Pronouns 101: Everything You Need To Know About Supporting Your Gender-Diverse Mates
How to ask someone what pronouns they use, and what to do if you fuck it up.
The below is an edited excerpt from The Pronoun Lowdown by Nevo Zisin.
My pronouns are not the result of a deep connection with the words they/them, but rather an absence of (or less) discomfort than other pronouns I’ve had. Sometimes that’s how it feels to be trans — you don’t always know what you want, but usually you know what you really don’t want.
People who are indifferent to their own pronouns often don’t understand why it matters so much. Especially when speaking in English, which, structurally, isn’t a heavily gendered language. It’s easy enough to maintain conversation without gendering someone you’re chatting to. It’s only when someone else comes along, and you start speaking in the third person, that pronouns enter the equation.
You don’t have to understand the pronouns someone uses — although it is important to try — but you must, at the very least, respect them.
Having your pronouns in email signatures and on nametags is becoming a common practice.
As a non-binary person, this is a great thing to see, as I experience dysphoria from being seen or read as cisgender. But, if you don’t follow through and use someone’s correct pronouns, or at least try, then what’s the point? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard: ‘Oh, he uses they/them pronouns’, or ‘She’s a they/them’, I’d still be pissed off, but at least I’d be rich.
When you start respecting someone’s pronouns, you’re also expanding the way you view that person. The more you validate their gender identity in your mind – thinking of them as they are – the more naturally their pronouns will come to you in conversation.
These pronouns aren’t our preferred ones. They just are our pronouns.
I had family who still referred to me using she/her pronouns years after my transition. As in, after I’d grown a beard. I truly believe that’s because they never actually did any work to change the way they saw me inside their own minds.
Oh, and FYI: the term ‘preferred pronouns’ is outdated now. These pronouns aren’t our preferred ones. They just are our pronouns. So just ask for someone’s pronouns, not for their preference. I have made a practice now of introducing myself with my pronouns. (Clears throat.) ‘Hi, I’m Nevo. I use they/them pronouns. What about you?’ Yes, I mostly do this with cisgender people. But that’s because they may have never had that kind of interaction before.
I want to normalise this, and have cis folk be just as explicit about their own pronouns. It sure would make things a lot easier for trans and gender diverse people if this salutation became a standard.
Whether it’s intentional or not, misgendering happens when someone sees another person as different from their actual gender. Mistakes happen, of course, no matter how hard you’re trying or how good your intentions are. But, even if you mean incredibly well, the impact of your actions can still create harm.
Should you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for anyone, just correct yourself and move on. Don’t make a big deal about it. And definitely don’t profusely apologise to the point where the misgendered person then has to comfort and reassure you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.
Correct names and pronouns should always be used when referring to someone’s past. Validating a trans person’s identity should be unconditional.
In kindergarten, you wouldn’t dream of referring to your teacher as anything other than, say, Ms. Clarke. Even if you’re talking about your teacher’s past.
‘Ms. Clarke was telling us stories about when she was a kid. When she was six, Ms. Clarke painted her own toenails!’
Being misgendered can feel like a death by a thousand paper cuts.
Firstly, congrats to Ms. Clarke because that’s quite impressive. More importantly, you can see how strange it would seem to use Ms. Clarke’s first name just because you’re talking about her childhood. Just like you wouldn’t revert to someone’s maiden name, if you were telling a story about them today. But for some reason, using a trans person’s name and pronouns, even in the past, confuses people endlessly.
Being misgendered can feel like a death by a thousand paper cuts. The first cut is annoying and stings a little, but it’s manageable. But it happens again and again.
Perhaps you’ve misgendered someone and they’ve seemingly flown off the handle. Their rage isn’t really directed at you. It was just their 1,001st papercut. So, if someone gets angry with you, just be empathetic. Understand how this may be something they deal with constantly. Try your best to be a plaster for the wound, rather than just another paper cut.
Along with Ms, Miss, Mrs, Mr, Master, Dr, Rv, Sir, Prof, and other archaic honorifics, the gender neutral Mx is gaining popularity. It’s pronounced ‘mix’, and even my bank now offers this option. I’m always grateful when it’s available in the drop-down menu of my online banking. (Although, pro-tip: professor and doctor are also gender neutral and, if you want, you can totally book a plane ticket using these and no one will check).
When I speak to cisgender people about these linguistic relics, I realise that trans people aren’t the only people that are uncomfortable with them. They’re archaic and patriarchal. Why should a woman’s title be based upon her marital status and a man’s stay the same? I’ve met plenty of people who hate being called ma’am, madam or lady.
There’s a formality to honorifics that feels particularly old school in our world of abbreviations, social media and text speak. Do honorifics still serve any real function? Or are they just a status flex that can serve to actively exclude others? Either way, you’ll (hopefully) be seeing more of Mx as times goes by.
The Pronoun Lowdown by Nevo Zisin, out now from Smith Street Books, RRP$19.99.