How to Write Respectfully About Nonbinary People
November 23, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Rey Katz
More than 1 million nonbinary adults live in the U.S., about one in every 330 people, according to an estimate in a 2021 study. As a nonbinary, queer writer, I reported on how to write about trans people with respect. Nonbinary people are underrepresented in journalism and publishing. It is so important to include our community when writing creative nonfiction.
In this post, I share 3 pieces of advice to make your creative nonfiction more inclusive towards trans, nonbinary, and agender people. Inclusive writing will increase your audience. The trans community and allies will promote work that speaks respectfully and correctly about trans people.
- Use people’s correct names and pronouns.
If you’re quoting or referring to anyone, trans or cis, please take one minute to double check which pronouns they use, such as “they/them,” “she/her,” or “he/him.” This information is often found on a person’s website, email signature, or social media bio. If you’re not sure and you are in contact with a source, you can simply ask, “What pronouns should I use for you in my piece?” It can be frustrating and hurtful if a piece is published with the wrong pronouns, especially in print where the mistake cannot be corrected. People’s pronouns should be treated as one more fact that should be checked for veracity, just like the spelling of a name, credentials, or title.
They/them pronouns can be straightforward to use with a little practice. When most people talk about an unknown person, they use they/them pronouns naturally. “Someone brought an apple pie and I want to thank them, but I don’t know if they left already.” If you are writing about someone who uses they/them pronouns, trust your intuition for what sounds right when referring to this person as “they” or “them.” For example: “Rey Katz met with me to discuss their research. They have been working in this field for five years, after finishing their previous project.”
Verbs should be singular when used with a person’s name, but plural when used with “they.” “Rey is here,” is correct, not, “Rey are here,” even though “They are here” is correct.
If a person uses “she,” “he,” or “they” pronouns, you can go ahead and use the correct pronouns without explanation. If someone uses multiple pronouns (e.g. both “he” and “she”) you may wish to provide a brief explanation.
- Write about trans and nonbinary people in a similar way as you write about cisgender people.
Ask yourself, is this person’s gender identity crucial to my piece? If not, don’t mention it. Focus on introducing a source or reference with the information that matters to your narrative, for example, their name, occupation, organization, or the name of their book. If you don’t mention that one of your sources is a male, cisgender scientist, don’t mention another source is a nonbinary, trans scientist later in the piece. Your sources’ gender might be relevant to a story about workplace discrimination, but not if you’re interviewing a medical researcher about a new breakthrough.
Don’t use the phrase “identifies as.” For example, “Rey Katz, a nonbinary writer, met with me at a coffee shop…” is more correct than “Rey Katz, who identifies as nonbinary, met with me…” Saying “identifies as” implies the writer is skeptical that this person’s identity is innate and real, which is disrespectful. Don’t say “identifies as they/them,” either. A person is not the same as their pronoun.
- Share and elevate the work of trans, nonbinary, and agender people, especially Black and Indigenous people and people of color.
A writer who I respect called me out on this point years ago and I am grateful. I, a white nonbinary person, had workshopped a personal essay about being nonbinary, and the only person I quoted was a white cisgender man. My classmate, a queer person of color, told me it’s important to choose whose voices we share. I replaced the quote in my essay with a quote from a trans person of color.
In your book reviews, recommendations, and lists, consider work by nonbinary and trans authors, especially people of color.
Consider citing trans experts, even if (especially if) your piece is not about being trans. It matters who you quote or interview. The authors and other experts you bring into your work gain a larger platform every time their words are shared with a new audience of your readers. Pay attention to the diversity of people you cite and interview and do the work to find and reach out to people from underrepresented communities.
We need more nonbinary and trans representation at all levels of publishing, including editors, agents, and leadership of news organizations in addition to journalists and writers. If you are in a position to hire, please consider qualified candidates who are not cisgender.
Every small step towards more widespread positive representation of trans and nonbinary people makes an impact. Together, we can uplift and share the true stories of the experts in our LGBTQ community.
Rey Katz is a nonbinary writer with an undergrad physics degree from MIT and a black belt in aikido. Their writing appears in publications such as Catapult, The Postscript, Massive Science, and Drizzle Review. They blog at nonbinaryconnection.com and post on TikTok and Twitter as @reywrites.