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The Benefits of Students Acting UpAmy Baldwin, Ed.D.
When I came out to my parents as Trans* and nonbinary and asked that they use they/them pronouns to refer to me, they were unsure of how to proceed. Why were those little words so important to me?
If you, like my parents, are cisgender (meaning that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), you may have never given much thought to the pronouns people refer to you by. However, for Trans* and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people, pronouns can be a matter of life and death. TGNC youth whose pronouns are respected by most people in their lives are half as likely to attempt suicide.
While TGNC people have always existed, recent cultural and policy shifts have made our existence more visible. It’s also the case that one in four LGBTQ+ youth use pronouns or pronoun combinations that fall outside of the binary construction of gender.
In other words, it’s more likely than ever that you know, or know of, someone who has changed their pronouns and/or gender expression.
In today’s world, it’s important to understand the significance of pronouns; I certainly wish my parents had been exposed to that information before my coming out. This crash course in pronouns might be helpful if you are feeling confused about the role of pronouns but want to learn more about showing respect and care towards the TGNC people in your life.
In linguistic terms, pronouns are words that are used in place of a noun or noun phrase. But in cultural and personal contexts, pronouns carry gendered meanings and expectations and can be sources of distress for TGNC people.
Because of their gendered meaning, consistently using the wrong pronouns to refer to someone is a signal that you don’t respect them or value their identity. That being said, every person’s relationship with pronouns is personal, and to some, they simply aren’t a big deal. However, if you want to avoid harm, it doesn’t hurt to assume using the correct pronouns is an extremely important matter.
There are many different sets of pronouns that a person might use. You’re likely familiar with she/her/hers and he/him/his (“She loves Dartmouth, but he doesn’t like the location”).
Some people use they/them/theirs. A common misconception is that these can only be used as plural pronouns, to refer to a group of people or things. However, you probably already use they/them/theirs to refer to a single person whose gender is unknown to you. If someone were to say “I’m really loving this new author right now,” you might respond with “Cool, what’s their name” or “Which books have they written?”
Neopronouns are pronouns that are not officially recognized by a given language. Regardless of official recognition, they are as valid and important as any other pronouns. Examples include ze/zir/zirs and xe/xem/xeir (pronounced zee/zer/zeir and ze/zem/zeir respectively). Like they/them/theirs, neopronouns are often used to avoid the gendered connotations of traditional pronouns.
Sometimes, a person will use a combination of pronouns. For example, someone might use he/they pronouns. When you talk about this person, you would use both sets of pronouns interchangeably. Other people don’t use pronouns at all and prefer to only be referred to by their name (“This is Jules’ job, will you please go ask Jules about it?”).
All pronouns and pronoun combinations are valid and acceptable.
It’s also important to note that pronouns aren’t an indicator of a person’s gender identity and that not every person who uses the same pronouns has the same gender identity. In other words, there aren’t “girl pronouns,” “boy pronouns” and “nonbinary pronouns.”
This is also why it’s incorrect to assume a person’s pronouns based on the way they look. The best practice is to simply ask someone what pronouns they use when you meet them. If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns and haven’t had the chance to learn them, it’s acceptable to use they/them until you know otherwise.
Okay, so now we have an idea of what pronouns are and how to use them. But what do you do after someone tells you their pronouns?
First of all, thank them, especially if you forgot to ask and they had to volunteer that information. It can be taxing to constantly be informing and reminding people what your pronouns are which is why it’s important to thank someone for doing that work.
Next, commit to using the pronouns they told you, and only those pronouns, to refer to them. That means all the time, even when they’re not around.
If you have questions, make sure to ask them respectfully and remember that they are not required to supply you with all the answers. If you have general questions about pronouns and pronoun use or Trans* identities, the Internet is a great resource. If you have more personal questions, think about how well you know this person and avoid questions that overstep the boundaries of your relationship. Remember that they are human just like you, and you are not entitled to their time, patience or personal information.
It is essential to practice, especially if you’ve used different pronouns to refer to that person in the past. You can practice in conversation with others, when thinking about that person, or even try talking out loud to yourself. This ensures that your brain is building neural connections so eventually you won’t even have to think about what pronouns to use. It will happen automatically.
Everyone makes mistakes. If a child, close friend or family member starts to use new pronouns, you’ll probably have a long history of pronoun-use to unlearn and it may not happen overnight.
When you do slip up, apologize briefly and correct your mistake (“Sorry, they are a sophomore”), then continue with your statement or conversation. It’s common, and understandable, to want to apologize profusely for your slip-up. But a lengthy apology can hurt more than help, drawing unwanted attention and making the person feel pressure to comfort and reassure you.
After a mistake, it can also be helpful to make a mental commitment to continue to practice or even to take time later to speak a few sentences out loud to yourself using the correct pronouns.
Reading this article is a great first step, but this isn’t a comprehensive description of pronouns or other TGNC issues.
The good news: There is a wealth of accessible information. Great places to start are LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations like The Trevor Project and GLSEN. Mykidisgay.com also has wonderful information specifically for parents and advocates of LGBTQ+ youth.
Another action you can take is to be more open about your own pronouns. Put your pronouns in your social media bios or email signatures, use them when you’re introducing yourself, and encourage others to do the same.
This might seem like a big commitment, but learning to say “Hi, my name is ___ and I use she/her/hers pronouns” (for example) is a simple way to show support to TGNC people. If cisgender people normalize sharing their pronouns, it takes the spotlight off of TGNC people, which relieves stress and makes us less-visible targets of abuse and violence.
I hope that with this toolkit you feel more prepared and comfortable navigating pronoun use. The Trans* and gender-nonconforming people in your life will be better off for you having done this work.
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