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Why pronouns matter – especially if you get them wrong.

To most of us the pronoun in front of our name, Mr, Mrs or Miss tends not to matter. We tend to be unambiguous about our identity it being tied in to the sex we were born with and subsequent qualifications, professions and awards such as “Dr.” “Sir” “Professors” “Captain”. However, there is a trend in business that today I have seen Halifax Building Society receive much criticism for and that is the specifying of pronouns on name badges.

Yet as a bank cashier I have gotten the sex of customers wrong on two occasions resulting in considerable inconvenience and embarrassment to both me and the customer with declined transactions.

Now lets be honest, for most of us this does not matter. But to the individual it can be very significant. In the early 1990’s I worked for a Bank in a small town in Lincolnshire. One of my elderly customers was transexual, and unfortunately some of my colleagues, especially new cashiers, made the mistake of calling her “Mr” to receive an indignant protest, “It is madam”. To make matters worse, other customers and people in the street could be extremely cruel to her staring or even name calling, or pulling faces behind her back. This lady is why “pronouns” matter and the fact that she had claimed her gender identity despite bigotry, fear and intimidation deserved respect as the following illustrates.

One day she came into the Bank and was in tears. I took her into an office, made her a drink and sat down to find out what was wrong. The story she told me was harrowing. Born in the 1920’s she was born in her words “mixed sex” but her mother made the wrong decision and she was brought up as a boy. When war broke out she volunteered to join the Navy and served active service throughout the world including the Russian supply lines in the war. It was during this time she met her partner. Now just imagine being in the Navy on active duty in Wartime as a woman effectively identifying as a man to the world, then falling in love with someone on the face of it of the same sex in a time when homosexuality was illegal. After the War her partner had had a relationship bearing children, but once his wife had passed he moved away and was able to settle with his first love in Lincolnshire. The reason she was in tears was that her partner had died. In her eyes her husband and only love. Unfortunately, due to them not being legally married the family of her partner had arranged the funeral and she had no say in the process and could not even attend, despite living together for many years as “husband and wife”. I could do little to console her other than listen and allow her to gain her composure. She was alone and heartbroken.

This lady had suffered, loved, served her country and had her heart broken. She deserved respect and any pronoun she chose was fitting for her status. Now we can all make value judgements, but in my simple mind there is one thing I know. We were all made to love.

Pronouns do not matter to me. I prefer to be called “Andrew” than “Mr”. Equally I would not wish to wear a name badge with a pronoun as for me I feel there is no need. But, do we wish to go back to a state where people live in fear and cannot be open about themselves? Is a little prompt on a name badge that harmful? Are the majority of us to whom this is not an issue so afraid of the minority who have to constantly justify their gender?

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