Why Are Pronouns Important?

Hint: Pronouns are an easy way to affirm trans people.

Sign with colored striped that says “Make people feel loved today.”
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

A common response I hear when a person asks people to use different pronouns — especially when those pronouns are the gender neutral they/them — is: “I’ll try, but don’t get mad at me if I make mistakes!”

On the face, this response seems perfectly reasonable, and in many ways, it is reasonable. People often do make mistakes. And, that’s OK (as long as you’re committed to continually doing better and honestly hold yourself accountable).

But, underneath what’s reasonable about instantly admitting you need patience is an anxiety, discomfort and defensiveness that even when unintended can be harmful, because the subtext is akin to reinforcing that the person making the ask is “other” and “different” and requires your labor in ways you’re not sure they’re worth.

In reality, though, we all want to be affirmed in our personhood, and that happens (and doesn’t) in many different ways.

The Basics of Binary Pronouns

Infographic of very basic explanation of how pronouns are used by cisgender people and binary trans people.

In a gender binary, he/him and she/her pronouns are most commonly used by people who are cisgender and assigned female, cisgender and assigned male, trans girls and trans women, and trans boys and tans men.

The Basics of Gender Neutral Pronouns

A graphic listing a few of the commonly used gender neutral pronouns, and a short description of their use.

As noted, many non-binary people use they/them pronouns, most likely because they are easily recognized, though that is not a hard and fast rule and people who aren’t non-binary use gender neutral pronouns, too.

Neopronouns are less common, and though neopronouns may feel more difficult if you are completely unfamiliar, they are really no different than any other pronoun once you practice and become comfortable using them. The Human Rights Campaign has a helpful guide outlining neopronouns, the history of neopronouns and how to use them.

Why Is Respecting A Person’s Pronouns Important?

For many trans people, pronouns are one way they feel affirmed, and getting someone’s pronouns right is, at bottom, a show of the most basic respect.

Cisgender people often take being properly gendered for granted, but imagine how you would feel if everyone started using the wrong pronouns for you.

When you continually misgender trans and non-binary people, you are at the very least making them uncomfortable and at most doing active harm and potentially putting a person at risk of violence.

Graphic describing how the Trevor Project found 47 percent of LGBTQ youth noted feeling supported when their pronouns and names are respected.
The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey.

How Will I Know What Pronouns A Person Uses?

The easiest way to ensure you’re using the right pronouns for someone is to ask. Even with people who present traditionally or stereotypically masculine or feminine, asking is better than either guessing or assuming because you truly don’t know until you are told.

Remember that non-binary people do not owe you androgyny. A non-binary person may have a gender expression — the way they dress, wear their hair — that conforms to feminine or masculine expectations but still use a gender neutral or binary pronoun that is different than you might assume.

Graphic of tip for people to use suggesting they introduce themselves with their pronouns so others will feel comfortable doing the same.

What If A Person Uses More Than One Pronoun?

For more and more people, having more than one pronoun is common. You might see email signatures or bios that include two sets of pronouns, like she/her and they/them.

How do you know which to use? As with pronouns in general, asking a person what makes them most comfortable is the best way to ensure you’re affirming them. Some people may have pronouns that are their first preference but another that feels OK, too. Some people might feel good about both, so people can use their pronouns interchangeably.

For a person who is comfortable with both he/his and they/them, for example, you might say: “I saw him walking to the store, but I don’t know what they needed.”

I will periodically check in with people who use more than one pronoun to make sure I am still using what feels best. You can ask: “Are they/them pronouns still the most comfortable for you?” In doing this, you give people the opportunity to update you or reconfirm that you are using what makes them feel best.

Are People Who Change Their Pronouns More Than Once Just Confused?

The short answer is “No, absolutely not.”

All people grow and evolve, and for those who are self-aware and take time for self-reflection, better understanding they’re own feelings and personhood is natural and good. Sometimes this growth includes changing pronouns, going back to previously used pronouns, or deciding that multiple pronouns work best.

But when a person changes pronouns, especially if they go back to previously used pronouns that may more closely align with their sex assigned at birth, a common refrain you hear is around a person being “confused” or “faking being trans.”

In the years I’ve been working alongside my trans son, one of the largest and most harmful myths I’ve encountered around trans and non-binary folks is that the journey is linear, consistent and without any doubts or deeper consideration.

Some of this problem is directly related to the gatekeeping that happens around gender-affirming care, where to access care you can’t really talk about any nuance. Some of the problem is related to the broader social community being unwilling to believe trans people and their experiences, only offering affirmation when trans people remain stagnant, and using any personal growth or change as a “GOTCHA!” moment to delegitimize a trans person’s truth and personhood.

We all contain multitudes, and we are all unique in what carries weight when we think about how best to manifest our personhood. Those things that make a person feel most themselves, allow them to fully embody their truth, are sacred, and deserve both honor and respect.

Infographic of quick tips to ensure you’re using someone’s correct pronouns.
These quick tips can help you ensure you’re getting a person’s pronouns correct.

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