Q: Why are pronouns so important?
Being trans isn’t just about dressing in a certain way or changing one’s body, it’s also about the need we all have to have our identities affirmed by other people. When trans people are misgendered, it’s just another instance of the constant cultural message that trans identities are not real, not important, not worthy of respect the way cisgender identities are. No one likes to be misgendered, whether or not they are trans, but for trans people it can be a daily experience that impacts self-esteem, mental health, and other aspects of well-being.
Pronouns function as high frequency reminders of how we perceive each other’s identities, without us ever having to come right out and say it. Unlike most gendered words in English, we use pronouns in virtually every conversation. Their use is so common, even automatic, that they also seem to imply something about what we think at a deep level. If someone mostly uses the right words to talk about a trans person’s gender but can’t seem to stop themselves from using he pronouns, it’s easy to get the impression that on some level they think of that person as being a he. The fact that pronouns are processed less consciously than other words means they can require a bit more effort to tap into, but with practice the pronoun selection process can become more conscious and easier to manipulate.
Q: Why are people asking me about my pronouns even though I’m not transgender? How should I answer?
Most folks don’t spend a lot of time talking about pronouns, so this is still a new question for a lot of people. When someone asks you what your pronouns are, or what pronouns you use, they’re asking how you like to be referred to — as she, he, they, a less common option like ze, xe, or ey, or by name rather than pronoun. The person asking you this question wants to make sure they refer to you respectfully rather than making assumptions. Chances are they ask lots of people this question, so it isn’t intended as a personal judgement or insult, nor does it necessarily mean they think you’re trans.
Your answer should be the pronouns you want people to use when talking about you: he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, or less common pronouns like those in the chart shown here. People usually list them as a set: “he, him, his” to use my own pronouns as an example. But it’s also fine to just give one pronoun: “I use ‘he’ pronouns.” (See Part 3 of this FAQ for the reasoning behind calling these “‘he’ pronouns” rather than “male pronouns.”)
Q: How do I know which pronoun to use for a transgender person?
A: The only rule that can be applied to everyone, transgender or not, is that you should use the pronoun the person you’re talking about wants you to use. This is a widespread standard, followed by major organizations like the Associated Press. If you’re reading this FAQ, chances are you’re at least sympathetic to this idea (if not, see “Why are pronouns important?”). So the main question becomes how you figure out which pronoun a person wants you to use. The traditional norm is to base this judgement on physical sex characteristics, but this assumption often results in trans people being misgendered. People who want to avoid being transphobic may rely on gender presentation (clothing, hair, makeup, etc.), which is definitely more trans-friendly. But for trans people, gender is a matter of self-identification that can’t necessarily be seen, which means we can’t be sure what anyone’s gender is just by looking at them, and you can’t know what someone wants unless they tell you. The only way to ensure you don’t use the wrong pronoun is to make a regular practice of asking people which pronouns they use.
Q: If someone tells me their pronouns are they/them, ze/hir, or another less common pronoun, do I have to call them that?
If you ask someone for their pronouns, it is important that you actually follow through and use them. Even though it may be a challenge, this is an opportunity to show that you care about affirming trans people even if it takes work on your part. Gender neutral pronouns aren’t optional, and being misgendered is just as painful whether one uses binary gendered pronouns or gender-neutral pronouns. Non-binary people are always at high risk of being misgendered, so using the right pronoun can be especially meaningful for those who use gender-neutral options.
Q: What if it’s difficult?
A: It might be. But one question to consider is whether it’s harder for you to try your best to use the pronoun or for the person you’re talking about to be referred to with the wrong pronoun. People are sometimes intimidated by using a new pronoun if they’re worried about making a mistake, but trying and not fully succeeding will be far more welcome than ignoring the pronoun you’ve been asked to use. Also, communication is your friend! If you’ve just been asked to use a pronoun you’ve never encountered before, it’s okay be honest. You can tell the person you’re glad they told you their pronouns, and that you’ll put in your best effort to use them, but that you’re worried you might make a mistake — as long as you really do put in the work and focus on getting better.
Q: What if I just avoid pronouns completely when talking about trans or non-binary people?
A: Though this is marginally better than actively misgendering someone with the wrong pronouns, it still sends a strong message that the person you’re talking about doesn’t fully qualify or deserve to be referred to with their correct pronouns. Because pronouns occur so frequently in speech, it usually becomes obvious that you are avoiding pronouns after only a few moments of talking about someone. For people who don’t want any pronouns used in reference to them, this would be the desired effect, but for anyone who does want to be referred to with pronouns it will usually come across as a rejection of the person’s pronouns.
