In September of 2019, Sam Smith, a Grammy award-winning pop star, took to Instagram to announce that they would like to be identified as non-binary, using they/theirs/them as their pronouns moving forward. A major milestone in pop culture, Sam’s announcement and the growing popularity of pronouns have largely been influenced by the media. TV shows like Pose and Transparent, as well as the presence of other celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Bobrisky, have infiltrated popular culture with unique stories, dismantling and reconstructing the zeitgeist of our generation by forcing people to question what they know and address their underlying bias.
However, while progress globally, especially for transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming individuals, seems to be moving at a glacial pace with recorded murders and violence, in Nigeria, the pertinent question is whether there’s movement at all. But then again, is it possible to have a movement when a large majority of people don’t understand why it matters?
What are Pronouns?
The University of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center defines a pronoun as a word that refers either to the person/people talking, or someone/people being spoken about, all without the use of their names or nouns. Example: My name is Conrad. I identify as a man, and as such my pronouns are he/him/his/himself. As simple as this might seem with traditional pronouns assigning he/him/his to men and she/her/hers to women, this process inadvertently ignores a broad spectrum of gender expressions that are not limited to or predetermined by our binary – male and female – sexual organs, a major omission that makes it incongruous and dated.
The gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, “They” has gained considerable traction over the years as a pronoun used by individuals who don’t want to feel boxed by the traditional pronouns assigned to the male and female genders. Accepted by the Associated Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, and even voted as the Word of the Decade by the American Dialect Society, it provides non-binary individuals with a pronoun that aligns with their identity.
Why are Pronouns so Important?
In a popular video that went viral last year inspiring countless memes and sparking a conversation among Nigerians, internet sensation, Bobrisky is seen relaying her displeasure at the fact that despite reiterating several times that her pronouns are she/her/hers, some people have chosen to misgender her by using male pronouns. While the video turned “ta ni bro e?” which loosely translates to “who is your brother?” into pop culture gold, humour aside, it also showed a lackadaisical attitude towards people and their respective pronouns.
Ibrahim Bello, who happens to be passionate about LGBTQ+ rights and maintains a strong vocal presence on social media, talks to Love Matters Naija about the importance of pronouns, “It is important to assign the correct pronoun to an individual because not doing so dehumanizes them. It is the bare minimum that they require of us and to be honest, it takes nothing out of us. It is a way of showing people that we value and respect them.”
New York City also agrees, with new clarifications to the city’s human rights guidelines recording the intentional misidentification of a person’s name, pronoun or title as a violation of the city’s anti-discrimination law.
Apart from being a goading technique used to harass people, misgendering someone could be dangerous. Several cases of assault and murder have been recorded as a result of misgendering, especially among the Trans community. Publicly misgendering a member of the community when their past pronouns aren’t public knowledge draws a target on their backs, making them vulnerable to varying forms of physical and verbal abuse.
Oftentimes, a defense tactic used is, “it’s just a word and it doesn’t mean anything”. Well, if it doesn’t mean anything, why do we deprive people of grammatical dignity?
“If I tell you my preferred pronoun and go ahead to misgender me, it’s like me telling you my name and you decide that you don’t like my name, so you start calling me something else. You’re invalidating my experience,” says Nicole, who identifies as non-binary.
In Nigeria, not only are LGBQ+ rights not respected, but they’re also criminalized. The 2014 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPPA) matches queer sex, marriage and civil unions between individuals of the same sex with a 14-year jail term. And while it does not explicitly address other members of the community such as Trans and non-binary identifying individuals, it has inadvertently played a role in the discrimination they face.
So how do you navigate life in a country that doesn’t recognize, much more respect your existence? Nicole, who has gotten used to being misgendered, understands that a large percentage of Nigerians don’t even think to ask about pronouns, “I’m generally not a confrontational person so I seldom do anything about being misgendered. It’s really hard to correct people when you’re not officially out at work. However, in my safe space, I always tell people to address me by they/them,” she tells Love Matters.
Just like Sonia, Ibrahim isn’t oblivious to the constantly expanding gap in education and acceptance when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Notwithstanding, he recognizes that for most Nigerians misgendering doesn’t sprout from a lack of education or exposure, rather, it is a cis heterosexual tool used to humiliate people often viewed as “abnormal” and “not deserving of dignity”. “Nigerians refuse to use the right pronouns for Trans and non-binary people because we see them as less than. To use the right pronouns would be to normalize their existence but unfortunately, many Nigerians don’t want that”.
Is it grammatically correct to use gender-inclusive pronouns?
English language just like the world around it, is in a constant state of evolution. Centuries ago, the widely popular singular pronoun “you”, was originally a plural pronoun with “thou, thee and thy” serving as its plural forms.
While “they” might seem grammatically incorrect for a single person, it is not. Also, “they” as a singular pronoun can be traced back to the 13th century in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as later works by other iconic authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Also, “they” has recently been included in both the Oxford and Merriam-Webster English Dictionaries as a singular pronoun.
This goes to show that rather than build our lives within the confines of language – an invention of ours – it makes more sense for language to be malleable enough to grow and change with us.
I want to be better, what should I do?
It all begins with being open to learning and accepting experiences exclusive of yours. While it might not be common practice here in Nigeria, the best way to avoid misgendering someone is by simply asking people about their preferred pronoun, otherwise, it’s best to stick to the gender-neutral “they” until you hear otherwise. Another tactic would be to introduce yourself and stress your pronouns in a way that hints at your desire to know the other person’s pronoun. Example: Hello, my name is Conrad. I identify as he, you? Nevertheless, some people are vocal about their pronouns and what they identify as.
Rephrasing the popular Maya Angelou quote about accepting people for who they show themselves to be, if someone tells you their preferred pronouns, accept it. No questions or backstories needed. As Nigerians there seems to be a sense of entitlement to people’s stories, however, it is not anyone’s job to justify their pronouns or educate you on them.
We all make mistakes. So what do you do when you unintentionally misgender someone? Well, your best bet would be to apologize sincerely and correct the situation immediately. Don’t make it awkward for them by creating a scene. We ask Ibrahim what he thinks about this and he agrees, reiterating his previous point “assigning the correct pronoun is a way of showing people that we value and respect them. So don’t be defensive, rather, be open to correction and criticism.”