Remember the Golden Rule When Honoring Another Person’s Identity

If we truly want people to feel as if they have a seat at the table, we must listen to them. This has been a guiding principle across disciplines, and something we are all taught at an early age: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This guiding principle is an underlying philosophy of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. To quote author/illustrator Liz Fosslien: “Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice and belonging is having that voice be heard.” One major key to that is listening, hearing, and honoring/respecting how someone wants to be addressed.

Whether you are meeting someone at a social event or a business event, a simple courtesy is to address them as they choose to be addressed. I have been a party to conversations on this topic in a variety of settings, from a local bar association subcommittee Zoom meeting to conversations with friends. It has also come to our national attention regarding the situation in the Ukraine. We all quickly adjusted to the correct and preferred pronunciation of their capital city. If we can collectively, and quickly, as a nation make that simple leap regarding another country, we should have no problem applying that same courtesy to our friends and colleagues regarding how they want to be addressed/identified.

Another example is how easily people can adjust to a person changing their married name.  There is hardly a blink of an eye when someone says “I was Dana X but I now go by Dana Y.” We have, as a society, already gotten accustomed to asking people who have names with a variety of spelling options how they spell their name (ex.  Lori or Laurie; Stephen or Steven; Smyth or Smith). We should apply the same courtesy to people regarding their gender and nationality/race identities.

A few weeks ago, an article by Kelsey Smoot showed up on my Facebook feed. In the article Kelsey brilliantly and poignantly shared their experience of people not being respectful regarding their trans identity. The issue of identity also came up at a local bar association subcommittee I serve on. Several committee members had worked with the larger local bar community to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The members had worked hard on updating the text of some of the larger association’s charges for the upcoming bar year. As we were reviewing the charges, I had a question about some of the wording. The language used was “people of color.” My question to the committee was whether Native Americans consider themselves “people of color” or another term. While no one on the committee had an answer, we were all interested in reaching out to members of the Native American community to see what their preferred terminology was. The key to remember when we are hoping to be more inclusive is that we should never assume what terminology people prefer to use. Also, it is best to reach out to several people in a particular community to see what their thoughts are. Don’t assume that because we reach out to X that X is the spokesperson for that whole community. To be included means to be heard. It is important to take requests to change our language as a request coming from respect and caring. It is a request that we adapt and listen to our friends and colleagues whether we are talking about gender, race, or disability issues. Changes to adapt usually end up benefiting everyone and not just the group we are including.

Another recent article in the Huffington Post by Kelsey Smoot addressed this brilliantly and thoughtfully. Kelsey discusses their ongoing discussion about pronouns. The right ones. The wrong ones. The preferred ones. As Kelsey pointed out, this third category is defunct. Kelsey asks this fundamental question: “Do you believe I have the right to demand respect regarding my trans identity? Is defending me, my personhood, worth losing a relationship? Do you care about me, beyond the ways in which my presence enhances your life?”

“I struggle to articulate what it feels like to be misgendered. There are dozens of relevant metaphors. A million tiny paper cuts, I decide upon. Individually, they sting. En masse, they can overwhelm the nervous system. To be frank, this process of change requires concerted effort. To be franker, I think that trans and nonbinary people are worth the effort.”

A few years ago, I was at an ABA Law Practice meeting and someone from the Native American community discussed how there is not a line in many demographic forms for them.  They said the only choice is often “other” or “N/A.” I have heard variations of this conversation in other communities, including the AAPI community. There are also concerns for people who identify as members of several communities.

We need to be mindful in our language. As lawyers, we are trained time and again on the importance of wording. This encompasses written and oral communications. It is important that we review our client intake forms and web pages to be inclusive. This also means engaging with members of communities to get their input regarding preferred terminologies. Language, like terminology, is evolving. We must be open to those we work with and those we serve and listen.

On a related note, we must be open to being corrected when we mess up. We need to let our friends and colleagues know that we are sincere in our desire to grow and learn. It is okay to fumble, but we need to learn and grow. We need to be humble and grateful when someone takes the time and effort to correct us. But, and this is crucial, it is not the responsibility of others to teach us and correct us. We need to make the effort. Let’s create CLEs for current terminologies for identities, whether gender-based, or race/nationality-based.  By making these required parts of our continuing legal education, we show that we do care and that it is important for us.

When we make efforts to address people how they want to be addressed, we are creating inclusive spaces. Everyone deserves to feel included and valued.

About the Author

Lori Hymowitz is an attorney with Stolle Berne in Portland, OR. Contact Lori on Twitter @HymowitzL.


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