By Rocket A Hanson

What are pronouns, and why do they matter?

I know what you’re thinking: this is grade school English, right? A pronoun takes the place of a proper noun in a sentence. You’re right! Our pronouns also signify gender, which is why we want to make sure we use the correct ones when referring to people. Using the wrong pronoun for a person is called “misgendering,” and it can happen accidentally or intentionally.

The most commonly used pronouns in English are the masculine he/him, the feminine she/her, and the neutral they/them. Some people also use it/its, or use neopronouns like ze/zir.

What do you mean when you ask me, “What are your pronouns?”

Many folks in the trans community include this question when meeting new people, and cis allies have also adopted the practice. Simply put, the question is exactly what it sounds like: we want to know which pronouns to use for you when referring to you in the third person. Should we say that we met “him,” “her,” or “them” at the coffee shop?

The question itself carries more meaning than its answer, though. Asking this question demonstrates that you care about and respect the other person’s gender identity. For many trans people, myself included, hearing this question instantly signals that you’re someone who we can be ourselves around. In fact, I even use it as a litmus test when meeting new people--a bigoted response tells me who to avoid, and an answer with a return inquiry tells me who is an ally.

Wait, singular they?

Yes, it is grammatically correct, and you already know how to use it. Say you walk up to the counter at the coffee shop and there’s a wallet that’s been left there. You’d say, “Oh, someone left their wallet here! I hope they’re still here so we can return it to them.” You use a neutral pronoun automatically when you don’t know the gender of the person in question. Now you just have to use it consciously when you do know!

 A common grievance I’ve heard is that singular “they” is hard to get used to. I’ll be the first to admit that it can take some time to adjust. But, just like with anything else, the more you use it, the more naturally it will come. I can tell you from personal experience that learning how to use singular “they” takes much less energy than it does to be misgendered constantly.

What if I mess up?

Don’t panic. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes!

Don’t get defensive. If someone corrects you on their pronouns, thank them! It means that they trust you enough to correct you, and they believe you care enough to get it right next time. In my experience, if I stop correcting an individual on my pronouns, it means I’ve given up trying. It’s sad, but I can’t give my energy to someone who won’t respect my identity.

Don’t be overly apologetic. If you become distressed and explain why changing your language for a person is difficult for you, you’re making the issue about yourself. Every trans person I know has had to console a cis friend who’s become way too upset over slipping up, and I can tell you it’s an awkward time.

Don’t let a mistake derail you. Whether someone else corrects you, or if you catch yourself (good job!), the best thing you can do is correct yourself and continue the conversation. 

Any more advice?

Always! But today we’ll stick to the basics.

Speak up for others! As a non-binary person, I get misgendered pretty frequently, and correcting people can get tiring, sometimes even alienating. I feel supported when I hear a cis ally correct someone on my pronous for me.

Include your pronouns in your interactions! Regardless of if you are cis or trans, having your pronouns readily visible helps normalize the practice of asking them. The more we normalize that practice, the less it makes trans people a target for bigotry. Put your pronouns in your email signatures, in your social media profiles, and on your business cards!