Ask, don't assume.
LGBT+ History Month - Pronouns, and Why They Are Important
What are pronouns?
The Oxford dictionary defines Pronouns as “a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase, for example, he, it, hers, me, them, etc.”
Basically, pronouns are words that are used to identify and refer to people and objects in conversation. All pronouns have 3 different modes of use: the subject (e.g he), the object (e.g him), and the possessive (e.g his). There are also 3 forms of pronouns, used depending on the context of the conversation:
- First Person Pronouns: used to refer to the speaker in conversation, commonly “I/my/mine”.
- Second Person Pronouns: used to refer to someone else who is engaged in the conversation, commonly “You/your/yours”.
- Third Person Pronouns: used to refer to other people or other subjects outside of the conversation, the most frequently used ones being “he/him/his” “she/her/hers” “they/them/theirs”.
From this point on, when I say “pronouns”, I will be referring to third person pronouns only, as first-person and second-person pronouns do not have a “gender” in the English language (unlike French or Spanish, for example). I’ll also be structuring pronouns as “He/Him”, “She/her”, or “They/them” for ease of reading.
Wait, back up a second! They/Them? Isn’t that a plural pronoun?
Not strictly! Although it is believed that the they/them pronoun is plural only (i.e. only used to refer to groups of people or subjects), it can and has been used as singular pronoun (i.e. used to refer to a single subject) since the 14th century. The first use of the singular they was in 1375, in the romantic novel William and the Werewolf. The Oxford Dictionary also agrees with the pronoun’s singular nature. [https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/]
They/them pronouns follow the same grammatical rules as you/your, which is also plural and singular in modern English. Originally, thou/thee/thine was the singular form of you, so you would say “Thou study English” instead of “You study English”. So if thou are against the use of the singular they, thou can also kiss the singular you goodbye!
But if you're still unsure about the singular they, I want to ask: What pronoun do you use when you don’t know the gender of someone? “Someone left their phone here, I should hand it into security so they can get it back!” I’m afraid to say you have probably used they/them pronouns singularly in the past without realising!
The Relationship between Pronouns and Gender Identity
Pronouns are the biggest identifier of a person in speech and conversation, and so it’s very important we use the correct pronouns when referring to someone, as referring to someone the wrong way may offend or hurt them - it should be common courtesy to talk to and about people in a way that respects their identity.
Traditionally, we are told we use “he/him” for masculine-presenting people, “she/her” for feminine presenting people, and “they/them” for androgynous presenting people or people we don’t know the gender of. But this isn’t an end-all solution, as pronouns don’t always parallel someone’s identity.
For example, some lesbians may not use she/her pronouns but still identify as a woman, as they don’t feel aligned or comfortable identifying with femininity. (This isn’t a modern thing either, here’s an article talking about and remembering Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian and transgender activist who identified as a lesbian and used he/him pronouns [https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/nyregion/leslie-feinberg-writer-and-transgender-activist-dies-at-65.html]). Drag queens (people (commonly men) who dress up as women for entertainment purposes) use she/her pronouns during performances, regardless of their gender identity out of drag. Some nonbinary people may not use they/them pronouns, as they feel more comfortable with other pronouns.
Although, people think these are the only third-person pronouns (he/she/they), other pronouns exist (xe/xir for example), and are called Neo-Pronouns. These are used by people whose gender identity and experiences don’t line up with traditional pronouns. Although not as common, these pronouns should be respected and treated the same way as traditional pronouns, and the people who use them should be treated the same as everyone else. (Besides, if you don’t really get it, you can always ask someone who uses them about it!)
So, in a nutshell, we don’t know what each other’s pronouns may be, as we cannot assume the gender identity or expression of others. Pronouns aren't gendered, they are just words people use when being referred to in conversation.
The Trans Experience, and Why Pronouns are Important
As a transgender person, I feel like our lives revolve around pronouns. We transition to make our lives healthier, either physically due to body dysphoria, socially due to social dysphoria or discomfort, or emotionally due to mental health issues. The pressure of staying in the closet and presenting and living as someone you aren't can be extremely taxing, as well as lethal to trans people, so we transition for survival, not attention.
