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Lizzo defended Demi Lovato's new they/them pronouns. Why you should respect pronouns too

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You can't spell "ally" without "Lizzo." Well, technically you can. But the singer's recent defense of Demi Lovato's new pronouns set a new standard for what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ community.

Lizzo quickly – and emphatically – corrected a paparazzo in a video posted earlier this month after he misgendered Lovato. Lovato came out as nonbinary in May and said their new pronouns were they/them. They later clarified on Instagram this week that it was OK if you misgendered them – if you had the right intentions.

"As long as you keep trying to respect my truth, and as long as I remember my truth, the shift will come naturally," Lovato wrote.

On the other hand, Halsey, who uses she/they pronouns, took to Twitter Wednesday to criticize a magazine cover for failing to use their correct pronouns. Previously, the singer said she prefers both "the inclusion of 'they,' in addition to 'she.' "

"hey @Allure_magazine. First your writer made a focal point in my cover story my pronouns and you guys deliberately disrespected them by not using them in the article," Halsey wrote.

In response, Allure apologized and adjusted the story to include both she and they pronouns throughout.

Advocates for the transgender and nonbinary communities implore the importance of correct pronoun usage to affirm someone's identity – and note that incessant misgendering could have consequences.

"The more frequently someone has their pronouns disrespected or not used, the greater the impact on their mental health, and the greater their impact on their likelihood of considering or attempting suicide," Amit Paley, CEO of The Trevor Project, says.

Lizzo (R) quickly – and emphatically – corrected a paparazzo in a video posted earlier this month after he misgendered Demi Lovato (L).
Lizzo (R) quickly – and emphatically – corrected a paparazzo in a video posted earlier this month after he misgendered Demi Lovato (L).

But let's back up: In the typical gender binary, we refer to boys and men with "he" pronouns and girls and women with "she" pronouns. Not everyone slips seamlessly into this mold.

About 1 in 4 LGBTQ youths identify as nonbinary, or someone who does not identify within the traditional gender dichotomy, a new study from The Trevor Project released on Tuesday found. A separate study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that the U.S. is home to 1.2 million nonbinary LGBTQ adults.

Only half of those who identify as nonbinary also identify as transgender, according to The Trevor Project. Even within the term "nonbinary," there is an umbrella of identity labels utilized by people to describes themselves, including "genderqueer" and "gender non-conforming," according to the study.

Many in these communities prefer alternative pronouns – and not because all the other kids are doing it.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health suggested that those who reported "no one" respected their pronouns were 2.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year compared with those who had “all or most of the people” they know respected their pronouns.

"Transgender and nonbinary people who are perceived to be gender nonconforming regularly experience misgendering, verbal harassment and even physical attacks," says AC Dumlao, program manager of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.

Why pronouns are so important

Advocates attest, above all else, that respecting someone's pronouns means you're respecting them as humans.

"Trans and nonbinary people are deserving of love and respect just the same as everyone else, and their pronouns should be respected the same as everyone's pronouns are," Paley says.

Think of proper pronoun usage like collapsing in bed after a long, laborious day.

"Remember the feeling when you're little and that Christmas present you really wanted is under the tree? Or you finally got that play-date with your best friend from school? That feeling of euphoric bliss when something you've always wanted comes true. That's what it feels like when someone gets your pronouns right," Gaelen McCartney, 27, says.

McCartney, of Denver, Colorado, says constantly correcting people exhausts them. "Imagine getting a mosquito bite every time someone used the wrong pronouns," they say. "Soon enough, you're covered in bug bites – that causes pain, insufferable pain."

Yana Calou, the PR director for Trans Lifeline, lets their mother misgender them. English is not Calou's mother's first language, so the concept of "they/them" pronouns proves confusing.

And while Lovato might be OK with people stumbling over their pronouns, not everyone is.

Diversity advocate Precious Brady-Davis doesn't have patience for those who misgender her. For others, it depends how often they will be interacting with that person.

"I make it a point to introduce myself with my pronouns and correct folks if they make a mistake," Alexis Rangel, policy Counsel with the National Center for Transgender Equality, says. "How I respond after that depends on how much I expect to interact with the person in the future."

What allies can do to support transgender and nonbinary communities

Attention, allies: Educate yourself before diving into the sea of proper pronoun protocol.

  • Get comfortable asking someone for their pronouns. Doing so normalizes the process for both parties and shows that you as an ally understand them, Paley says.

  • Don't assume what someone's pronouns are. Just because someone presents as more masculine or feminine doesn't mean they will want to use "he" or "she" pronouns. Calou says that how people look on the outside doesn't necessarily reflect what's going on internally.

  • Educate people in your circles. Pull a page from the Lizzo book of allyship. "It's not always on us to educate folks about why you need to treat me with dignity and respect," Brady-Davis says.

  • Don't force someone to reveal their pronouns. Not everyone may be ready to share their pronouns or do so in specific settings, like the workplace. Calou suggests making this optional.

  • Ask someone how they want to handle being misgendered. Not everyone will want you to speak up for them. "It doesn't have to be made into a huge deal," Paley says. "And in fact, in some cases, the person who has been misgendered may not want it to be made into a huge deal." McCartney tells their friends: "I've told them to remind the individual that my pronouns are they/them in whatever way felt most comfortable to them. The act of them reminding others itself takes a huge burden off of trans/nonbinary individuals."

  • Mistakes are OK. "We can usually sense when people are trying and can give a lot of grace," Rangel says.

  • ... But don't do it again, if you can help it. "The moment someone informs you, or you are informed of someone’s pronouns, it’s your responsibility to remember, practice, and get it right," McCartney says.

Overall, keep in mind that however difficult it may be for you to learn someone's new pronouns, it's nothing compared to the internal battles they've waged war against.

"Learning someone’s new pronouns can be hard, but what is harder is unlearning the social construct of gender and telling yourself that you are valid," McCartney says. "The difficulty that you feel re-learning someone’s pronouns does not compare to the difficulty trans and nonbinary people go through to love themselves."

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

The Trevor Project helps LGBTQ+ people struggling with thoughts of suicide at 866-488-7386 or text 678-678.

The LGBT National Help Center National Hotline can be reached at 1-888-843-4564.

Contributing: Steven Vargas

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Demi Lovato nonbinary pronouns: Respect them like Lizzo