Tuesday, June 6, 2023

‘How To Be a Good Ally? Do Something!’ Talking Pronouns and Proactive Conversations For Pink Shirt Day

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Capsule talks to Petazae Thoms, the Tāmaki Makaurau Schools Coordinator from InsideOUT, for Pink Shirt Day about how allies can reduce the emotional labour that Rainbow folks have to deal with.

Every year, Pink Shirt Day is a great opportunity to work together to promote kindness and diversity, but for folks in the Rainbow Community, there are 364 other days in the year where these conversations need our support, out of the spotlight. The use of pronouns has come to the forefront in the past few years and I’ll be honest, it’s a conversation where, as a 35-year-old, I often show my age. So I asked Petazae Thoms, the Tāmaki Makaurau Schools Coordinator from InsideOUT, to give me a run-down on how to have these chats in a casual but respectful way.

“There’s a belief, particularly in schools, that change doesn’t need to be made unless there’s a direct reason for that change to be made,” says Petazae. “When, actually, if we made more changes earlier, in terms of creating more rainbow inclusive spaces in schools, we might be able to create a safer environment for young people to be able to come out.”

For people within the rainbow community, it can be a life-long process of having to reaffirm their identity to people. “In New Zealand, there are still some really shocking statistics about how many people go back into the closet when they start their professional career,” Petazae says. “When you think about coming out, it’s not just one time; you think about all these new settings you go into it.”

For example, he says, if you’re a woman and you have a female partner and when you start a new job, they start asking you questions about your husband. “That’s another time when you’re going to have to come out to them. And that’s some emotional labour that all your other peers aren’t going to have to go through.”

Pink Shirt Day image from the Mental Health Foundation

This is an example of how having a quick pronoun check-in help keep the chat running smoothly. Petazae says that there can be a misconception that all these talks have to be a Really Big Deal, but the more we normalise that quick check-in, the easier it becomes on everyone to keep having those conversations and use to create safer spaces for the rainbow community.

“We need to acknowledge that pronouns don’t equate to gender; so we don’t actually know what anyone’s pronouns are until they tell us. There are a lot of things we don’t know about a person when we first meet them; it’s up to that person what they want to tell us and when they want to tell us,” Petazae says. “So the way I go about framing pronouns is ‘Hey, I just want to make sure I refer to you in the right way, can you please tell me your pronouns?’ It’s similar to being like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to pronounce your name wrong, can you just walk me through that?’ There’s no reason to be whakamā or embarrassed about it.”

It’s the same with making assumptions about someone’s partner – if someone refers to having a ‘partner,’ if you’re a heterosexual person, you might blindly assume the person you’re talking to as well and then the burden falls to them to a) inform you that you’re wrong and b) deal with any awkwardness that arises. That’s a lot of admin. Whereas if you keep your terms non gender specific – e.g. ‘they’; what do they do for a living?’ then the person you’re talking to can fill in the blank. If you’re still not sure, you can use the partner’s name and you can also ask the question, “I just want to make sure I’m referring to your partner correctly, what pronouns does your partner use?”

“There are ways we can get creative on how we refer to people without getting personal with questions on gender, genitals and other private things we really do not need to know about,” Petazae says.

And if you accidentally slip up and use the wrong pronoun? It’s not a cause for drama. “We really encourage people not to make a big deal out of it if they make a mistake, because then you kind of turn it back onto yourself and make it all about you. The best way is to go ‘Oops, sorry!’, use the correct pronoun, and then continue on with the conversation.”

The younger generation is, generally, much quicker at adapting to this; it’s the older generations that sometimes have to adjust how they think and speak when it comes to gender. But shame and embarrassment are really powerful emotions, Petazae says, and they don’t help anyone when it comes to educating themselves. “It is an adjustment after so many years of having this kind of thinking about gender, and this kind of thinking about pronouns, and now being introduced to a very layered conversation,” he says. “It comes down to having those chats with them and this is where I encourage allies to take on the labour of having those conversations and saying, ‘I get that it’s confusing, I get that it’s a lot of catch-up. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t get to make a choice about who they are and how they identify in the world, so if we can make a choice to make those conversations and those spaces easier for them, then that’s fantastic.’ We want to make sure this person feels seen around us.”

There are plenty of small steps we can all do, he says. “Normalise pronouns, normalise introducing yourself with them. Put your pronouns on your email signature, enquire about people’s pronouns, use more gender neutral language. Instead of just ‘boys and girls, guys and ladies’, try ‘hey folks, hey pals.’ Te Reo Māori is fantastic because ‘Kia Ora koutou’, that’s not gendered.”

Having the pronoun chat with young kids may feel intimidating to parents, but Petazae says it doesn’t need to be. “Say, ‘Hey, I’ve been referring to you with ‘she’ pronouns, does that feel comfy?’ If they’re like, ‘Yep,’ then you can say, ‘Great, thanks for letting me know and let me know if that ever changes.’” Switching the pronouns when reading story books is also a super easy way to create that safe space. “That sort of fluidity is a really proactive way of having these conversations, or even setting up the foundations to have those conversations one day.”

All of this is easy enough to do and helps stop us from making assumptions about gender, meaning we create more room for those in the rainbow community to feel welcome. “These conversations only take a moment and they really minimise the minority stress that so many of these rainbow folks have to have in their work, in their home life and in their school life, as well.”

For more information on Pink Shirt Day, including downloadable resources, click here.  For more information on InsideOUT, including information for schools and workplaces, click here.

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