Navigating Pronouns in a Non-Binary World
In today’s age, people have a myriad of gender identities and expressions.
The gender binary, which labels people as exclusively masculine or explicitly feminine, can be constricting.
It creates stereotypes that can’t possibly represent the multidimensional spectrum of the human being.
As we grow beyond the gender binary, language becomes even more important.
Understanding and intentionally using gender-affirming and gender-neutral pronouns is now a key part of creating a safer, more inclusive world.
Gender Identity and the Importance of Pronouns
Jesse Medina, who uses ‘he/him/his’ pronouns, is currently the linkage and retention coordinator at the Trans Wellness Center. He has a background in pronoun education, and he previously taught trans competency trainings at the LA County Department of Public Health (LADPH).
Gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation exist independently, Medina says. Navigating your own pronouns is an individual process, and many characteristics—like biological sex—come together to shape a person’s gender.
“When we use pronouns, they’re really referring to the gender identity spectrum and the gender expression spectrum,” he says. “Because sexual orientation is not a tangible thing.”
Pronouns, simple third-person words like ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘they,’ are used in conversation to refer to others based on their gender identity. Though applied in public interactions, pronouns are intimate, distinct and deeply personal.
“You have folks that may present masculine or may present feminine, but don’t identify with being a man or woman,” Medina said. “The main thing is to not assume that you have somebody all figured out just by how they present themselves.”
Everyone can self-identify with the gender identity and pronouns that make them the most comfortable. They may have gender non-conforming (GNC) pronouns, fluid or changing pronouns, or they can avoid identifying entirely.
“Cis is Latin for same, and trans is Latin for switch or other,” Medina said. “That’s how you can tell if you’re cisgender, because you identify with the biological sex you were assigned with at birth. But if you’re transgender, that means you switched or you identify with another.”
a person whose sense of identity and gender does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth. Most transgender people have a gender identity that is either male or female, and they expect to be treated like any other man or woman.
a person whose gender is not male or female, who may use many different terms to describe themselves. They may have multiple genders (bi-gender, tri-gender), move between genders (genderfluid) or have no gender (agender, nongendered, genderless, genderfree).
Gender-Affirming and Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Using gender-affirming pronouns is the first step in supporting a person’s gender identity. When it comes to pronouns, it’s really about validating someone’s existence, Medina said. “There’s a lot of power in words,” Medina asserts.
For transgender folks, pronouns may be conventional and familiar, like ‘he’ and ‘she.’ These pronouns are gender-specific, and they exist within the male-female binary.
Gender-neutral pronouns, on the other hand, don’t specify whether the subject of the sentence is female or male. ‘They’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ are third-person pronouns, and they may be used to refer to a group or an individual. These pronouns exist beyond the binary, Medina said.
“When it comes to the pronoun ‘they,’ people are visualizing more than one person instead of one person who has more than one gender within them,” Medina explains. “And if they’re GNC or non-binary or genderqueer, they can be multiple genders within one person.”
Other gender-neutral pronouns include Latin words, like ‘ze,’ ‘sie,’ ‘hir,’ ‘co’ and ‘ey.’ Though less common, these may be used by non-binary people. In fact, some people prefer not to use pronouns at all.
“Keeping it gender-neutral also helps as well,” Medina said. “That way, you’re not overstepping, and you’re not misgendering someone, even though they’re fluctuating in their gender identity.”
If you’re not sure which pronoun to use, it’s simple: use that person’s name. For example, instead of saying “She’s so hilarious” try saying “Katie is so hilarious”.
Identifying Pronouns, Respectfully
For transgender and GNC people, recognizing and respecting pronouns is essential. Gender expression is always changing, and a person’s masculine, feminine or androgynous presentation isn’t actually an indicator of their pronouns.
Alexa Flores, 24, an aspiring hairstylist and current staff member at G by Guess, started her transition journey less than a year ago. Flores spent time at the LGBT Center, where she explored her pronouns, which are she/her/hers.
“Talking to other trans people really does help,” Flores said. “If you want to go with she/hers pronouns and keep your genitalia, it doesn’t mean that you’re not trans.”
1) Ask for Someone’s Pronouns
When you first meet someone, you may ask about their pronouns before identifying them as a certain gender. Don’t ask what their ‘preferred’ pronoun is, because gender is not a preference.
“A lot of people are scared to ask,” Flores said. “You should never be scared to ask the question.”
But asking the question isn’t the only part of the interaction, Medina said.
“Tone, how you approach someone and body language are important,” Medina explains. “So it’s all about nonverbal and verbal communication. It’s a mixture of both.”
Don’t be afraid to ask someone what their pronouns are, and never assume someone’s pronouns.
2) Introduce Yourself with Pronouns
Begin the conversation with your own pronouns. This establishes an open dialogue immediately. It provides someone with the choice to share their pronouns, too.
When you’re initiating a conversation about pronouns, it’s important to note the environment and circumstances, as you don’t want to forcibly out someone in a public place.
“Putting your pronouns in your own introduction helps to make it an easier transaction,” Medina said. “And that helps to open up that conversation and the space for folks to feel safe.”
3) Default to Gender-Neutral Pronouns
When someone has not had an opportunity to identify their pronouns, defaulting to gender-neutral pronouns may be an option. To avoid accidentally misgendering someone, use third person plural (they, them, their, themselves) or more simply, use their name.
“It does affect your mental health when someone misgenders you,” Flores said. “It may be small, but being respectful about it can literally save someone’s life.”
How to Apologize When You Accidentally Misgender Someone
Referring to someone with the wrong pronoun can be a difficult situation for everyone, but it’s more painful for the person who has been misgendered. Every trans experience is vastly different, and in many cases, it’s a transition for everyone.
“We’re very aware that people transition along with us,” Medina said. “We’re also aware that mistakes will happen.”
When you make a mistake with a pronoun,
When you make a pronoun mistake, recognize the error and apologize. Then continue with the conversation. For example, say “whoops, I meant he, sorry”.
“If you misgender someone or use the wrong pronoun, don’t panic,” Flores said. “Correct yourself, and try to do better next time.”
Making a big deal by prolonging the apology with exaggerated justifications is not only uncomfortable, but it may activate past traumas or create unwanted conflicts. “One main reason is because they’re drawing too much attention,” Medina said. “It does jeopardize folks’ safety, especially in certain spaces.”
Though someone may be a part of the trans, gender non-conforming or non-binary community, everyone has a unique relationship to gender identity. But the momentum of the gender neutrality movement relies on more than pronouns.
Truly, it focuses on shedding limiting societal constructs used to promote gender discrimination, segregation, and misinformation. As such, the words we use to address someone are profoundly significant.
“But the work doesn’t stop there,” Medina said. “It’s alive, it’s a forever-evolving thing.”
So instead of letting them divide us, let’s start celebrating our differences!