Updated: Dec 13, 2020
You may have seen them in social media bios in the following formats: (she/her), (they/them), (he/him).
You may have also heard about them from somewhere else.
But what exactly are pronouns? And why are people talking about them?
What are pronouns?
Linguistically, pronouns are words referring to a person or thing, such as you, me, she, his, they, ours, herself etc. In relation to gender, they are certainly nothing new. But why are people now putting them in their social media bios?
As transgender and non-binary visibility has increased in recent years, so has awareness around respecting trans and non-binary identities. People are including their preferred pronouns in more places so that trans and non-binary people feel recognised and included.
While non-binary identities have existed for years, they may seem more visible than they used to be. That’s because they are!
One form that this increased awareness of trans and non-binary identities has taken is through wider acknowledgement of pronouns, both by members of the LGBTQ+ community and the wider population.
People may not identify as the gender that some people think they are, or the one they were born with, and pronouns are a way for people to be recognised and referred to in a way they feel comfortable with.
So, for somebody whose gender identity is female, their pronouns are likely to be she/her, and it would usually be he/him for somebody whose gender identity is male.
However, if somebody doesn't fit either of these two binary categories, there are numerous ways which are used for non-binary identifying people. While they/them is by far the most commonly used by gender non-conforming people, some people prefer to be referred to by the newer gender-neutral pronouns of xe/xem, e/em. Some simply just to be referred to by their name (e.g. Alex’s shoes) instead of having pronouns (their shoes).
What is gender identity?
Gender identity is simply the gender that you identify with. It is not the same as your sex, which is determined based on your reproductive organs.
What does non-binary mean?
Western society tends to recognise gender as being within a binary where there are two genders: male and female. Non-binary means that the gender identity that somebody has does not fit with traditional ideas of male or female gender.
Some people may identify as neither female nor male. Some may identify as both or as both at different times. They may consider themselves to be genderqueer or gender non-conforming.
For trans people, their gender identity does not fit the sex they were assigned at birth. The majority of trans people do not identify as being non-binary, but that’s not to say that this is always the case.
Are intersex people non-binary?
Some people have genetic or anatomical differences that fall outside of typical definitions of female or male. This means that they are intersex: 1-2% of all people are estimated to be in one way or another.
While most people who are intersex will identify as female or male, for some intersex people it might feel unnatural to conform to a gender their bodies do not match. In this case, identifying as non-binary is more appropriate.
Why are pronouns important?
For people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, or who do not fit with society’s ideas of typical gender presentation (how you present yourself, according to binary ideas of masculinity or femininity), it is more comfortable and often preferred to have pronouns which better represent their gender identity.
Recognising people’s preferred pronouns can make a big difference to their lives. In small ways it can be the difference between feeling respected or disrespected, included or excluded. When preferred pronouns are disregarded, the person’s right to choose how they identify is also being disregarded. While it may seem like a small mistake, for somebody whose identity is being doubted or incorrectly stated, pronoun misuse can undermine their identify and wear away at self-esteem and mental health.
Using the correct pronouns is a basic matter of respect and shows that you recognise that person for how they wish to identify.
What if I make a mistake?
If you are making an effort to use somebody’s preferred pronouns but accidentally slip up, chances are, they won’t be upset. Trans people are usually used to having to handle the awkwardness that can come up around discussing pronouns.
As long as people are open and clear about mistakes it's usually a non-issue.
It’s perfectly ok to ask what pronouns somebody uses if you aren’t sure. Trans people are used to the confusion (after all, they have had their own journeys to work things out!) and will most likely be happy to help.
How can I help?
If you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, this makes you cisgender. It’s likely that you’re not going to face any of the struggles that people who are transgender or gender non-conforming may face.
Making an effort to acknowledge people's individual identities and not to misgender them (or assume that all trans people have the same preferences) can really help them feel respected and safe with you or within a workplace or school.
By increasing the awareness of the importance of pronouns, we can make life easier for trans and non-binary people so that they feel more included and recognised.
What is the struggle for recognition all about?
Recognising pronouns is a small step toward society accepting that people exist in genders beyond the binary of female and male and that gender isn’t itself a binary thing.
People who are trans or non-binary face additional struggles in their lives. From micro-aggressions and being misgendered or dead-named (being called their old name instead of one they have used since transitioning), to being at the centre of media and online debate (as well as conversations) about their right to use public toilets or changing rooms, to being at higher risk of assault.
All of this means that life as a trans or non-binary person will likely be more challenging and harder than a cis-gendered person’s life.
Pronouns are just the one of many areas that allies can learn about to support and recognize trans and non-binary people. So, let’s make the effort to respect them.
Take a look at our guide on LGBTQ+ History: A Timeline to learn more.