Beyond “she” and “he,” preferred pronouns offer safe space



Alabama Rep. Neil Rafferty speaks in support of transgender rights during a rally outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

With the increase surrounding equality awareness for the LGBTQ+ community, pronoun awareness has become pertinent.   

“When we talk about pronouns, people are always very scared because it’s something new and they don’t quite understand,” said Shaunte Polk, director of the office of Intercultural and International Affairs at Marshall University.  

Polk hosts a safe space training for students, staff, community members and now those who can join virtually to teach the proper terminology and how to be a safe space.   

“They don’t understand why we have to use pronouns. Why can’t we use a certain pronoun for all people? A lot of people want to change their pronouns, things like that,” Polk said. “So, I always talk a little bit in detail about what it means to use someone’s correct pronoun, reaffirming someone’s gender identity, taking away those stereotypes- what it means to be masculine or feminine when you’re looking at physical appearance.”  

Polk said it is important to realize that education never ends, and mistakes will be made that also lead to learning.   

“Knowing that you are going to mess up when you use pronouns that are new,” Polk said. “Because at the end of the day, we have been taught that certain words mean certain things for as long as we’ve been alive.”  

One thing Polk said she discusses during safe space trainings are proper prefixes for emails, something not always thought about in terms of preferred pronouns.   

“In the 70s, feminists started using Ms. because it didn’t define you by your marital relationship,” said Claire Snyder, program coordinator for the Women’s and Gender center. “You didn’t have to be a Mrs.; you didn’t have to be a miss. Anyone could be a Ms. — a married person, a single person, a divorced person, a widowed person. It was just a way of referring to a woman in a way that didn’t define her by her relationship with a man at that time. Now maybe, not by their relationship to a spouse.”  

Polk said to stay on the safe side, and it is best not to use pronouns until the preferred ones are known.   

“Some people get very upset if you misgender them by using incorrect pronouns,” Polk said. “So, just to stay on the safe side, you definitely want to avoid those unless you know they use those [gender-neutral titles] beside their name, always addressing emails with first and last name.”  

Listed preferred pronouns can sometimes be seen on social media bios and email signatures; Polk said this shows you as an ally.   

“It signifies that you are progressively thinking and making sure that people understand that these are your set pronouns, this is your gender identity, this is who you are,” Polk said. “It takes out that mediation of ‘I don’t know what to say.’ It may not mean something to somebody who doesn’t use it, but it means the world to somebody who does. It shows a connection.”  

While it has not been seen as often, Snyder and Polk have both seen pronouns made specifically for and by a person. They said these too need respect.    

“I would imagine that someone who is making pronouns for themselves has had to spend a lot of time thinking about themselves and what their identity is, and it can’t have been easy necessarily for them to come to this place,” Snyder said. “So, I am always going to come from a place of respect and empathy for that, and I think that’s a good practice for all of us.”   

Polk hosts a safe space workshop with Marshall University once a month and encourages students, faculty and community members to attend. She also said she will continue to offer it virtually to help educate more.   

“It’s unlearning some of the learned behaviors that you’ve known forever,” Polk said. “Using someone’s preferred pronoun is just a sign of respect, and that’s what we want to do, whether we understand it or not.”   

Brittany Hively can be contacted at [email protected].