How Our Pronouns Define Us
By Daimien J. Matherson
Pronoun: any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context
Just reading the definition of “pronoun” makes it hard to relate to the concept but in truth our pronouns are integral to how we identify to the world. “He is strong.” “She is beautiful.” In sentences like these, we can show how pronouns can be related to different ideas of a person. What happens when we change our pronouns? What happens when our pronouns don’t reflect what society dictates it should? For those who identify with being transgender or in someway gender non-conforming, this is a reality we live in.
As an ally to the trans-community you might have asked yourself, “How do you make sure you’re addressing people correctly? What happens if I accidentally refer to someone incorrectly?” And yes, at times it can be daunting when you don’t quite know but you care about respecting others but, fret not, this is much simpler than you may think.
Before you continue into this article, it’s important that we quickly define a few terms.
Transgender is someone who identifies as a gender different to the one they were biologically born as.
Cisgender is someone who identifies with the gender they were biologically born as.
Pass/passing means that an individual presents in a way that would be perceived as the gender in which they identify. So if a transgender woman looks like a cisgender woman she is then passing or passable.
What pronouns are there and how do I make sure to use the right one?
We have two standard pronouns everyone is accustomed to using, he/him and she/her. Typically we relate he/him to “male passing” individuals and she/her to “female passing” individuals. And although this can be the case for cisgender people, transgender individuals can at times not pass for the typical presentation of these pronouns. This is why it’s important to address this when you first meet someone. A simple question of “what are your preferred pronouns” can radically impact the way a conversation and even friendship can go. Regardless of whether you think you know what pronoun is appropriate, it’s best to ask. You never know what life journey someone is on.
One pronoun that often comes up is “they.” This can be tricky for many people. Often people say, “But they is plural.” And while your third grade English teacher might have done their job by correcting your grammar this use of “they” is a little different. “They” in relation to identity is used as the gender neutral pronoun commonly used by people who are gender non-conforming or gender-fluid (not directly identifying with any one gender specifically). It may still feel strange to call one person “they” but what you may not realize is we do this already. If you’re at a hotel and someone you don’t know leaves a cell phone behind you would take it to the front desk. When you get there you would say to the concierge, “Someone left their cell phone behind.” The person is still singular just not gender specific.
Less common pronouns you will hear are ones that aren’t in our standard vocabulary. Often these originate as a way to add gender neutral pronouns to languages that don’t have a gender neutral option like the English “they.” These consist of pronouns like zim/zir and sie/hir. Because these are not as common there may be a bit more of a learning curve in understanding which pronouns align with the pronouns you know, like which equal her/him or he/she. You can respectfully ask these questions. No one is going to expect you to “just know.”
What happens if I misgender/misidentify someone?
First thing, don’t panic! Often when misgendering happens the offender can panic and try to overcompensate. They might profusely apologize and repeat the proper pronoun over and over. But though the desire to respect is appreciated often this can make the situation worse. It can be embarrassing to both parties and bring unneeded attention to what happened. The best thing you can do is gently and sincerely correct yourself and move past it. Doing it like this quietly recognizes the effort and apology without creating a scene.
Ultimately, we all want to be seen a certain way to the world around us. Pronouns are one of the many ways we present ourselves. Respecting those pronouns is a large part of respecting each individual. Remember that no one can identify someone for them. But regardless of how we identify, we are all people who want love, deserve kindness, and need compassion.