Sharing Pronouns Matters, and It Can Help Save Lives
Daniel Mai, MD
August 1, 2022
It’s the start of my first day on the team.
Standing in front of the patient’s room, I sanitize my hands before knocking twice. I then enter and introduce myself: “My name is Dr. Mai, and my pronouns are he/him. What is your name and what pronouns do you go by?” After a brief exchange about how the night went, I exit the room and move on to the next.
Sharing and asking for pronouns has become second nature to me, just like asking about current medications or past medical history. At first, I found the practice to be interesting: I possess male facial features, speak with a masculine voice, and dress in clothing designed for men. Wouldn’t it be redundant if I shared my pronouns to indicate that I identify as a male? Well, though this case could be true for me, the same would not apply to everyone.
As others may identify broadly across the gender spectrum, the way that they dress or whether they possess specific physical features does not inherently define their identity. It makes sense then that sharing pronouns communicate how we identify ourselves.
There’s the assumption that sharing pronouns should be confined to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, but to relegate the practice would be closed-minded. Instead, to normalize the practice in everyday interaction would mean to welcome everyone openly and accept their identities without question. And I’m glad that the practice is moving away from the misnomer of preferred pronouns, which wrongfully suggests the option of not calling individuals by their communicated pronouns.
Though the practice is easy to incorporate, there are so many who doubt, and even discredit, its impact — and to do so can have dire consequences.
Early in my training as a physician, I met a young teenager who was admitted after ingesting a handful of Tylenol tablets. Assigned a male gender at birth, she shared that she identified as a female, but her family did not want her to speak “like that.” In their presence, she kept quiet and was referred to by her birth name and he/him pronouns, as requested. However, when I spoke with her alone, she was engaging and introspective, expressing her remorse while admitting that she just couldn’t take it anymore.
When she was medically cleared, her mother asked us whether she truly needed to go to a different facility, especially now that she seemed like herself again. Well, she was not herself and the fact that her family did not accept her weighed heavily on my mind.
In 2019, a distressing headline came across my newsfeed: “A trans boy died by suicide after being misgendered by hospital staff.” Kyler Prescott had initially presented to a San Diego hospital for help in 2015 after experiencing transphobic harassment, which led to self-inflicted injuries and suicidal thoughts. Despite having his pronouns documented in his medical record and numerous pleas from his mother, the emergency room staff continued to use she/her pronouns based on his appearance, his mother said.
Five weeks later, after being discharged, he took his own life. Tragic yet avoidable, it’s unthinkable that this event could have transpired the way that it did.
Where was the initiative to first do no harm? Pronouns not only matter, they also can save lives.
These disturbing events remind me that we absolutely must do better and that we must speak up when confronted by ignorance. And though it may be difficult, I want to reaffirm the tremendous progress that we have made in constructing bridges, simply by sharing our pronouns with our patients.
“As a pediatrician, I feel elated to see how quickly kids and adolescents open up when given the opportunity to be free and act like themselves.”
As a pediatrician, I feel elated to see how quickly kids and adolescents open up when given the opportunity to be free and act like themselves. Together, we have laughed at the latest craze on TikTok, rolled our eyes at what their relative had said at dinner a few nights ago, and high-fived as a celebration of their triumphs in mental health. As a guest privileged enough to be invited into their most sacred spaces and see them be authentically themselves, I promise to make them feel as welcomed to the world around them.
To my fellow pediatricians, if you are honoring kids and adolescents in the same way, thank you for your compassion and care. I hope that we all can do this and help kids be who they truly are. It may seem like a simple act, but it can be profound.
To the family members and friends who accept the identities of their loved ones unconditionally, I thank you for opening your arms and extending your homes. To the kids and adolescents who stay true to themselves, I will always care for you and advocate on your behalf. And to those who are struggling to find your place, know that you will always have a friend in me as I aspire to embody your courage and educate everyone that pronouns matter.
My name is Dr. Mai, and my pronouns are he/him. What are yours?
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
About the Author
Daniel Mai, MD
Daniel Mai, MD, is a pediatric resident physician at Stanford Medicine. He previously served as an AAP Medical Student District Representative for District IV from 2019 to 2021.