as sensitive as I can, and phrase the invitation carefully.
On another pronoun subject I received two season brochures through the post last week with the ubiquitous welcome from the artistic director. In one they talked about the season “we” had just had, and the plans “we” have for the future. In the other they talked of the decisions “I” have made for the season, and the piece that “my” assistant is going to direct. Those tiny differences told me, rightly or wrongly, how the artistic director chose to be identified, and maybe even how the whole hierarchy of the building worked. As a colleague said to me, “It invites one to think about how power plays out even in the smallest of words.”
Pronouns are important. I want to remember to ask. We will all benefit from listening and using appropriate pronouns. And as the image says – if we forget, or don’t know, then we can ask.