A study from the University of Texas at Austin found that using the correct names and pronouns with transgender youth reduces depression and suicidal risks in their article, “Using Chosen Names Reduces Odds of Depression and Suicide in Transgender Youth.” The study also found that symptoms of severe depression were lowered by 71%, a 34% decrease of suicidal thoughts, and 65% fewer suicide attempts for people who were able to use and be addressed by their pronouns and name versus people who weren’t able to. Pronoun usage is something that affects everyone, including cisgender people, and respecting people’s correct pronouns starts with education and allyship.
At ORHS, there are several students who don’t identify as cisgender. Anyone whose gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth is cisgender, more commonly reffered to as cis. The correlation between gender and pronouns is certainly not black and white. There is a whole spectrum between male and female genders, and the requisite he/him and she/her pronouns. For non-cis students, having the opportunity to change how they’re refered to as via their pronouns and name is an important part of securing their identity.
“In your lifetime, you’re going to meet people who are gender nonconforming and who are non binary, and understanding their pronouns is very important and a basic form of respect,” said Juno Ball (‘23), a student who recently came out as non binary.
To help put into perspective what it’s like to come out and what it was like after they transitioned, Ball said, “it’s kind of like figuring out who you are as a person, but in a very blatant way. All of a sudden there’s a huge change where people are calling you by a different name, and at first you’re like, ‘who’s that, wait that’s me, I need to answer to that.’ It’s a big change, but it’s like wearing a pair of shoes that are too small for a very, very long time, and then all of a sudden you get a new pair of shoes, and you realize that these are how shoes are supposed to fit you. It’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s all sorted out. I feel very relieved to be like, ‘that’s how I’m supposed to feel about gender.’”
Ball went on to mention that they had always felt like something was off with their gender, even before coming out as non binary. They said, “I got it situated and I said I’m non binary and use they/them pronouns, and then it felt more like whenever people call me Juno or use the right pronouns, it’s a little feeling of, ‘oh yeah, that’s me.’”
Sonia Barth-Malone (‘23) is a genderfluid student who usually prefers he/they pronouns and describes their gender like a scale. “Genderfluid is really in the name; my gender is fluid, so it changes day to day. A good way that I saw someone describe it is that it’s like a scale, with male on one side, female on the other, and non binary in the middle. Where you are on the scale shifts each day, or throughout the day, so sometimes you feel more feminine, and maybe a couple hours later you feel more masculine.”
To make sure people know which pronouns to use, Barth-Malone said that one way to help people who are genderfluid or have pronouns that change is to wear something that signifies what pronouns they’re using that day. An example he mentioned was a necklace or pair of earrings that symbolizes their pronouns and lets other people know without directly telling them every day.
For students interested in changing their pronouns more officially, the school is offering help.
At ORHS, the counseling department provides the opportunity for non-cis students the chance to change their pronouns from what they were assigned at birth to what they currently go as. Heather Machanoff is a counselor at the high school who described the process of students changing their names or pronouns as a balance of finding what they’re comfortable sharing and going from there in steps. “Sometimes it will start with a student saying, ‘I’d like to be addressed as…’ and change their name to a different name. So in that instance, it’s just what their comfort level is sharing with teachers and different people within the building, and the same goes for pronouns. Sometimes students start small, they kind of pick one piece of that very large puzzle to address, and some come in and are ready to go and want to do the whole thing,” she said.
Machanoff went on to mention that the next step is getting parental involvement to change names and pronouns in the school system and programs such as Powerschool. She said, “certainly, if a student asks to be called a name other than the name they were given at birth or a different pronoun, we can honor that, but what we can’t do is change information in the system or at the state level, we need to have communication with the parents [to change that]. That’s the next level if someone wants to change their name officially in the system which can be done.”
Machanoff added that even if a student isn’t ready to share everything or anything about their transition, counselors do not share that information unless the student says so. “That’s information that I’m going to hold onto until they are ready to share. Just by asking [to change it], doesn’t mean that that starts the process moving,” she said.
For Ball, they had a meeting with their school counselor, Kim Cassamas, to go over getting things changed over. “I had a meeting with Ms. Cassamas about it, and she was just great about it and we got my name changed very quickly. She just sent an email out to all my teachers explaining the change in name and the change in pronouns, and I don’t think I’ve had a single teacher slip up on my name or pronouns since then, which has been really great. Most of my classmates then saw that it had changed, and just started using the new name and everything, which is great,” said Ball.
Although people may remember to use the correct pronouns, sometimes there are mistakes. Machanoff said that the issue of slipping up is all about how you correct yourself afterwards. She said as school counselors, they prepare students for the possibilities of misgendering or using the incorrect pronouns. She said, “often if a teacher uses the wrong pronoun or uses their previous name, they just need to own it and say sorry and that they recognize their mistake and acknowledge that there’s a change so the student knows that it’s okay to have that change. For the most part, there are a lot of students who, in their peer group, are already using a different name or pronouns, and I think sometimes the teachers pick up on that too so it’s kind of a natural progression to have that information shared with them from the student perspective.”
Among sharing changes in pronouns through friends and peers, one way of doing so is through social media. On Instagram, Ball posted on their story that they were coming out and changing their name and pronouns. They described that it was a way to spread the information to many people at school without having a conversation with each person. “I think it’s really great that social media is kind of normalizing [pronouns] with people, like by putting pronouns in your bio, and more people are experimenting with their pronouns through this. I know a lot of my cis friends have been really great about it. They were putting pronouns in their bio and everything before I came out which actually made me feel more comfortable coming out to them because I knew that they would be supportive because they’ve already shown in small ways that they’re allies,” said Ball.
Barth-Malone also mentioned that they think social media has helped with pronouns. He said, “I think lately in social media it’s been helpful when people have their pronouns in their bio. However, I think people put too much pressure on that, especially with content creators, and tend to get upset at them if they don’t have their pronouns in their bio […] I also feel like cis people try to involve themselves too much where they are primarily the people who get mad if someone doesn’t have their pronouns in their bio.”
Despite all the support, not everyone has been an ally in both Ball and Barth-Malone’s experiences. Transphobia is still present, even within ORHS. Barth-Malone mentioned that they had a former classmate message transphobic comments to them. For Ball, some people messaged them saying that they/them pronouns aren’t for singular pronoun use, which Ball responded with infographics to disprove those comments.
Machanoff acknowledged that there are certainly benefits to coming out, but that the whole process can be overwhelming. “The most important thing is that they’re able to live as their authentic self. It can be a daunting process to think about as a teenager, with all of the things that people think about you and all the judgement you might feel as a person. Along those lines, it feels really good to just be who you are and be comfortable with that and be able to be honest about those things,” she said.
Spreading awareness and education on LGBTQ topics saves people’s emotional and mental health and Barth-Malone said, “I think that students and teachers should learn more about pronouns, but I think most of them can understand the idea. However, I feel like teaching kids about different genders would be helpful, that way we don’t have to explain it every time. As much as I appreciate people being interested in gendering me correctly, I don’t want to have to explain what genderfluid is to someone every single time, even just encouraging them to look it up a little bit before asking someone, because we get tired of being walking information stands about LGBTQ topics.”
“If people don’t have a ton of experience with pronouns besides he or she, [they should learn]. Even in five minutes, you kind of get the gist of it, and I think that it’s a very important thing. Especially as more people are coming out as non binary and gender nonconforming, because in this day and age, this is more of a safe space for that,” said Ball.
For information more on transgender expeirences, check out Madla Walsh’s article about trans students.
By Arianna Antonelli