I went to a local event recently which offered name tags as a way to make it easy to get to know community members. I wrote my name (Amber) and then added my gender neutral pronouns (they/them). I do this as a way to tell people that neither my name nor my physical appearance is what determines my gender identity. I am nonbinary and don’t use male or female pronouns because I am not male or female; I am a mix of both or no gender at all depending on the day. I also add my pronouns as a way to show others that I am not going to assume anyone else’s identity; if you don’t declare your pronouns I will ask.
As the night went on, I didn’t see anyone else who had placed their pronouns on their name tag and I was disappointed. In an effort to advocate for myself and to create a safe place for someone to tell me their identity, I once again felt “othered.” I am already an outlier, yet I am carrying the extra weight of educating folks on ways that would help me feel comfortable when I already feel pretty uncomfortable. It is exhausting to live in a world that is not set up to accommodate those of us who are genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender nonbinary. What would help is if everyone could acknowledge that gender is not just defined as male or female and that there are other pronouns to use besides he/him and she/her.
Some of you may already know this. Some of you may already be doing all of the amazing actions allies take to help marginalized groups feel included. Some of you are likely still learning and trying to catch up with what feels like new concepts and language. But gender as a spectrum is not new, nor is the use of gender neutral pronouns. New to you doesn’t equate to something never existing before. I just learned that Karamo Brown from Queer Eye was on the 15th season of Real World. Not knowing that doesn’t take away his experience or the fact that it didn’t happen. And you not knowing about gender neutral pronouns or how to use them should not take away from my existence and your ability to learn.
While I use the pronouns they/them, those are not the only gender neutral pronouns available. Ze/hir, xe/xem, and ze/zir are just a few others that are commonly used in the genderqueer and nonbinary communities. The most important thing to remember is that whatever pronoun someone asks you to use, you do it. Misgendering someone by defaulting to what you think their gender and pronouns are is disrespectful and hurtful. Staying in your comfort zone may be easy for you, but it’s insensitive and tells me and others that you don’t care enough to make an effort. When you tell me your name and pronouns, I use them. Please do the same for me.
There are several places to find guides on how to properly use gender neutral language. The Associated Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBTQ Center are great resources. I don’t expect you to read through all of those links now but bookmark them for the future. Let’s go through some ways to use gender neutral pronouns. I am going to use they/them and ze/hir in my examples, but again these are just two examples of the many options available.
If you don’t have the opportunity to place your pronoun on a name tag or badge, you can use your words to not only tell someone your pronouns but to also ask. It’s okay if this feels uncomfortable—so did cooking and doing laundry when we first learned, but look at us! We need to normalize the courtesy of proper pronoun use the same way we expect to hear please and thank you. Here are a few example scenarios:
Meeting Someone New
“Hi, my name is [insert name]. I use they/them pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
“Hi, my name is [insert name]. I use he/him pronouns. This is my friend [insert name]. They use they/them pronouns. How would you like us to address you?”
Referring To Someone
One of the most respectful and loving signs of friendship and allyship is to use someone’s correct pronouns even when they are not around.
“My friend [insert name] made this soup for me; they are such a great cook.”
“[Insert name] can’t make it tonight. Hir mom needs some help learning how to understand online banking.”
“Nope, that water bottle isn’t mine. It’s hirs.”
“I don’t know how [insert name] does it all. They need to give themself a break!”
“I was going to text ze but got distracted by cat videos.”
Perhaps even better than using someone’s correct pronouns is correcting someone else who messes up. Whether the mistake is accidental or intentional, standing up for a family member, friend, or coworker is one of the best things you can do to support transgender and nonbinary folks. You are taking the burden off of us to educate and remind others that we deserve respect.
Bob: “[Insert name] will meet us at the theater. She is picking up [insert name] on the way.”
Tom: “[Insert name] uses they/them pronouns, remember? They are picking up [insert name] on their way.”
Bob: “Right! Thank you for the reminder.”
Practice makes mistakes, and you will mess up from time to time. But the effort you put into trying goes a long way and will help you get into the habit of getting someone’s pronouns right more often than not. The key to making a mistake is to correct yourself and move on. Don’t make the person you hurt or irritated make you feel better for your mistake by lamenting how sorry you are or how hard it is to remember. Correct yourself and do better next time. And if someone corrects you, thank them.
Karen: “I can’t wait to see [insert name]! I haven’t seen him—hir—in so long.”
Jill: “This is [insert name]. It is her—sorry, their—first time trying hot yoga.”
It may feel like you are learning a new language, but try to remember that you are simply learning new ways to use the language that has always existed. Your discomfort is minor compared to the discomfort we feel, yet the level of comfort you give to us can’t be measured when you are an active ally.