What are gender pronouns?
Gender pronouns are traditionally understood as “he” as a masculine pronoun, and “she” as a feminine pronoun. These pronouns are typically associated with men and women respectively, and are sometimes referred to as “gender-specific pronouns.”
Gender-neutral pronouns are pronouns that don’t aim to specify any gender, or that specify a nonbinary or genderqueer identity.
The pronoun “they” has served as a singular gender neutral pronoun for centuries. Singular “they” is helpful when referring to someone whose gender you don’t know or are not sure of.
Most of us use singular “they” pretty often without even realizing it. For example:
“Oh shoot, someone left their bag. I’ll take it to the lost and found.”
Many nonbinary people have adopted singular “they” pronouns to identify themselves on a individual basis. (i.e. “Ashton is nonbinary. Ask them about their new job.”)
Numerous alternative gender neutral pronouns, or neopronouns, were also developed by writers and researchers throughout the 20th century. Popular neopronouns include ze/hir/hirs, ve/ver/vis, and xe/xem/xyrs. Here’s an example how to use “ze” pronouns:
Ze hosted hir party at the roller rink. Those skates are hirs.
That same example using “she”:
She hosted her party at the roller rink. Those skates are hers.
Some people don’t prefer to use pronouns at all and would rather just be referred to by their name.
Note: Pronouns do not equal identity. Not all nonbinary people use gender neutral pronouns. A person’s choice of pronouns is whatever makes them feel most comfortable and may even change over time.
Um … some of those seem hard to use. What if I make a mistake?
We all make mistakes (yes, even trans people). The key to using gender neutral pronouns correctly is: Practice. Practice. Practice.Thankfully there are many online tools and resources to help you these days!
If you slip up and use the wrong pronouns for someone, it’s best to just correct yourself and keep the conversation going. The tendency for some folks to apologize repeatedly after a mistake is unnecessary; it just draws more attention to a moment better left forgiven and forgotten, especially if other people are present.
If you do feel the need to apologize explicitly, it’s usually a better conversation to have in private and potentially an opportunity to ask for help about how to use that person’s pronouns properly.
What if I don’t know someone’s pronouns?
Learning someone’s pronouns can be as simple as asking them.
Introducing yourself with your own pronouns is one of the best ways to ask someone for theirs. This presents the other person with an opportunity to share their pronouns as well. It also normalizes the introduction of pronouns in the environment you’re in. For example:
“Hi, I’m Danielle. I use she/her pronouns. What about you?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Skylar. My pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
If you’re in a place or situation that seems unsafe for a trans person, you can either hold off on asking or ask in private. You may also ask *if* the person prefers a different set of pronouns for safety reasons in those particular situations.
Why is using correct pronouns important?
Using someone’s correct pronouns is a matter of respect. It’s a simple yet powerful way to show someone you respect their humanity and identity.
Only third person pronouns indicate gender. That means most often we’re using pronouns to talk about someone, not when we’re talking to them directly. By using incorrect pronouns for someone, you're actually teaching others to use the wrong pronouns too.
Using incorrect pronouns for a person is called “misgendering.” Misgendering can be extremely damaging and dangerous for transgender and nonbinary people for numerous reasons.
Being misgendered is a major source of social anxiety and dysphoria for many trans people leading to negative mental health outcomes. Misgendering is also a primary tool used to bully and discriminate against trans and nonbinary folks.
Misgendering a trans person can also “out” them, or reveal they are trans to others without their permission. Being outed can have dire consequences for trans people including job loss, homelessness, physical and sexual violence, and even murder.
On the other hand, using a trans person’s correct pronouns can have significant positive impacts on mental health and helps cement a more inclusive culture for other trans people as well.
If you’re a well-meaning person, there’s really no reason why you would want to misgender someone when you can learn and use their correct pronouns.
But still what about grammar?!
Language evolves. Grammar adjusts. The purpose of language is to allow us to communicate with each other, which changes with time and context. In fact, language is constantly changing to fit the needs of our culture and society.
Think of all the new words (and meanings) you’ve learned adjusting to new technologies in the past 20 years alone. Do you FaceTime or Zoom folks? Maybe you have a favorite YouTuber or influencer? How many memes have you scrolled past today?
Using someone’s correct pronouns is about respect, not grammar. If a person takes the time to tell you their pronouns, it’s probably not insignificant. Taking the time to learn their pronouns can play a major role in making that person feel accepted and respected.
If grammar is what’s tripping you up when using pronouns you’re not used to, my best advice: Don’t overthink it.
Singular “they” conjugates the same way as a plural “they.”
Casey is a great teacher. They are so good with kids.
Many of us who use neopronouns are happy to help you learn how to conjugate them properly if you’re making a genuine effort to use them.
And if you’re still having trouble getting past the grammar issue, I have a great book recommendation for you!
But does anyone really use “neopronouns” anyway?
Well, yes. I do.
I’m a trans woman. I also identify as genderfluid. For me this means that “woman” is never an inaccurate description of my gender, AND I recognize that my gender has shifted at various points of my life and still does on rare occasions.
I use the pronouns xe, xem, and xyr (pronounced “zee,” zem,” “zeer.”) While I’m okay with she/her pronouns being used for me, they are not my pronouns.
Ironically enough, when I first saw xe/xem/xyr pronouns I didn’t know how to read them, let alone say them out loud. I hadn’t come into my own identity yet, and I scoffed at the idea of learning new words for other people.
As I explored my relationship with gender more I realized that I’d been feeling dysphoria for as long as I could remember. I knew clearly that I was not a man, but my relationship to womanhood was still fraught, complicated by others’ perceptions of me. I had personal reasons for not using “they” pronouns, but I still wanted a shift.
The pronoun “xe” felt fluid and most comfortable at that place in my journey. It had enough flexibility to let me grow at my own pace. And it was just kinda fun to learn with my friends.
Now, being much more confident in my womanhood, I can say that “xe” still feels right as a pronoun. I was even surprised how off it felt when I tried solely using “she” for a few months. This word I didn’t want to learn before became the term that made me feel most respected in my body.
Probably. To be honest, the language around trans inclusion and identity is ever-evolving and growing and blooming and that’s a beautiful thing. Don’t be afraid that you may not get everything “right” or can’t keep up with the terms.
The main goal of developing a trans-inclusive vocabulary is to help every person feel respected in their identity and learn how to respect others’ in their full humanity. Learning how to respect another person’s pronouns is a step toward a society where we can support everyone no matter what they want to be called.
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