Language: Pronouns

Dear Reader,

As I was reminded, thanks to a comment on one of my previous posts, the language we use is important.  In that post (about “Passing“),  a comment from loveonastick pointed out that perhaps I was using the wrong word to describe what I was feeling; that the word “pass” evokes deception and disguise, when in fact, this is the opposite of what is happening.  Her comment made me reevaluate what I was trying to communicate by using that word, and I decided that she was correct – that “pass” is not a good word to use, because what I really want is acceptance and affirmation of me in my true gender, not a feeling of “I wasn’t caught” (because being caught means I’m trying to hide something that I’m ashamed of). This serves as an example and reminder for me that I must consider my language, and try to not use specific words just because they are the words that other people have used in the past.


Pronouns are something that most people take for granted, but is very important to a gender non-conforming (GNC) / transgender person.  When other people talk about us, they frequently use gendered words.  He, him, and his for someone masculine, and she, her and hers for someone feminine.  But what if the person we’re talking about doesn’t strongly identify as either masculine or feminine?  Or what if how they identify changes? How are we to refer to them?  There are many possibilities:

Assigned (aka birth) gender – this is the gender assigned when a person is born, usually based upon the visible external genitals.  This works for the majority of people, but serves as a reinforcement of the roles and expectations that go with that gender.  So for someone who does not identify with their assigned gender, it can be jarring and uncomfortable to be (arbitrarily) called a pronoun that doesn’t match the gender that they feel.  For a GNC/trans person, using their assigned gender may be the wrong choice.  So, consider their…

Presented gender – our society has a number of markers which we use to help identify someone’s gender. Clothes, hairstyle, fashion accessories, facial hair, makeup are some of the things we use to “perform” our gender, but there are additional markers which we have less control over – body size and shape, voice pitch and inflection, language, posture. For most people, all of these markers work together to communicate a consistent/dominant indication of a person’s gender.  But for GNC people, sometimes these don’t all match up – perhaps the person has a beard and is wearing a dress, or is wearing eyeliner, but has a deep voice.  This can cause confusion when others try to “read” the markers to determine a person’s gender.  But perhaps we’re making it too hard; maybe we should just pay attention to their…

il_570xn-1017025424_qgwiProclaimed gender – in this case, the person makes it explicitly known which gender pronouns they prefer.  I’ve heard of college courses where the professor begins a new semester by having everyone introduce themselves and state their preferred name and pronouns to the class.  I’ve also seen where some trans-aware events provide buttons that tell others which pronouns to use.  These names and pronouns might contradict all visible gender markers, but it doesn’t matter, because the person has declared for themself which gender (or lack thereof) they prefer.

Gender-neutral – the pronouns don’t have a gender associated with them.  There are a large number of pronouns which have been created to be gender-neutral, but one of the most common sets are they, them and theirs.  But wait, you might say, that leads to bad grammar – you can’t use they/them/theirs as a singular pronoun.  Well, take a look at the paragraph above – I used they/them and their in a singular sense: “the person makes it explicitly known which gender pronouns they prefer.”  It wasn’t incorrect grammar – we frequently use these pronouns when gender is either unknown or inconsequential.  It only becomes uncomfortable when we bring our own judgments into the mix – when we try to use they/them/their to talk about someone who we’ve already decided (often without that person’s input) which gender we believe them to be.

Still unconvinced that pronouns matter?  Consider this: if a cisgender male were to hear someone using feminine pronouns about himself, how do you suppose he would feel? Usually, it would sound wrong, and might even be cause for him to correct the speaker to use correct pronouns.  This happens on phone calls when the man has a higher pitched voice (where someone might say something like “How can I help you, ma’am?”) – the man usually quickly responds with “It’s sir” or “I’m a him/man” before continuing the conversation.  The person who used the wrong gender words might even be embarrassed and apologetic.  When cisgender people are misgendered, it’s usually corrected quickly, and treated as a mistake made by the person who used the wrong gender.  Why is it any different when a GNC / trans person is misgendered?

So what do you do when you aren’t sure which pronouns/gender to use for someone?  Well, if it’s possible, discreetly ask that person which pronouns they prefer.  It might feel a little awkward asking “what are your preferred pronouns?”, but for someone who gets misgendered a lot, it will set them at ease, because you are showing that you care enough to try to get it right. If you can’t ask, look and listen for other clues.  Which pronouns are other people using with this person (especially if these others already know this person)? Are the more easily changeable markers (clothing and accessories) signalling one gender? Because they are more easily changed, the person might be using them *to* signal their gender.  So do your best to select what you think is correct, and then use it.  Which leads to…

What do I do if I misgender someone?

This is actually a whole lot easier than you probably think.  In fact, you’ve probably already done it if you’ve misgendered a cisgender person.

Step one: Apologize.  Don’t drag it out.  A simple “I’m sorry” is all you need.

Step two: Use the correct pronoun or gendered word. Repeat what you just said, just with the correct words.

Step three: Move on. Don’t let this disrupt whatever you were doing.  The person doesn’t want any more attention than they already got.  If you’ve apologized and corrected yourself, you have shown the person you realize you made a mistake and have taken action to correct it.  You’ve acknowledged that their gender as signified by your language is valid and accepted.

Step four: Do your best to correctly gender the person in the future.  If you happen to do it again, repeat steps 1-3.  If you continue to mess it up, maybe you need to take a moment to reflect on what is causing you to make this mistake.  Are you not seeing this person as the gender they prefer?  Maybe you need to adjust your expectations of gender roles and performances.  It doesn’t matter how a person is presenting, how they look, sound, move, dress, groom, etc.  If someone feels themself to be a specific gender, that is their gender. That should be all the evidence anyone needs.

I may return to language at some point as I continue to come to understand where I fit into the world now.  I can safely say that my experiences so far have been eye-opening.  I had not given much thought to what effects my words might have on others with respect to their own genders, but now that I’m experiencing those effects, I hope that I’ve communicated how important it is to GNC and trans people for you to make an effort to gender them correctly.

So the next time you see me, feel free to ask me about my pronouns.Until then, I’m…


More reading:
Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog
How to React After Accidentally Misgendering Someone
‘Ze’ or ‘They’? A Guide to Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns

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