Using the Correct Pronouns

Mikael Wagner
10 min readMay 22, 2023

Three years ago, I was thrown into battle to work with my amazing boss at the time to create a program for members of the transgender community. Although I was a bit naive at the time, the one thing I knew for sure was that it was time to stand up and fight against all the homophobic and racist managers and directors at a public health office where I was employed. Until that day, I never understood why anyone would want to work in the field of public health only to make sure that various communities would never receive adequate services. I later learned that this issue existed in most public health departments across America, and they were often more than not able to get away with their lack of support for all people although funds were received from the Centers for Disease Control and other organisations to educate and inform all priority communities.

Always enjoying the thrill of making racists, homophobes, and incompetent directors uncomfortable, I decided to push the envelope and present a proposal to create an internship program. Not any type of program, but one that focused on people from transgender communities. My cutting-edge boss smiled and gave me the approval to move forward with the creation of such a program.

Issues of equality and acceptance of transgender and nonbinary people — along with challenges to their rights have become a major topic in the headlines today. These issues can involve words, ideas, and identities that are new to some.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the transgender community at that time, I was shaking in my boots. I didn’t know where to look or who to contact or how to address them with respect. Almost immediately help was requested from all my friends, colleagues, and mentors. I trembled as I went into the various communities that led me to key stakeholders in the Transgender communities. That’s when the work started. I had to prove that my goals were genuine and that I wanted members of the community to work with me to create a program that would enable them to successfully enter the field of public health.

With a background in marketing and project management, together we created a strategic plan designed to promote our ideas through community engagement events, presentations, social media, and most importantly through WOM, Word of Mouth marketing. We worked closely with many community-based organisations, community centres, colleges, and universities throughout California to disseminate the message.

Everyone on staff was surprised or shocked at the number of potential applications received. Preparing the interview questions was the easy part. The difficult part was trying to educate myself on the various pronouns to be used so that no one would be insulted by my ignorance, although I was teaching myself as fast as I could, it was not easy. As you can imagine, I lost track of the number of mistakes I made when addressing my new team of interns. Instead of being insulted, every single one of them helped me to relax as they explained all the terms to me, how to use them correctly, and how to include them in my many reports. Most of the time the interns would laugh and give me a hug telling me not to give up. One of them told me that their parents still use the incorrect pronouns when describing them to others. I let out a sigh of relief. Meeting all their parents at various events provided me with the confidence to try even harder and not punish myself if I got a pronoun wrong.

What Are Pronouns

Getting the pronouns correct was the most challenging part of the journey for me. I was hard on myself but had the support of my students. Pronouns are the way that we refer to people in place of their name or in the third person (referring to that person while talking to someone else). Often, pronouns have an implied gender such as “he” to refer to a man/boy or “she” to refer to a woman/girl. People may also make assumptions about the gender of a person based on their appearance or their name. In both cases, these assumptions aren’t always correct, accurate, or helpful. In fact, in our workplaces, schools, and communities, these messages can be harmful and damaging to relationships.

When you use someone’s correct pronouns, it serves to create an inclusive environment where you demonstrate that you care for and respect them. Just as we wouldn’t want to make up a nickname for someone and use it against their will, it can be just as upsetting or disrespectful to refer to someone using incorrect pronouns. Actively choosing to not use the pronouns someone has shared that they go by is harassment and implies that intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people do not or should not exist.

A local agency in San Francisco called Open House, brought me on board as a freelance facilitator to conduct training sessions with many agencies working with local public health agencies. The goal was to educate frontline staff to deal with members from the transgender, non-binary, or others coming into their clinics, or healthcare facilities for care. This was an educational experience for me. After conducting many training sessions, I learned that 90% of the people welcoming clients or gathering information from those coming through the door had no idea what a gay, lesbian, transgender, or non-binary person was so they would look at their medical chart and call them by the name given to them at birth which caused lots of problems. Three years ago I was thrown into battle to work with my amazing boss at the time to create a program for members of the transgender community. Although I was a bit naive at the time, the one thing I knew for sure was that it was time to stand up and fight against all the homophobic and racist managers and directors at a public health office where I was employed. Until that day, I never understood why anyone would want to work in the field of public health only to make sure that various communities would never receive adequate services. I later learned that this issue existed in most public health departments across America and they were often more than not able to get away with their lack of support for all people although funds were received from the Centers for Disease Control and other organisations to educate and inform all priority communities.

Always enjoying the thrill of making racists, homophobes, and incompetent directors uncomfortable, I decided to push the envelope and present a proposal to create an internship program. Not any type of program, but one that focused on people from transgender communities. My cutting-edge boss smiled and gave me the approval to move forward with the creation of such a program.

