Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series

This month, Merriam-Webster announced that its word of the year for 2019 is ‘they.’ The dictionary noted in its announcement that people searched for the word ‘they’ 313% more in 2019 than in the previous year, and attributed it at least in part to the growing recognition and acceptance of people with nonbinary gender identities. The choice immediately resulted in backlash, mostly from linguistic prescriptivists and anti-LGBTQ+ reactionaries. But for many nonbinary people, Merriam-Webster’s decision to recognize the singular ‘they’ was life-affirming.

As immigration attorneys and people whose work is to serve people around the world, it’s essential that we have an open mind when it comes to diverse gender identities. Third genders (and more) are recognized throughout the world, including the Muxe in Mexico, the Bissu in Indonesia, and the Fa’afafine in Samoa, among hundreds of others. It is entirely possible that we will have clients who do not identify with a binary gender, so it’s important that we be as open and accepting in this as we are in so many other aspects of our clients’ lives. One simple way to make our spaces welcoming for queer clients and colleagues is to talk about pronouns.

There are plenty of ways to open the pronouns conversation without forcing someone to out themself if they aren’t ready. One way to start is by adding your pronouns to your email signature line. Another is to give your pronouns when you introduce yourself, even for those who identify with the “standard” binary pronouns. You can also add your pronouns to your nametag whenever you’re at an event, or even get a nice lapel pin with your pronouns on it.

The firm where I work has added the question “What pronouns do you use?” to our intake sheet. For clients who aren’t part of the LGBTQ+ community, the question is almost universally met with confusion, and we often get the answer “none” from people who don’t know why it’s being asked. But for clients who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, the question serves an important purpose. It signals to the client that they are in a place where their identity will be respected. Just by asking the question, we’re letting the client know that it’s okay to be themself when they’re with us. It helps clients feel safe to share their truth, which can be especially important when you have a client who has fled their home country and is afraid of repercussions just for being who they are.

Talking about pronouns isn’t just good for the clients, though. It’s good for our colleagues, too. I can think of at least three times I’ve discussed pronouns with other immigration attorneys just in the last few months. I hope that each of them came away from the conversation with a better sense of why pronouns are important, not just in making a more welcoming environment for clients, but in shaping our field in a way that creates space for queer attorneys to join our ranks and advocate on the side of good.

You may be hesitant to implement pronoun use in practice, because at first glance, it probably seems like you’ll spend a lot of additional time explaining gender concepts to people who don’t understand. But it’s actually pretty simple to address. For example, when asked “Why does your questionnaire ask about pronouns?”, an easy response is, “Oh, there are some people who don’t use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ and we want everyone to feel welcome here. If that doesn’t apply to you, don’t worry about it! But if there’s something else you’d like me to call you, just let me know. It’s important to me that you feel comfortable!” It only takes about thirty seconds, and people who identify with a binary gender will quickly move on to whatever the topic of the consultation is, since they aren’t in your office to talk about their gender. And for people who are trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, you may end up spending a lot more time on it, but it’ll be because they feel safe talking to you.

While Merriam-Webster has taken a leap toward greater recognition of nonbinary people on a language-wide scale, it’s up to us to bring that recognition to our community. As immigration attorneys, we’ve already carved out a loving space for immigrants in a world resounding with hateful rhetoric toward some of its most vulnerable. As we enter a new decade, let’s continue that work and grow our space into one that offers that same love and acceptance to our queer brothers, sisters, and siblings. If the dictionary can do it, we can too.