Q: Isn’t it insulting to ask people about their pronouns? Won’t people feel like they’re being singled out?
A: It’s true that this question can be used or interpreted as an insult, since traditional ideas about gender tell us that it’s supposed to be obvious what gender a person is. Think about the classic 90s Saturday Night Live character, Pat: the entire premise of the humor was that obviously no one could ever ask Pat about their gender (who couldn’t possibly be aware of their own androgyny), so they had to concoct indirect ways to figure it out.
But if we can accept that gender is a matter of self-identification, and that it is more than a simple binary, then we can’t be sure what anyone’s gender is just by looking at them. This makes asking for a person’s pronoun more like asking for their name — it’s not an insult, because there’s no other way to know.
As for singling people out, this is a problem only if you actually do single out trans/gender non-conforming people. To avoid insult, you have to be consistent and ask everyone about their pronouns, regardless of how you read them. Chances are you will at some point be surprised by someone whose pronoun you assumed you knew!
If you’re only asking one person for their pronouns for good reason — e.g. you’re having a one-on-one conversation or you already know the pronouns of everyone else present — it may be a good idea to directly mention your policy of asking everyone this question (see “How do you actually go about asking people for their pronouns?” for more).
Q: Isn’t it intrusive/like outing someone to ask them about their pronouns?
This is a common concern, especially among teachers and others in positions of power. But it is important to know that asking someone about their pronoun is not like asking them about their identity. Pronouns are not private — they are used in public contexts, on the record, without any sense that they should be concealed. Any time you talk about someone, you are likely to encounter an opportunity to use a pronoun, and you deciding what pronoun to use isn’t any more private than asking the person you’re talking about for their input. In fact, using a pronoun without checking first is more likely to result in outing someone.
It’s also important to understand that a person’s identity doesn’t directly determine their pronoun, so even if you know someone’s pronouns, you don’t necessarily know how they identify. Let’s take an example of someone who identifies as a trans woman and uses she/her/hers pronouns with friends, but who isn’t out as trans at school yet, where her teachers and other students use he/him/his pronouns. When her teacher asks everyone to share their names and pronouns on the first day of class, this student can say whatever will make her most comfortable in that context without ever having to reveal how she identifies. She might decide to ask for she/her/hers pronouns, taking the opportunity to voice a preference that would otherwise be much harder to announce. But she could just as easily say she’s fine with he/him/his pronouns because she doesn’t want to come out to her classmates. Or she could say she doesn’t care what pronouns people use, or that she wants they/them/theirs or another gender-neutral option. (This is part of why we don’t call pronouns “male pronouns” — they may sometimes be used by people who don’t identify as male).
Asking about someone’ s pronouns is the alternative to more intrusive questions about someone’s body or identity.
Q: What if I don’t have the opportunity to ask someone about their pronouns? What should I call them then?
If there’s no way to ask someone about their pronoun — maybe you’re talking about an actor in a movie you just watched or a stranger you saw at a cafe, say — you have a few options. Many people use singular they for people whose pronoun isn’t known, treating it as an all-purpose gender-inclusive pronoun much as it already functions in most people’s speech. Others feel that it is a form of misgendering to refer to someone with any pronoun until you hear from that person about what they want. Referring to someone only by name or with other phrases, e.g. “the protagonist,” “the cappuccino drinker” might be the safest bet, but this can admittedly be a challenge to maintain over long stretches of talk.
Q: Is this about being “PC”? Why do you have the right to tell me how to talk?
A: You might see these ideas about inclusive language as “political correctness,” depending on what that contentious term means to you. Regardless of what we call it, here’s what linguistic inclusivity is about: 1) realizing that what we say has an effect on others, 2) consciously choosing what kind of effect you want to have, and 3) selecting the language that conveys your desired message.
People sometimes being up freedom of speech in conversations about inclusive language reform, but that’s not really relevant here. No one is proposing that we outlaw insensitive/oppressive language or otherwise force people to speak in a particular way. It is ultimately each individual’s choice whether to speak inclusively or respectfully. But there is no downside of being aware of the implications of what we say so that we can make informed choices about our language. Anyone can choose not to be respectful, but keep in mind that others may respond to that choice critically, angrily, or even with interpersonal repercussions (like the end of a friendship, say). Trying to argue that people shouldn’t be offended is inconsistent with a free-speech-based position. Just as others can’t force you to speak in a certain way, you can’t force others to feel or react to your speech in a certain way.