fbpx He, She, They...Ze? How to Move Through the World of Gender Pronouns

Identity And Sexuality - Sex Ed | February 16, 2021, 12:21 CST

He, She, They...Ze? How to Move Through the World of Gender Pronouns
As gender diversity increases, pronoun use has adapted. Find out how to be more inclusive.
Eric Schad

Written by

Eric Schad

As individuals with less conventional gender identities become more visible, you may hear more about the topic of gender pronouns. You probably learned about pronouns in school long ago—or maybe in a foreign language class later in life—but the gender aspect of these grammatical terms may be a new concept for you.

A quick guide to gender

Let’s learn a bit about gender diversity.

First, someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth is cisgender. However, not everyone identifies with the marker on their birth certificate. These individuals are considered to be transgender, or trans for short. Trans individuals may experience gender dysphoria, or a sense of psychological distress that their assigned gender and true gender identity do not match.

To get a fuller understanding of modern pronoun use, you have to understand the concept of the gender binary: the idea that one’s gender is either male or female. You may bring to mind the simple question: “Are they a boy or a girl?” That question relies on the gender binary.

In reality, some individuals do not identify as either of these genders. Instead, they identify as nonbinary. Still others may identify as agender (they feel no gender attachment), gender fluid (having a different gender at various times) or genderqueer, which can fall anywhere on the spectrum between or beyond male and female.

Other people may consider themselves gender nonconforming, meaning their outward gender expression does not necessarily align with traditional expectations for the gender with which they identify.

Pronouns: basics & beyond

What exactly is a pronoun? A pronoun is a word that replaces another word, usually a noun or a noun phrase, which helps a language increase brevity and avoid repetition. While not all pronouns explicitly denote gender, let’s examine the personal, possessive and reflexive pronouns that do.

A majority of individuals use either the pronouns she/her/hers/herself or he/him/his/himself. However, people who identify as nonbinary may choose to use the pronouns they/them/theirs/themself, as they do not denote any gender. While the use of the singular “they” has come under fire from grammar traditionalists, in reality, “they” has been used in the singular form since the 1300s. In the quite innocuous sentence, “Someone left their car keys out,” for example, “their” is used to refer to one person.

Some individuals choose to forego these traditional pronouns in favor of neopronouns, or gender-neutral pronouns. These might include xe/xem/xeir/xemself (pronounced ze, zem, zair and zemself) and ze/zir/zirs/zirself, among many others.

Why gender pronouns matter

If you are a cisgender individual, empathy is crucial to employing these pronouns correctly. Take a moment to imagine how you’d feel if others referred to you by the wrong pronoun. You might feel a lot of negative emotions: frustration, anger, sadness. For gender-diverse individuals, this can be an everyday experience. For some, pronoun misuse or indifference by others can trigger feelings of gender dysphoria.

Because a person’s gender is usually a key part of their identity, using the correct pronouns for that gender affirms their experience as a human being. In addition, it fosters an environment of inclusivity and acceptance.

Normalizing gender pronoun use

Now that you know the basics of gender pronouns, how can you be more conscious of your use of them in everyday life? Try out a few simple ideas to create a more accepting and respectful environment for the people around you:

  • Include your pronouns on your social media profiles and email signatures.
  • Use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to someone if you are unsure of their gender.
  • Wear a pronoun pin to specify your pronouns.
  • Write your pronouns on your name tag at events.

If you make a mistake using someone’s pronouns, quickly correct yourself without making a big deal out of it. You may also want to apologize to the person later in private, depending on how they reacted to the wrong pronoun. Remember that making a scene out of your mistake isn’t helpful and could actually do further psychological harm to the other person. The best action you can take is to correct your mistake and make an effort to avoid the same error in the future.

Putting it all together

You now have the tools to create a more inviting and safe environment for gender-diverse people. Of course, this is only one small step in being an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. There are many more ways to educate yourself. But by learning about and normalizing the act of specifying your gender pronouns, you can encourage others to do the same and demonstrate this aspect of allyship.

Eric Schad

Written by

Eric Schad

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