Respect for one’s gender identity is a basic human right.

Gender identity and gender expression are protected characteristics in the BC Human Rights Code. This means that employers, landlords, service providers, and other duty-bearers must not discriminate against someone due to their gender identity or expression. Duty-bearers must also take action to respond to and address discrimination if they become aware of it.

Gender identity” refers to a person’s felt sense of their gender. A person may identify as a woman, man, transgender, non-binary, or in some other way. For some people, their gender identity is fixed. For other people, it can be fluid.

A person’s gender identity may be the same, or it may be different, from the sex they were assigned at birth. When a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, they are cis-gender. When someone’s gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, they may be transgender or trans.

Gender expression” refers to how a person presents their gender. It can include how a person dresses, speaks, wears their hair, and other things they do to express themselves.

Two-Spirit” is a term used within some Indigenous communities, encompassing cultural, spiritual, sexual and gender identity. The term reflects complex Indigenous understandings of gender roles, spirituality, and the long history of sexual and gender diversity in Indigenous cultures.

In a case at the BC Human Rights Tribunal, the complainant identified as a non-binary, gender fluid, transgender person who uses they/them pronouns. Throughout their employment at a restaurant, the bar manager persistently referred to them using she/her pronouns. The bar manager also called them gendered nicknames like “sweetheart” and “honey”. This was very distressing for the complainant. They experienced the nicknames as offensive, degrading, and minimizing, and as undermining and erasing their gender identity. They asked the bar manager to stop, but he didn’t. Ultimately, the complainant was terminated from their job after getting frustrated and angry about the ongoing discrimination.

The Tribunal confirmed that trans employees are entitled to recognition of, and respect for, their gender identity and expression. This begins with using their names and pronouns correctly. This is a basic obligation that every person – including supervisors and coworkers – holds towards others in their employment.

The Tribunal emphasized how important it is to use a person’s correct pronouns. Pronouns are a fundamental part of a person’s identity. Using correct pronouns communicates that we see and respect a person for who they are. Especially for trans, non-binary, and other non-cisgender people, using the correct pronouns validates and affirms they are a person equally deserving of respect and dignity. As the complainant explained in the hearing, their pronouns are “fundamental to me feeling like I exist”.

The Tribunal acknowledged that for some people, using gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” is new and unfamiliar. People may be learning to undo old habits of always referring to people as “he” or “she”. Despite their best intentions, they may make mistakes. These mistakes can be hurtful to trans and non-binary people, who continue to endure the harm of being misgendered.

The Tribunal reminded us that human rights law is concerned not with intentions, but with impacts. This does not mean, however, that intentions are irrelevant. The Tribunal affirmed that a person’s intention can go a long way towards mitigating or exacerbating the harm caused by misgendering. When a person is genuinely trying their best, and acknowledges and corrects their mistakes, the harm will be reduced. On the other hand, where a person is callous or careless about pronouns or – worse – deliberately misgenders a person, the harm will be magnified.

As the Tribunal reminded us, respecting a person’s pronouns is a duty we all bear. If we know that our coworker uses certain pronouns, we must use those pronouns, or we risk violating the Human Rights Code. We can also work on not making assumptions about a person’s gender. We can ask people what pronouns people use, and can communicate our own pronouns in our email signatures, bios, on nametags, and in other places. As employers or service providers, we can ensure that things like intake forms are designed to include people who do not identify as male or female, and can provide training to staff to ensure everyone knows how to treat trans and gender diverse people with dignity and respect. This can help create safety and inclusion for people with diverse genders, upholding the human rights of all.