Using People’s Preferred Gender Pronouns Is Respectful, Not Weird
We’d all hate to be referred to by a pronoun that feels wrong.
Pronouns represent the way we see ourselves and interact with the world. They’re everywhere, a part of our daily lives and language, as a way to refer to other people as well as ourselves. While a cis person may be okay with being referred to by the pronoun that matches the sex they were assigned at birth, i.e. cis men use he/him/his and cis women use she/her/hers, other people may not be as comfortable identifying with these pronouns.
Over the years, a parallel push to expand the way we refer to ourselves can be seen in the variety of pronouns that exist for people to use, far beyond the male/female binary. These are used by trans, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, non-binary, queer people — or honestly, just anyone who feels like it. But while it can be exciting to be able to refer to yourself however you feel like on a particular day and not be bogged down by a prescribed gender, pronoun preference isn’t merely a whim; if a person would like to be referred to a certain way, it’s critical you respect their decision and use the correct pronoun. Pronouns stand in place of names, which encapsulate identity, and we’d all hate to be consistently called by the wrong name — the wrong identity.
What are gender-neutral pronouns?
Gender-neutral pronouns are those pronouns that don’t recognizably refer to any gender. Common gender-neutral pronouns include ze/zim, ze/hir, ey/em, xe/xem, and they/them among others. While pronouns are always morphing and multiplying, online resources are keeping track of the various options in use, as well as providing practice for people who want to get used to using new pronouns in their everyday language.
And honestly, the gender-neutral they/them is used a lot more often than you realize.
- “Tell whoever’s at the door that they can let themselves in.”
- “I’ve asked someone from HR to come down; they’ll be here soon.”
When you don’t know the gender of the person, it’s easy to integrate they/them/their into sentences — we do it all the time. So, if someone does want people to refer to them using they/them pronouns, it’s not really a difficult request.
What it means to misgender someone
Misgendering someone happens when you don’t refer to them by the correct pronouns, like if you referred to a boy as she/her, or a trans woman as he/his. It’s sometimes inevitable to make mistakes with pronouns, especially if people aren’t used to using them, or knew someone who recently changed their pronouns.
But if you do make a mistake, apologize and make sure to pay attention to how you refer to them next time. Because even one act of misgendering can cause a person to feel disrespected, invalidated, and/or anxious and uneasy. If someone has asked to be referred to by a certain pronoun and they are misgendered, it can feel as if their gender identity, and personhood, is not valued or respected. Continually misgendering a person can have a deeply negative effect on their psyche.
In the case of the LGBTQ+ community, using the wrong pronouns becomes a lot more dangerous. Queer and trans people face discrimination and physical and psychological violence at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. It’s an uphill battle to fully embrace an identity that is outside the norm of the male/female binary, or for someone who is not cis. People risk relationships with their families, higher chances of assault and harassment, and discrimination at their workplaces, to assert their true identity. To then misgender, or worse to continually misgender, that person can cause a lot of psychological damage.
So, here are some guidelines to help you navigate pronouns more carefully.
Dos and Don’ts of respecting people’s pronoun preferences
It’s not always easy to tell what pronouns people use based on their appearance or gender presentation. The easiest thing to do is ask them, and if you don’t have the opportunity to do that, then stick to gender-neutral they/them/their pronouns until you can find out.
If there’s a group of people, a good way to make sure not to exclude anyone is to start introductions with names and preferred pronouns. That way everyone can be clear about how they’d like to be referred to, without singling out some people over others. If you forget or aren’t sure of someone’s pronoun, it’s okay to ask them again. That’s preferable to misgendering them.
Do educate yourself
It’s not the job of LGBTQ+ folks to have to educate people about why pronouns are important, and it can be exhausting for a person to continually explain why they’ve chosen certain pronouns over others, and why. If people want to understand more about gender, sexuality, and experiences different from theirs, the internet is a great resource.
Do ask whether you should correct other people who misgender
Some people might not want attention drawn to themselves if they’re misgendered in public, while others might appreciate if someone else mentions their correct pronouns. In some cases, a person might not be out to a person/group of people — like at their workplace or with childhood friends. It’s important to ask the person directly whether they would like you to correct others who misgender them — just mention that you’ve heard [X] person misgender them, and ask if they’d like you to correct that person in the future.
Do try being gender-neutral for a day — it’s easier than you think
You don’t have to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns to use them yourself. Err on the side of caution, if you don’t know people’s preferred pronouns, or just do it because sometimes creating a space that’s free of the male/female gender binary actually opens people’s minds to new norms and means of self-expression. Use they/them pronouns more often. If you’re referring to a group of people, instead of ‘guys’ or ‘ladies,’ go with the more neutral ‘folks’ (or folx). Try a new pronoun on for size. The beauty of language lies in the different ways we’re able to express ourselves — so why bother tying ourselves down with binary pronouns when there’s a whole host of other ways to be.
Don’t cry about grammar
One of the worst excuses people have for not respecting people’s pronouns is that it’s grammatically incorrect. First off, it’s not, actually — they/them is now recognized as a grammatically correct singular pronoun. Secondly, prioritizing grammar over another person’s identity and psychological well-being — there’s something seriously wrong there. Using a gender-neutral pronoun that you’ve never heard of before, or that feels odd to write or say out loud might be a challenge, but by taking that on, you’re saving someone else a discomfort that goes far beyond the trouble of adding a new word to their vocabulary.
Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle's culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She's also working on a memoir about her family's journey from Iran to India.