When using the binary pronouns, he and she, we have all been trained to make assumptions based on visual and vocal cues about human identity. With groundbreaking visibility and acceptance levels in recent decades, Queer, Transgender, and Non-Binary people have shown us that human identity transcends these societal and cultural limitations. They have shown us that we are not bound to the roles assigned by our bodies’ superficial facets. Our identities are formed in our minds and expressed by our bodies. We can overcome the hurdles of the gender binary to truly be ourselves. The first step is to commonize gender-free pronouns.
The Challenge of Learning Pronouns
Like learning a new language, the best way to update your language is to practice every day. Compared to today’s youth, adults, Queer or not, face a tougher challenge in updating their language regarding pronouns. This is because fewer adults personally know someone who uses gender-free pronouns.
A 2019 Pew Research study found a mere 18% of U.S. adults know someone who uses non-binary pronouns, compared to Gen Z, which is nearly double at 35%. I’m sure these numbers have grown since 2019, but not tremendously for adults.
It can be quite a challenge to change the way you speak and think, but when you understand the life-saving impact of respecting pronouns, you will find the compassion to overcome the hurdle.
What Are They/Them & Other Gender Free and Neutral Pronouns?
Pronouns are not bound to any gender, and while we were once taught, he and she referred to men and women, our understanding has evolved. People who don’t identify as men or women may still use he and she pronouns, but there are also lots of gender-free pronouns to learn about.
Most commonly, they/them/theirs are the gender-neutral pronouns that come to mind. This set of pronouns is considerably the easiest to get used to using. For example, “I don’t know who you are learning this for, but they must be lucky to have you in their life.” While common, they/them/theirs is not the only set of alternative pronouns that people use today.
Before you set the grammar enforcement on me, a friendly reminder that language evolves, and with it, the rules of grammar. So, before you think of saying, “that’s not grammatically correct,” I assure you that today, it is. By the way, using that excuse is just as insulting as not respecting someone’s pronouns.
Below is a chart of some alternative gender-free pronouns, along with the binary pronouns for context. Note, gender-free includes identities outside of the binary, like agender, while gender-neutral resides within the binary. You don’t have to memorize this chart, but use it to keep an open mind and be prepared when people share their pronouns with you.
Respecting Pronouns Saves Lives
Now that you are more familiar with gender-free pronouns, it’s essential to understand the impact you will have on Queer, Trans, and Non-binary people.
The Trevor Project reported in their annual National Survey, which represents 40,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 across the United States, “Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at HALF the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.”
If that’s not incentive enough to update your language, I’m not sure what will be. Whether you know someone now who uses gender-free pronouns or not, approaching new people you meet without the assumption of binary pronouns will literally save lives.
Practice Using They/Them/Their Pronouns
When visualizing a person I am referring to (who has shared their pronouns with me or publicly), it becomes easier to remember their pronouns. I also practice using they/them/theirs throughout the day, the same way I would practice learning a new language.
The more you practice, and the more you say they/them/theirs in everyday life, the easier it will be to remember someone’s pronouns when they are shared with you.
Not Everyone is Ready to Share Their Pronouns
On the note of sharing pronouns, if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, use their name until they choose to share their pronouns with you. It’s not always okay to ask for someone’s pronouns, especially in group settings, as some people might not feel safe or comfortable sharing their pronouns with you and the group.
Pronouns can be very revealing, and not everyone is ready to share that part of their identity. It also puts them in an uncomfortable situation where they have to decide to share pronouns that don’t align with their identity. When in doubt, refer to a person by name.
Reminders & Further
- Pronouns do not define an identity; they help to describe identity
- Gender free and gender-neutral are not synonymous
- Your perceptions do not dictate a person’s pronouns
- Pronouns are not bound to any gender
- Pronouns are important because they affirm our identities and save lives
- If you make a mistake, don’t make a big deal out of it, correct yourself and move on
- It’s not always okay to ask someone for their pronouns
- You can create safe environments where people feel safe to share their pronouns
Think about other ways in which language is gendered and how you can remove gender from the conversation. For example, when addressing a group of people, I avoid using “hey guys.”