Pronouns Matter, and So Does How You Apologize

Jesi Lipp (they/them) attends St. Paul’s UMC in Lenexa where they serve on the Church Council and as a lay member of Annual Conference. They serve on the Great Plains Connecting Council, and have previously served on the Great Plains Mercy and Justice Team. Jesi was elected to be a delegate to the 2020 South Central Jurisdictional Conference.

Names are important. What we call ourselves is fundamental to who we are. Stories that remind us of this are found through our faith: Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah, the naming of John the Baptist, Simon Peter as the rock the church is built on, Saul becoming Paul on the road to Damascus. And if names matter, then surely pronouns – which are used to identify us far more than our names are, many times over – cannot be any less important.

There are plenty of resources out there about why pronouns matter, including in the workplace and at schoolgender neutral pronouns, and how to use some of those newer pronouns that you might not be familiar with. And, since Merriam-Webster made singular they its Word of the Year for 2019, we can surely all dispense with the silly idea that singular they is “ungrammatical” or “wrong.”

But, of course, even if you read every pronoun explainer that has ever been published, there are going to be times when you mess up (I’ve been using they/them for 18 months now, and I still sometimes use the wrong pronouns when I speak in third person).

So what do you do when you make a mistake, either when you realize it on your own, or someone else points it out to you?

Correct it, and move on:

“We wanted to go to the game, so she – sorry, they – bought us tickets.”

“I was telling him about my day-”
“Taylor uses ze/zir pronouns.”
“Right, sorry. I was telling zir about my day, and ze was really sympathetic.”

Don’t stop talking and wait for the person to verbally acknowledge your apology so that you can then thank them for understanding and then they can tell you not to worry about it, they know everyone messes up sometimes, and hey, they still misgender themselves in the third person sometimes! You’ve now completely derailed the conversation and made it about your mistake.

Don’t tell the person you misgendered how sorry you are, that you’ll never do it again, you really do care about them and you would never want to make them uncomfortable, you’re learning and you’re trying and you’re really so very, very sorry. That kind of overwrought apology, however genuine, now makes them responsible for comforting you.

Don’t make an extended thing out of it. A quick “sorry,” correcting the error, and then moving on isn’t the bare minimum. It’s the maximum. For you, it’s maybe the first time you’ve spoken to this person in a month, and you really want to make sure they understand that you love and support them. But for them, it could be the fifth or twentieth time today that someone has misgendered them, and it’s exhausting.

This is, of course, where I point out that I can’t speak for every trans person out there. This is my opinion from my lived experience, and from talking with my trans friends about their experiences. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about you. When you accidentally misgender someone, your response should be about making them feel comfortable, not making yourself feel better. And often, that means that less is more.