Slowly—though still reluctantly at times—more people are sharing their pronouns on work badges, email signatures, and in social media bios. Sharing our pronouns through verbal or written communication lets people know how we would like to be addressed while letting others know we won’t assume how they identify based on their name or appearance. Gender is nuanced and the discovery of one’s identity is sometimes very personal. Pronoun declaration is not just used for gender nonconforming or transgender folks either. Cisgender folks can and should share their pronouns too. Offering pronouns often indicates a baseline understanding of this and normalizes gender expression and identities outside of stereotypes and binary categories. Now that we are all on the same page, let’s talk about the folks who use multiple pronouns.
Stay with me; you can do this.
Remember how I mentioned that gender is nuanced? Not only do folks use typical gender neutral (they/them) pronouns or alternative neopronouns (ze/zir, fae/faer) instead of the most common gendered pronouns (he/him, she/her), but some people use a combination of some or all of these. Cool right? Totally. But I understand if this can be confusing. I and others appreciate your desire to learn why folks use multiple pronouns and how you can affirm the people who use them.
Why someone uses more than one set of pronouns.
Visually, someone’s pronouns will be announced like this: he/they; she/they; he/she/they; they/xe. I can’t tell you why every transgender and genderqueer person uses multiple pronouns, but I can tell you that there are many reasons, and it’s up to each individual person to define their needs if they choose to explain why they use more than one set of pronouns.
I’ll explain some reasons in general terms, though. Using several pronouns honors multiple identities or energies and/or embodies lived gender experiences. “I still hold a strong link to manhood and masculinity, and using both he/him and xe/xem brings light to the complex relationship I have with my gender,” says Christopher Ikonomou (he/xe). Ikonomou feels rooted in being both a transgender man and a genderqueer or gendervoid person, so several pronouns validate those connections.
Other people use more than one pronoun because they are in a state of transition or are trying out new pronouns. This is a great way to feel our reactions to how others refer to us. We know how bad it can feel when someone uses the wrong pronoun for us, but moments of euphoria can happen when someone addresses us with a name or pronoun too. We need to hear it though; asking others to use multiple pronouns helps us sort what feels right and what doesn’t.
I knew gender neutral pronouns were right for me, and feel good about using they/them pronouns. And while I don’t offer he/him or they/he pronouns as an option for me, I do present in a more masculine way and am less bothered when someone uses he/him pronouns by mistake. Other folks don’t mind having their pronouns used interchangeably, so will list the pronouns they are comfortable with folks using for them. Some people really don’t mind what pronouns you use, but that’s not true for most folks, so don’t take advantage of this.
Some people list several pronouns because they are creating a space of self care. A person may list their pronouns as they/she, but would rather they/them are used exclusively. However, too many people fail to use they/them pronouns correctly or don’t make any effort to wonder if someone’s pronouns are different than what they assume them to be based on gender expression and stereotypes. If a person knows someone is going to misgender them, they will sometimes offer a pronoun that is easier or more comfortable for someone else in order to save them the frustration of correcting someone. Sadly, letting go of expectations is necessary when it comes to taking care of ourselves.
How to get it right.
One of the first things you can do is learn how to use gender neutral pronouns even before you meet someone who uses them. Practice by using websites like Minus 18. The site offers a super cool feature that allows you to choose the pronoun you want to better understand and then shows you how to use it properly by giving examples of how the pronoun would be used in a sentence. Read and listen to books with characters who use neopronouns to familiarize yourself with their use in conversations.
Another thing is to pay attention and ask. You can say, “I notice you use more than one pronoun; which one are you more comfortable with me using today?”
A person may have a preference depending on how they are feeling, the safety of the environment, or their comfort with you. Asking which feels best goes a long way in helping someone feel affirmed and more present in their interactions with you.
You could also say, “I see that you use he/xe pronouns; I’m not familiar with xe, is it okay if I use he pronouns for you today?” Let xem know you will do some homework and be ready for next time.
Be prepared to use what you are not comfortable with too, though. And do what is asked of you. While some people may be okay with pronouns being used interchangeably, others may want you to use a specific one or ask that you consistently use both while talking about them to friends or colleagues. Having the courtesy to ask about someone’s pronouns means you also have the decency to do what you are told.
And I wish I didn’t need to say the next two points, but here goes: one’s pronouns don’t replace their name. Someone once addressed an email to me as Dear they/them. That’s not right. Also, a person who uses multiple pronouns doesn’t expect you to use both at the same time. If someone uses he/they pronouns they don’t expect you to say, “Max is going to be late. He/they are stuck in traffic.” You would simply say, “They are stuck in traffic.”
Pronouns are valid and validating. And with a little practice and a lot of respect and kindness, you can easily affirm someone who uses multiple pronouns to encompass all of their beautiful being.