In a brightly lit classroom, we sat in groups of four clutching handwritten index cards in our hands. Having learned a few basic things about our partners — their names, where they were from and their favorite color, for example — we were asked to introduce them to the group, using the unusual grammatical rules printed on our cards.
The exercise took a lot longer than we thought it would. With furrowed brows and occasional bursts of nervous laughter, we tried to determine which pronouns to use when talking about our partners’ jobs and hometowns. The words felt awkward and unfamiliar our tongues. Many of us had never heard them before.
If you’re imagining a beginner foreign language class, you could easily be forgiven. That’s certainly how it felt at times.
In reality, though, this was a joint meeting of the DAUK Women’s and LGBTQ+ Caucuses. We were speaking in plain English. And we were practicing using non-binary pronouns to refer to people who choose to go by, say, ‘ze’ or ‘ey’, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’.
‘Ze/hir/hirs’ and ‘ey/em/eirs’ are just some of the gender-neutral and genderqueer pronouns now in use, a lexicon as diverse and expansive as the gender identities it represents. For many of us at the meeting, however, the most interesting part of the pronoun exercise was what it revealed about ourselves: lots of us — myself included — have our traditional, binary, ‘he/she’ goggles on pretty tight. And if true equality for the LGBTQ+ community is the goal, then we have to start by removing them.
This lesson was a humbling one, for it exposed how even would-be allies can unwittingly contribute to systemic bias against members of the LGBTQ+ community. However unintentional, this bias helps breed exclusion, oppression and violence — a culture that Robbie Platt, chair of the LGBTQ+ Caucus, said is alive, well and thriving in the Trump era.
“The fight for LGBTQ equality is far from over,” he stressed. “We have a president who refuses to acknowledge Pride, who has no policies for LGBTQ+ rights or HIV/AIDS, who aligns himself with individuals and organizations that are openly against our community.
“We have a government that defends the right to discriminate in the guise of religious freedom, and a Supreme Court that refuses to hear many discrimination cases, because it’s more concerned with protecting states’ rights than civil rights.”
Transgender people are especially vulnerable, Robbie noted.
“The Trump administration has banned transgender Americans from the military and tried to strip them of Title VII employment protections — all while rolling back Obama-era compliance requirements protecting against transgender discrimination in the workplace, and blocking transgender students from choosing which bathroom to use.”
These are just some of the battles the LGBTQ+ community is fighting, Robbie said, and they promise to be long and tough ones. But there’s a lot that LGBTQ+ allies can do to join the fight — and that’s where the humbling lesson in gender pronouns becomes an empowering one.
“Being an ally starts with the choices we make every day,” said Kate Van Dermark, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus.
“Start by educating yourself: Learn about gender identity and sexual orientation. Confront your biases and assumptions. Listen with an open mind, and refrain from making judgments,” she said.
“Show respect by using a person’s pronouns. Share yours and ask others for theirs. Use them in your intros, emails and social media.”
LGBTQ+ allies can also champion inclusivity by fostering safe spaces and standing up against anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, she noted.
“When we encounter anti-LGBTQ+ expressions, whether they’re intentional or not, it’s up to us to call them out and explain why they’re wrong,” she said.
Supporting LGBTQ+ advocacy and awareness is another critical way to help, Robbie added.
“The LGBTQ+ Caucus welcomes all members of Democrats Abroad who want to promote our community. There are also lots of other great LGBTQ+ groups that could use support in the form of donations, volunteering and awareness-raising,” he said.
“And as always, hold your members of Congress to account: follow LGBTQ+ issues in your state and tell your representatives loud and clear where you stand.”
To learn more about and join the LGBTQ+ Caucus, visit www.democratsabroad.org/lgbt or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get involved in the Women’s Caucus, visit www.womenscaucus.co.uk or email email@example.com.