Issues of equality and acceptance of transgender and nonbinary people — along with challenges to their rights have become a major topic in the headlines today. These issues can involve words, ideas, and identities that are new to some.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the transgender community at that time, I was shaking in my boots. I didn’t know where to look or who to contact or how to address them with respect. Almost immediately help was requested from all of my friends, colleagues, and mentors. I trembled as I went into the various communities that led me to key stakeholders in the Transgender communities. That’s when the work started. I had to prove that my goals were genuine and that I wanted members of the community to work with me to create a program that would enable them to successfully enter the field of public health.

With a background in marketing and project management, together we created a strategic plan designed to promote our ideas through community engagement events, presentations, social media, and most importantly through WOM, Word of Mouth marketing. We worked closely with many community-based organisations, community centres, colleges, and universities throughout California to disseminate the message.

Everyone on staff was surprised or shocked at the number of potential applications received. Preparing the interview questions was the easy part. The difficult part was trying to educate myself on the various pronouns to be used so that no one would be insulted by my ignorance, although I was teaching myself as fast as I could, it was not easy. As you can imagine, I lost track of the number of mistakes I made when addressing my new team of interns. Instead of being insulted, every single one of them helped me to relax as they explained all the terms to me, how to use them correctly, and how to include them in my many reports. Most of the time the interns would laugh and give me a hug telling me not to give up. One of them told me that their parents still use the incorrect pronouns when describing them to others. I let out a sigh of relief. Meeting all of their parents at various events provided me with the confidence to try even harder and not punish myself if I got a pronoun wrong.

What Are Pronouns

Getting the pronouns correct was the most difficult part of the journey for me. I was hard on myself, but had the support of my students. Pronouns are the way that we refer to people in place of their name or in the third person (referring to that person while talking to someone else). Often, pronouns have an implied gender such as “he” to refer to a man/boy or “she” to refer to a woman/girl. People may also make assumptions about the gender of a person based on their appearance or their name. In both cases, these assumptions aren’t always correct, accurate, or helpful. In fact, in our workplaces, schools, and communities, these messages can be harmful and damaging to relationships.

When you use someone’s correct pronouns, it serves to create an inclusive environment where you demonstrate that you care for and respect them. Just as we wouldn’t want to make up a nickname for someone and use it against their will, it can be just as upsetting or disrespectful to refer to someone using incorrect pronouns. Actively choosing to not use the pronouns someone has shared that they go by is harassment and implies that intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people do not or should not exist.

A local agency in San Francisco called Open House, brought me on board as a freelance facilitator to conduct training sessions with a large number of agencies working with local public health agencies. The goal was to educate frontline staff to deal with members from the transgender, non-binary, or others coming into their clinics, or healthcare facilities for care. This was an educational experience for me. After conducting many training sessions I learned that 90% of the people welcoming clients or gathering information from those coming through the door had no idea what a gay, lesbian, transgender, or non-binary person was so they would look at their medical chart and call them by the name given to them at birth which caused lots of problems. They were all genuinely surprised to learn how easy it was to ask a person about the pronoun they preferred or the name they desired to be called on that day. It should be noted that many of the front-line people working in the field were from other countries and had never been taught about the differences. Thanks to Open House, it was a great educational experience for them too.

The internship program was a great success and I still smile when I think about my students. They were genuinely interested in public health. They chose professions to help others. They focused on obtaining master’s degrees in public health, being accepted and attending medical school, and the field of law to become attorneys.

Here are a few tips for getting pronouns correct:

1. Don’t assume another person’s gender or gender pronouns

You can’t always know what someone’s gender pronouns are by looking at them, by their name, or by how they dress or behave.

2. Ask a person’s gender pronoun

Asking about and correctly using someone’s gender pronouns is an easy way to show your respect for their identity. Ask a person respectfully and privately what pronoun they use. A simple “Can I ask what pronoun you use?” will usually suffice.

3. Share your own gender pronoun

Normalise the sharing of gender pronouns by actively sharing your own. You can include them after your name in your signature, on your social media accounts, or when you introduce yourself in meetings. Normalising the sharing of gender pronouns can be particularly helpful to people who use pronouns outside of the binary.

4. Apologise if you call someone by the wrong pronoun

Mistakes happen and it can be difficult to adjust to using someone’s correct pronouns. If you accidentally misgender someone, apologise and continue the conversation using the correct pronoun.

5. Avoid binary-gendered language

Avoid addressing groups as “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls” and address groups of people as “everyone”, “colleagues”, “friends” or “students”. Employers should use gender-neutral language in formal and informal communications.

6. Help others

Help others use a person’s correct pronouns. If a colleague, employer, or friend uses an incorrect pronoun, politely correct them.

7. Practise!

If you’ve not used gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” and “ze” before, give yourself time to practise and get used to them.

There are many gender identity terms that are being used today. If you are interested in learning more about the terms, please visit the Guide to Gender Identity Terms released by NPR (National Public Radio) during their special Pride Month series.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.