Using Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Optional

Sharon McCutcheon Pronouns

Today I was browsing Fat Positive Cooperative, a site that connects people with fat acceptance and fat positive resources, and a post by trans, nonbinary and fat activist J Aprileo caught my eye; it was entitled, “Fat & Trans: Reclaiming My Autonomy.” In it, J highlights an experience that trans and nonbinary folks know well: being misgendered as they move through the world. As a psychotherapist who works with many trans and nonbinary folks, empowering them to take up space in the world and live authentically as their unique selves, my interest was piqued. 

J speaks to the pain and anguish they experience when people misgender them: “It’s difficult to describe the feeling I get when this happens. Part of me wants to shout at people, ‘I’M NOT A GIRL!’ at the top of my lungs. I also want to cry. Why don’t they see me? What more can I do to show them who I am?”

I want to take a moment here to bear witness to this pain, and not gloss over it. Imagine for a moment the impact of hundreds or thousands of microaggressions like these on someone’s mental health, on their self-worth, on their nervous system. 


J also explains that their fatness compounds people’s assumptions about their gender identity: “The thing is, I truly believe that if I were thin, it would be easier to lean into the androgyny stereotype…My fat body has curves, rolls…It doesn’t occur to them that there could be another possibility.” 

J and their partner, fellow fat activist Corissa Enneking of Fat Girl Flow, have hatched an ingenious response to folks who misgender J: “You Misgendered Me” cards. Together the couple created Pronoun Packs. “They are business cards that brings the topic of misgendering strangers/customers to people’s attention and gently encourages them to use neutral language instead.” The purpose of these cards is simple: to gently notify someone that they have made a misstep and provide them with an opportunity to do better next time.

J describes leaving a “You Misgendered Me” card on the table at a restaurant as they are leaving, and the impact it has: “I feel confident in my being. I feel strong and resolute in my identity.” (These Pronoun Packs are available for purchase here). 

Here in Chicago, Praxis Group has created #hopefulgender cards (and will mail you 5 for free!) to help folks navigate these same situations. “I appreciate your intention of politeness,” they say, “but please do not address me as ma’am or lady/sir or dude. Gender cannot be assumed by voice or appearance. Instead, ask individuals how they’d like to be addressed.” 

Here’s the thing: using the correct pronouns for someone when speaking to/about them – and using gender-neutral language and pronouns as a rule – is the least we can do. It reflects basic human decency and respect. 

If you are struggling to unlearn the binary and incorporate gender-neutral language and pronouns into your vocabulary, have no fear! It’s a big shift. I recommend the book “A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns” by Archie Bongiovanni & Tristan Jimerson for folks who are new to gender-neutral language and pronouns. 

Let’s send a message, loud and clear, to our trans and nonbinary friends, partners, neighbors and coworkers: “We see you. We support you. We want to make you feel safe and at ease.” 

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Sarah Landolfi

My name is Sarah Landolfi and I practice at the intersection of Queer & Trans identities, fat embodiment, and trauma-informed care. As an individual psychotherapist, I work with Queer, Trans and fat… Read More