OPINION: Pronouns can be a matter of life or death

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

By Kellyn Botha

21 October marks International Pronouns Day. For the trans and gender-diverse community, it is a time to celebrate the freedom that comes with choosing one’s own name and pronouns and to raise awareness around the importance of respecting those pronouns.

In that light, some tips for writers and journalists on the matter seem appropriate.

Briefly, pronouns are the words we use to refer to other people, such as “he/him/his”, “she/her/hers”, and “they/them/theirs”.

Although English is an ever-evolving language, the singular “they” – which is the most common pronoun for non-binary individuals to adopt – has come under heavy fire by language-purists over the years.

It is important to remember that grammar evolves to fit new ideas and identities all the time. Besides, the singular “they” actually predates the singular “you”, with the latter word’s ancient roots referring instead to a plurality of people!

A transgender woman is a woman. She is likely to use female pronouns, despite having been called “he” and “him” by others prior to coming out.

Similarly, a trans man would most likely use masculine pronouns, to affirm his gender and his identity over that which he knows he is not. To then refer to a trans man as “she” – even when speaking about his past – can be hurtful, degrading, and misrepresent the nuanced reality of trans identities.

Trans people do not choose to be who they are any more than any other demographic. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary. This is an innate part of their being.

As such, it is not simply a matter of courtesy or political correctness to use a trans person’s preferred pronouns, but a matter of basic respect for another human being. This respect is non-negotiable for anyone who claims to be an ally to the transgender community, or who believes in the value of human rights.

Media in Africa – and indeed across the globe – have a habit of ‘misgendering’ trans people by using the wrong pronouns. This may not always come out of bigotry and malice against trans individuals, but rather a misunderstanding around what it means to be transgender in the first place.

The conflation between gender-diversity and sexual orientation has led on many occasions for media outlets to report on violence against trans persons inaccurately, often calling trans women gay men and considering trans men to be lesbians. Police reporting, too, often does this leading to a lack of accurate records on the rate of violence against transgender persons.

Trans Murder Monitoring, which publishes the names of the dead each year, would have readers believe that this country is safe when compared to Brazil or the US given the lack of local names on the annual roster. But this is a result of poor reporting by the media and the state.

Respect for pronouns may go a long way toward solving this issue.

It is not enough, however, to do right by the deceased. To write respectfully and accurately about trans persons still with us is vital.

The media have an outsized role in the influence of public perceptions, and in normalising transgender stories and using the correct pronouns for the trans persons in those stories, there is some hope that the violence will be curbed, and that social acceptance will rise.

My name is Kellyn Botha. My pronouns are she and her.

I wrote this for frayintermedia in memory of Nare Mphela, Kirvan Fortuin, Robyn Montsumi, Kagiso Maema, Lee Siba Mothibe, and the countless other transgender South Africans who are no longer here to tell you their stories.

For more information and guidelines on how to use pronouns, Trans Journalists Association styleguide:

Five tips for journalists covering trans and non-binary persons:

Kellyn Botha is a trans woman specialising in areas of transgender representation in cinema, communications advocacy, and research. She is based in Johannesburg and consults for Iranti, ILGA World, and a range of other human rights NGOs.

49 views0 comments