When you meet someone new, it’s customary to exchange names. Depending on the context, you might also describe why you’re there or what position you have. For example, at an industry convention, you might state your name and the company you work for. At a party, you might say your name and how you know the host. At certain events, such as at a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting or a gathering put on by a local LGBTQ group, it’s now also customary to share your preferred gender pronoun. It’s a way to avoid alienating or unintentionally hurting someone who identifies as a gender other than the one you might assume them to be. If you’re confused or aren’t sure how to handle this, read on for some tips on respecting others’ preferred gender pronouns.
Commonly Used Pronouns
In English, the singular pronouns generally used are:
While “I” and “you,” as well the plural pronouns (i.e. we/our and they/their) are gender-neutral, “he” and “she” are not. When someone who is gender-nonconforming, which is a person who does not identify solely as male or female, they might not feel comfortable being referred to as their assumed gender pronoun.
In that case, there are a variety of pronouns that can be used. Many who do not feel comfortable with either set of gendered pronouns will simply ask that others refer to them as “they/them.” In this case, you’d say, “Could you please give this to them? They asked me for it yesterday.” When you use “they/them” as a singular pronoun, you still use the plural form when you include a verb. (i.e. They are meeting me in the morning.)
Others in this situation choose to adopt pronouns that are not in common use. One possibility ze/zir (pronounced zee/zeer). Another is ze/hir (pronounced zee/heer). Less common choices include ey/em/eir and per/pers. You can find a chart at the end of this article written for Gay-Straight Alliances.
Why Pronouns Are an Issue
If someone doesn’t identify with their assumed gender pronoun, it can be hurtful to refer to them that way. Consider how you would feel if you were assumed to be the opposite gender. If you are a woman and someone referred to you as “he/him,” you might feel awkward and unsure of what to do. Should you correct them? Should you ignore it? You might feel bad about the fact that someone even made that mistake in the first place.
If someone who is gender-nonconforming (that means that they don’t identify with the gender that others might assume them to be) is referred to with the wrong pronoun, they feel the same way. Coming right out and saying what their preferred gender pronoun is can avoid some of the awkwardness that can accompany someone guessing wrong. If someone is transgender, doesn’t identify with either gender, or otherwise doesn’t fit into the binary gender system that most of us default to, they now have the option to introduce themselves with their name and with whatever pronouns they prefer.
What Happens If You Forget?
Many people worry about forgetting someone’s preferred gender pronoun. This is a reasonable concern, particularly if you have joined a Gay-Straight Alliance or other LBGTQ-friendly group and you are meeting a lot of new people. One way to handle it in this situation is to simply ask for a reminder, much as you’d ask for a reminder of someone’s name. If you’re meeting new people and you forget a name, people will easily forgive you and tell you again. The same goes for their preferred gender pronoun. Rather than assuming, just say, “what are your preferred pronouns?”
If you slip and refer to someone as “he” or “she” when they prefer something else, the person or someone else in the group will probably politely correct you. Simply apologize, make a mental note, and move on. Again, it would be similar to calling someone “Joe” when his name was actually “John.” It’s rude to continue calling Joe by the wrong name, but if you slip once, it’s generally forgiven. If you get to know the person, it will become second nature to use the correct pronoun. Until then, it might take some effort to remember.
More Ways to Support Gender-Nonconforming People
Those who identify as gender-nonconforming in one way or another will always need allies. You don’t need to be in the LGBTQ community to become an ally for people who don’t conform to their assigned genders. Here are some ways you can help.
1. Just listen.
If someone comes to you and tells you that they are gay, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, or any other orientation or identification, just listen to them without judgment. They obviously believe you’re a safe person to approach, so keep it that way. Understand that they might not have come out to everyone yet and assume that they are telling only you unless they specify that it’s common knowledge.
2. Nip anti-LGBTQ language or harassment in the bud.
If you hear someone else telling jokes or using slurs, speak up. Simply saying, “that’s a slur and I do not appreciate you saying that,” can go far with an acquaintance. For someone close to you, try to educate them on why it’s offensive and inappropriate.
3. Consider wearing something that identifies you as an ally.
A rainbow bracelet or a pink triangle pin could be something that a person in need of support might see and recognize.
4. Volunteer at an LGBTQ event.
There are probably groups in your area who participate in pride parades and various types of fundraising. Touch base with them and see how you can help.
If you are asked about your preferred gender pronoun, simply state how you’d like to be referred to. Make a note of how the other person responds and try not to forget. In the end, using the correct pronouns comes down to respect. Even if you don’t quite understand why a person wants to be referred to as “they/them” or “ze/zir,” it doesn’t really matter. Just do it. That’s how you can show that you aren’t putting your own comfort and routine above someone else’s identity. If you need additional information on how you can support the gender-nonconforming people in your life, check out the LGBT Foundation or PFLAG.