The Proud Pronoun Project reminds us that gender pronouns are vital and gorgeous
‘Tis the season for Pride, and thus, the season of corporate rainbow washing. Think: all those corporations not-so-surreptitiously pouring money into anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and politicians, then slapping a rainbow on their profile pictures come June 1 in a bald move to make money selling products to the queer populace.
This year, marketing and communications company VMLY&R is looking inward—and at all of us—to get our acts together with the Proud Pronoun Project.
On the Project’s website, you select your pronouns and receive a vibrant illustration for free, which can be used as a Zoom background, on social media profiles, and even as a LinkedIn banner so that people in your personal and professional circles know how to refer to you.
The website currently offers 25 illustrations, created by Kansas City-based LGBTQ+ artists Lauren Phillips (she/her) and Frank Norton (he/him), with an option to submit your pronouns if they haven’t been added yet. The Project’s website also offers lightning-in-a-bottle explanations of personal gender pronouns (PGPs) and links to reputable resources for further learning. Today and every day, the Proud Pronoun Project wants everyone to show off their pronouns with the illustrations.
The Proud Pronoun Project is not the first initiative at VMLY&R aimed at discussing queer culture and acceptance. Paul Boupha (he/him) is the Senior Copywriter for the Project based at the agency’s New York City headquarters. He previously invited drag queens into the office for a discussion on the intersections of Asain identity, anti-Asian hate crimes, and queerness. Next, VMLY&R employees wanted to envision a project that would take the awkwardness out of discussing PGPs in the workplace.
“Normalization is such a big part of why we wanted to do [the Proud Pronoun Project], especially for the corporate world,” says Boupha. “In even presenting this to our seniors and other people to get their gut checks on it, they don’t know—especially allies—they don’t know about gender pronouns and the importance of it. And having the background up for them just starts that conversation and brings awareness to them. So they put up the background themselves, and that continues to snowball, and more people talk about it, and it becomes more and more normal.”
April Marshall (she/her) is a board and team member of VMLY&R’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion division, with a focus on supporting neuro-diverse employees and clients. As an out transgender woman who has been transitioning while on the job, Marshall became the Project’s Art Director and provided feedback on sensitivity.
“We take home things from work all the time,” Marshall says. “Stress, work, everything else. Well, let’s start having something good that we’re taking from work.”
Marshall points to the staggering rates of unemployment among transgender communities. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in four transgender people have lost jobs due to workplace discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, and harassment—all of which disproportionately affect trans people of color.
“People just want to earn a living,” says Marshall. “And when we have these unemployment levels because [we] can’t be accepted in the workplace, we see people pushed into sex work. Not shaming sex work at all, but when you’re pushed into it as your only option, or you’re pushed into crime or drugs, then yeah, we have a real problem.”
When cisgender (an individual whose gender aligns with the sex medically assigned to them at birth) allies introduce themselves with their PGPs or include them in an email signature, they are not only creating a safer workspace for trans, gender nonconforming, and non-binary folks, but are meaningfully engaging with their own gender identities and their various forms of cisgender privilege.
Thanks to a wave of increased awareness of the transgender community and identities outside of the male-female binary in recent years, adding pronouns to your Twitter bio may not sound all that earthshattering. Gen-Z is the queerest generation on record, not because queer people are popping out of the ether or because queer identity is “trending,” but because we feel generally safer to come out. But Marshall, based in Kansas City, reminds us that there’s still a lot to be done in locales such as the Midwest.
Marshall has been subject to violent hate crimes—she had a bottle thrown at her head in public and receives threatening messages on Facebook, such as a DM telling her to “go die in a fire.” She still fears leaving the house at times.
“[This Project is] needed a lot in the Midwest. You know, we are more progressive than we were, but not as progressive as we’d like to be,” Marshall says.
Marshall and Boupha are already seeing the impact of the illustrations in their workplaces, as they have both become more aware of their non-binary co-workers.
“I think the openness and the discovery of more non-binary people, and different types of people, has been really eye-opening and beautiful to me,” says Boupha. “Someone really, really high up [was] saying, ‘Yeah, so my child, they identify as non-binary, but I don’t really know what that means. But having a project like this makes them feel seen. So let me share this with them. And I want to learn more about it.’ Those types of small things that have begun to snowball, and I can’t imagine what that conversation will grow into when that parent shows their child this [project].”
Throughout development, the Proud Pronoun Project team collaborated with a host of folks spanning the globe and the broad LGBTQ+ spectrum.
“We also [didn’t] want to be working in a vacuum,” says Boupha. “We asked people across the world as well, from Germany to Asia, what their thoughts are, how their countries are reacting to gender pronouns.”
When working with people in Germany, for example, the team learned that common non-binary pronouns used in English, such as sie and em, find their roots in German.
Ultimately, this scrappy labor-of-love initiative, is far greater than a corporate Pride stunt that dies at the end of June. Boupha sees the current iteration of the project as version one-point-oh, with room for growth as language changes and evolves across the world.
“I think the natural progression, because we have been talking globally, is to give this as the framework for [communities] in other regions to really flesh out themselves, and really make it custom to their regions and their people and their cultures, because they know it better than we do.”
Marshall, clearly stating her abhorrence for corporate pandering and rainbow washing, is thrilled to be creating something evergreen. Even if the Project touches the life of only one queer person then she believes that it has done its job.
“Studies have shown,” she adds, “that even having just one accepting person can make the difference in self-harm, in ending your own life.”
Being trans means coming out on repeat—Marshall has to reintroduce herself out again and again, even when taking her pet to a vet that doesn’t know about her name change. But trans identity is anything but a one-dimensional story arc of exiting the closet.
“I’m a human. I have a woodworking shop. I was a pro wrestler for 16 years. I can start a fire primitively and run in heels. I am a dynamic and diverse person. And I help sell dog food for Hills. I ran Rocky Horror live screenings in KC for eight years. I used to teach camping and outdoor survival courses. And I had to hide that I’m terrified of snakes.” Marshall says, “If [the Proud Pronoun Project] helps to humanize, that’s amazing.”