Making an event accessible means to facilitate a space in which everyone can feel safe and welcome, without fear of being harrassed, ridiculed, or invalidated. In this post, we will take a closer look at how handling people’s names and gender pronouns can contribute to an inclusive atmosphere, using our registration forms and name badges as an example.
Names, pronouns, and official requirements
We care about calling people by their preferred* names and pronouns (she/he/they/etc.) because doing so signifies respect for people’s identities and their choices in relation to those identities.
Some people use names in their daily lives that differ from their legal ones, and there are diverse reasons for this: for example, someone may choose a name to reflect their particular gender identity, or someone may use different names in different contexts (such as to be able to engage in activist work without the danger of social or economic backlash). It should also be noted that people may want to change their names legally, but are prevented from doing so by bureaucratic, social, or financial reasons.
In case you are not too familiar with the topic and want to read a bit more about the use and politics of (gendered) pronouns, we collected some sources that do a great job in explaining the basics. The following examples provide good overviews about issues related to pronouns and gender, particularly gender-neutrality:
- The Sexuality and Gender Activism club (SaGA) at Carleton College write about why gender neutral pronouns are important, and how to use them.
- An article by Avinash Chak published on BBC News about the rise of non-binary pronouns.
- Jessica Bennett about the question of language and gender equality, when it comes to pronouns.
Addressing people the way they want to be addressed seems like an obvious enough proposal, but there are ways in which this is complicated in the practice of conference organising. Such ways are particularly linked to divergences among personal preferences and official/legal/institutional/etc. requirements.
We ran into such intricacies – for example – while developing a registration form for our website. At first, we wanted to have a simple form in which we, name-wise, only asked for people’s (chosen) names – after all, why would we need to know anything more?
Because, as it turns out, we were using the infrastructure of our university, which required us to make people register with their legal names. The reasoning behind this is largely bureaucratic: it is legal names that are used in official university records or bank accounts. This means that, in theory, it should be possible to match registration fee payments with the name of the respective paying participant, and facilitate greater ease of issuing confirmations of payment or participation for individual people. ‘On paper’, it seems, what counts is not authenticity by way of personal identity or preference, but by discoverability in the system. Within this (Austrian) system it was also required that we use the first name/last name scheme for legal names, even though it is culture specific and might pose problems for some people.
The question arose: how can we create infrastructures that work for everyone? Is there such a thing?
Apart from the issues we faced due to bureaucratic reasons, we debated how we could include the pronouns people actually want us to use. This was relevant not only for instances in which we had to refer to participants in the third person (such as in introductions), but provided additional explicit space for inclusiveness in terms of gender identities. We did not want to assume anyone’s gender, nor did we want to perpetuate the male-female binary as the only options. Additionally, we sought to create a space in which awkwardness or anxieties around coming out (particularly in the case of trans* and/or non-binary participants) and around not knowing, or not knowing how to ask, could be pre-empted. Within this framework, questions arose again: which pronouns should we include (or exclude) in our form? Should we offer a drop-down list? How could we linguistically work around our own assumptions and account for people’s expectations and different awareness levels on the topic?
The registration form
In the end, we built a registration form that merged the requirements of the infrastructure we used and our own ideals. This form included, among others, free text fields for legal and preferred names, and preferred pronouns. First and last name fields were mandatory, as was the pronouns question. The preferred name field remained optional, while we told people that by default we would use their ‘first name’.
Asking for names in the registration form of 2015
We found it important not to let people skip the pronouns question, even – or especially – if they had never had to think about their gender identities before. To account for people’s varying levels of familiarity with the topic of pronouns, and the fact that they can be a choice, we provided explanations and examples. At the very least, someone with no interest in engaging with the question would have to enter ‘No Preference’ into the field.
Pronoun section in the registration form of 2015
At the end of the registration form, another bigger free text field was implemented for ‘Questions and Comments’. We encouraged participants to communicate any needs or requests not covered by the rest of the form:
Enabling better communication about participants questions and needs
In 2014, we went through our list of participants and printed out name badges for all participants of the conference. On these badges, only names were listed. As we were still figuring out a lot of basic issues with our registration form, it was too late when we realised that we had missed the opportunity to include pronoun questions in the registration.
For 2015, having included pronouns on the registration form, we wanted to give participants the chance to display their preferences on the badge while also having them decide what names they wanted to be identified by on the day. We pre-printed those pronouns that were put into the registration form by participants while registering, amounting to four templates: they, she, he, and it.
Section from the registration desk with name badges
The idea behind the pre-printed pronouns was to make everyone consciously choose their pronoun when registering – not just the people who constantly struggle with being misgendered. We hoped to provide a satisfying experience for everyone registering, and maybe even draw attention to issues that are mostly invisible.
Integrating preferences and requirements
We received quite positive feedback from our participants during and after the conference on our strategies to account for names and pronouns, but there are invariably aspects we overlooked. What do you think of our strategies? Do you have ideas or comments on any of the issues we presented here? Feel free to comment below or shoot us an email!
* At some point we realized that for the sake of this introductory post it would be unavoidable not to talk about ‘preferred’ names and pronouns without getting overly confusing.
But we do want to acknowledge that the terms ‘preferred name’ and ‘preferred pronouns’ are problematic. For many people these ‘preferred’ names and pronouns are simply their name, and their pronoun. Not the preferred ones, but the ones that are not wrong. We do not intend to take that away.