Gender Neutral Pronouns, by Scott Williams
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pronouns are used in place of a noun that has already been mentioned or that is already known, often to avoid repeating the noun.” But pronouns are more than that. Pronouns are an important part of a person’s identity and using the pronoun a person identifies with shows respect. Referring to someone by the wrong pronoun can make that person feel invalidated, dismissed, or disrespected.
It’s not always possible to know what someone’s pronouns are simply by looking at them and it’s best not to assume. The best practice is to ask a person what pronoun they use and then to use it. If you fail to respect someone else’s gender identity by intentionally using the incorrect pronoun it is oppressive and disrespectful.
Most of you are reading this in English and will be familiar with the traditionally feminine gender pronouns she/hers/hers and the traditionally masculine gender pronouns he/him/his. English (unlike some other languages) does not have a gender neutral or third gender pronoun so, in the interests of greater equality, people have created some. Here is a chart with some examples:
Some people make up their own pronouns using the first letter of their name. For example, Se/Sir/Sis (for a name beginning with S). Others prefer not to use pronouns at all and will only use their name (for example, “Scott ate Scott’s lunch”).
The concept of gender neutral pronouns might be totally new to you and it might take some time to learn and get used to if you were raised speaking a language like English that only has binary gendered pronouns. If someone asks you to change the pronouns you use for them you should make every effort to do so. For a transgender person, changing pronouns can be a big part of their social transition. If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun it’s OK. Mistakes happen but please apologize as soon as you recognize you’ve made a mistake. Purposely using the incorrect pronoun after you’ve been asked to change is inappropriate and offensive.
When getting to know someone, questions like “can you remind me what pronouns you use?” or “what pronouns do you use?” might be helpful. Asking something like this can feel awkward but it demonstrates that you respect a person enough to use the pronouns they have chosen for themselves.
People often used to use the phrase “preferred gender pronouns” to refer to the pronouns a person uses. This has changed because it suggests that the pronouns one uses are merely “preferred” and that, therefore, others didn’t necessarily need to respect them. Now, we mostly use the phrase “your pronouns”. This is more direct. It shows respect and acknowledges that a person has ownership over their identity and the language used to describe them.
Please never refer to a person as “it” or “he-she”. These are offensive and often used as derogatory slurs against trans or gender non-conforming people. If you are in doubt and not comfortable enough to ask, simply use the person’s name rather than replacing it with a pronoun or use the they/them/their pronouns.