I’ve been identifying as transgender for 2 years now, and people getting my gender or my pronouns wrong is exhausting, especially as I’ve had to physically change my appearance and how I talk and hold myself to make me pass in public enough that I won’t get harassed or hurt. Being transgender is a lot of jumping through hoops to feel comfortable in your own skin while appeasing to the critical public eye.
It’s exhausting, but we continue to correct people when they misgender us or use the wrong pronoun. We have to correct people because as trans people, we’re not allowed to be angry. If we raise our voices and demand to be respected like everyone else, we’re just angry snowflakes or abnormal weirdos wanting attention. But if we don’t correct them, we’re second-guessed, we’re told it was just a phase in our lives, and people will continue to call us the wrong things.
Sharing your pronouns, especially in online settings, has a stigma around it, and can sometimes isolate you as a trans person. When you’re cisgender (i.e. someone who isn’t transgender, cis being Latin for “on the same side of”), pronouns are a second thought. “Men look like men and use he/him, and women look like women and use she/her” most people would tell you, so when a transgender person states their preferred pronoun, it’s seen as abnormal, unnatural, or attention-seeking.
It can be jarring for trans people to bring up too - I’ve started conversations in professional settings asking for people to refer to me as he/him, and I’m met with judgemental stares, as well as people flat out ignoring my wishes because I don’t look like the traditional image of a man or someone who is “he/him”. When I tell people my pronouns, I’m not wanting the conversation to be about my experiences as a trans person, I just want to be part of the conversation.
It’s why, at the Union, we’ve created the Ask, Don’t Assume campaign. If cis people ask for each other’s and share their own pronouns, it helps prevents the isolation of trans people from the discussion. It allows trans people to share their voice without outing themselves or changing the topic to be about their identity - after all, what we want is unconditional respect as people. Sharing your pronouns helps keep an environment safe and non-judging, and gives trans people one less thing to worry about in our lives.
That’s why pronouns are important. Telling someone your pronouns is not asking for attention, it's asking for respect. And sometimes, that respect is the driving force for trans acceptance and the happiness and wellbeing of trans people. It’s important because it includes everyone into the conversation, and helps open up discussion on gender and what makes us the people we say we are. Pronoun awareness is inclusion, it’s acceptance, it’s helping other people have a voice in the world that is so often drowned out by misinformation and hate. It’s respect.
So, what can you do to support this?
The best thing you can do is ask the person you’re talking to for their pronouns. Asking “What pronouns do you use?” or “What pronouns would you like me to refer to you with?” opens up the conversation and creates a space of respect for all involved. Mistakes can happen and sometimes you might slip up (everyone does!), but correcting yourself and actively and consciously using the correct pronouns is the best thing you can do!
You should also use someone’s correct pronouns respectfully and with no strings attached; if someone is rude to you, or you just don’t like someone, that doesn’t mean you should stop respecting their pronouns (especially if they are transgender or nonbinary; then that’s just transphobia!), you can dislike someone and respect their identity at the same time. And, if you ever forget someone’s pronouns, you can always ask again - no one will hold it against you!
You can also wear stickers or badges that can inform people of your preferred pronouns. If you ask up at Level 7 of the union, they’ll give you a pronoun sticker for free! (And they can replace it if you lose it!) Communication is the best way to break down barriers and create safe spaces to love and respect each other, so why don’t you ask about someone’s pronouns?
Ask, don’t assume. Happy LGBT+ History Month!
Writer’s Note: This article used language and terminology used to talk about gender and sexuality, and although I have made a conscious effort to simplify and explain these terms to the best of my ability, they can come with lots of nuance and discussion points, that, as an article on pronoun awareness, I thought would overshadow the subject of this piece to include.
If you are interested in learning more about gender identity and other terms and language used in this article, the Union runs a very helpful training session called Beyond The Binary that covers these. You can pop into Level 7 for more information, or you can email me directly if you want to discuss any points brought up in this article! Thank you, and happy LGBT+ History Month! - Vinny