Whether it’s on the news, social media, or Zoom, people are talking about gender pronouns. Issues involving equality and acceptance of transgender and nonbinary people are a “hot topic” in the headlines.
Let’s talk about pronouns
To start, what is a pronoun? It is a word that refers to either the people talking (“I” or “you”) or someone or something that is being talked about (like “she”, “it”, “them”, and “this”).
Gender pronouns are the terms used to refer to someone in the third person and specifically to the person you are referring to. She/her/hers and he/him/his are a few commonly used pronouns. Some people call these “feminine” and “masculine” pronouns, however, there are other pronouns in use.
They/them/theirs is a common gender-neutral pronoun that can be used in the singular. In fact, singular “they” is not a new concept to English speakers – singular they is often used if we do not know the person we are talking about i.e. “Who called you? What did they want?”
Some people also use more than one set of pronouns. An example of how this can be denoted is “they/she” or “they/them/theirs and she/her/hers.” When someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, it could mean that they are okay with either one being used, or that they accept both, but have a preference towards the one that is listed first.
But why bother using pronouns? The English language traditionally uses “he” and “she” to refer to people, instead of separating nouns into gender binaries like other languages. French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages use binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.
It is important to be intentional about the language we use. Similar to someone’s name, their gender pronouns affirm a part of a person’s identity. People may say, using the wrong pronoun is just as disrespectful as calling someone by the wrong name, and continually using the wrong pronoun to address or refer to someone is a form of hostility, also known as microaggression.
As a general rule, you should not assume a person’s pronouns.
NPR put together a glossary of terms relating to gender identity to help people communicate accurately and respectfully with one another. This guide was created with help from GLAAD. We also referenced resources from the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Trans Journalists Association, NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, Human Rights Campaign, InterAct, and the American Psychological Association. This guide is not exhaustive and is Western and U.S.-centric. Other cultures may use different labels and have other conceptions of gender.
Conversations regarding gender pronouns have become more common over the past five years, and the last decade has proven to be a complex time for the transgender community. With increasing visibility for transgender and nonbinary people, there is also negative representation in the media and a growing amount of legislation being passed. Some even question if this is just a fad or a phase, and disregard it when someone asks them to call them by certain pronouns. So, is it a fad and why does language matter?
A brief history of gender pronouns
Per BetterUp, English speakers’ dissatisfaction with binary, gendered language was documented as early as 1795, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun predates this discussion by some three or four hundred years. As I previously mentioned, some modern and historical languages do not gender their nouns at all.
That being said, “they” has continually been a source of some vexation. Social conservatives and linguistic sticklers both have shunned the word. Prior to it becoming a term for gender expression, many rejected the idea of a singular, indeterminate pronoun.
Language evolves to communicate experience. Most of us probably use the singular “they” in everyday conversation without even thinking about it. Consider the following examples:
“I love my barista – they make the best lattes.”
“My friend lives pretty far out, so they usually leave early.”
“Who wrote this article? They did a great job.”
Behavior and culture when it comes to pronouns
Behavior determines culture and culture determines behavior.
Raj Bali at Prompt Consulting Groups explained, “I’ve spent my life studying culture and behavior, how they intersect, and their effects and consequences. Outside of the actual words like “He/She/They”, our society’s growth in recognizing multiple genders as a part of existence is a move that shows we understand we are more than we seem.”
Think about how the Merriam-Webster dictionary incorporated “they” as a singular non-binary pronoun in 2019. Emily Brewster, a senior editor for Merriam-Webster at the time, acknowledged that Merriam-Webster frequently adds words to its dictionary, but continued support of the pronoun influenced an expanded definition of a word already in existence. “In more recent years, we have this nonbinary ‘they,’ which is now appearing in carefully edited text,” she said. “It’s appearing in The New York Times. It is being chosen by people and mentioned in articles with some frequency. It’s simply not a usage that can be ignored anymore.”
Learning about these topics has led me to believe that using gender pronouns is not a fad or a phase. We are progressing as people and our language is progressing with us. We are mixing our experiences, culture, and behavior.
When you feel pressured to use gender pronouns
Some individuals choose to disregard when someone asks to be called by a certain pronoun. Likewise, they find the whole idea of having to specify their pronouns a tedious task.
The Daily Citizen, a right-leaning media organization, believes the request to use gender pronouns is based solely on the ideology that someone can self-identify as something other than their biological sex.
They state that “you absolutely have the right to choose not to participate” in calling someone by the gender they “choose” to identify as. They argue that pronouns are designed to protect an individual and if someone is not concerned with being misgendered, then it should not be a concern to others. They advise to “kindly demonstrate” that the issue (someone not wanting to use pronouns) does not involve others.
Aside from when people ask you to use certain pronouns, the Daily Citizen discusses what they think someone should say when asked to use others’ pronouns. They explain when it comes to using your own pronouns, that is a decision based on your “own feelings and sense of personal safety,” so you are the one who gets to make that call. They assert that being required to utilize language contrary to one’s beliefs is problematic because people should use mutual respect and failing to do so “violates freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.” They state someone can be gracious to others without using the pronouns they request as long as the individual acts with kindness and graciousness.
The Daily Citizen says, “Our relationships with and mutual respect for others are demonstrated through many tiers beyond word choice. As much as possible, show kindness to all through your own individual choice of words and actions.”
All that said, the National Institute of Health Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office reveals, “Intentional refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns is equivalent to harassment and a violation of one’s civil rights. The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”
Why is it important to respect people’s pronouns?
When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, dysphoric, or often all of the above.
According to the University of Wisconsin, all major professional American psychological and psychiatric associations recognize that inclusive language usage for LGBTQ+ youth and adults drastically decreases experiences of depression, social anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other negative mental health factors.
The university asserted that it is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. They said if you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else’s gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful but also oppressive.
Purposefully misgendering (using the wrong pronouns, ignoring someone’s pronouns in use, or using incorrect gendered language for someone) is offensive and disrespectful.
Finding out a person’s pronouns
You can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. Correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect for a person.
To reiterate, the general rule is not to assume a person’s pronouns. NPR suggests starting by giving your pronouns when you first introduce yourself. It may feel awkward initially, but it eventually becomes one of those get-to-know-you questions. You can also ask if you’re not sure. If you misgender someone or use the wrong words, simply apologize and move on. And remember, someone’s pronouns apply even when you refer to them in retrospect.
As a cisgender woman, it’s hard for me to imagine the disappointment of looking in the mirror expecting to see one face but seeing someone else. Most of us will never understand the suffering people face each and every day. Nonetheless, we can make a conscious decision to recognize what tools others need to thrive.