When we talk about our friends, our families, and anyone else, everyone uses gender pronouns. Most of the time, they’re something that goes unnoticed, they’re just part of how we see the people around us. But for most trans people, they’re more than that:  the proper use of gender pronouns is an important part of recognizing and validating their identities.


She/her/hers and he/him/his are the most commonly-used gender pronouns. But while many people call these ‘female/feminine’ or ‘male/masculine’ pronouns, some people intentionally avoid these labels. For trans people, calling these pronouns ‘male/female’ can sometimes be uncomfortable because of the implicit biological assumptions behind them. And for people of all gender identities, simply using he/him/his pronouns doesn’t necessarily mean you’re masculine and using she/her/hers pronouns doesn’t necessarily mean you’re feminine.


There are also pronouns beyond those two: many trans people who identify beyond the strict binary use alternative gender pronouns. Of these, the most common in the English language tends to be they/them/their pronouns. This usage flows easily into existing structures because it’s already used as a gender neutral pronoun. However, some trans people instead choose to create their own new pronouns, such as ze/hir/hirs and xe/xem/xyrs.


While some languages already have a gender neutral or third gender pronoun to use, many simply do not. This leaves no existing room outside the gender binary and has been a source of frustration for the trans and genderqueer communities who speak these languages. In these situations, communities often innovate in unique ways. For example, many queer people of Latin American descent in the US (and people living in Latin America) have begun to replace the gendered ‘o/a’ endings in Spanish with an ‘x’ instead in words that refer to people. For example, ‘latinx’ or ‘chicx’ or ‘amigxs’.




What if I don’t know what pronouns to use?

It's totally fine to not know what pronouns someone uses. And if anything, it's better to not assume because you can't tell what a person's pronouns are just by looking at them. But there's an easy way to fix that: simply ask them! Asking and correctly using someone's pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity and personhood.


Why should I use someone’s pronouns?

When someone is referred to by the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric. It's a basic part of their identity and one of the most commonly-highlighted parts of it in social situations. It's a small change, but a big impact.


It is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. If you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else’s gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but you're perpetuating the harmful institutions that oppress LGBTQIA+ people at large.



How should I ask someone what pronouns they use?

First things first, make sure that you ask the person in a respectful setting, particularly if you think they may be trans. Blurting out something like "Waiiiit, are you trans?? Should I call you something different?" does more harm than good and can even be dangerous for the person if done in a public setting. Instead, try something straightforward like "What pronouns do you use?" or "Can you remind me what pronouns you use?"


A good way to ask this without feeling particularly awkward or uncomfortable is to do it when being introduced to someone (or seeing them again for the first time in a while). In the same space that you'd ask them their name or something about them (e.g. "Oh, do you go to school here?") throw in this question. Or rather than asking, you can introduce yourself like "Hi, I'm Ian! I use they/them pronouns. How're you?" Worst case scenario, they're a little confused and you move on. Best case, you've helped to be inclusive and respect their identity.



What if I make a mistake?

It’s okay! Everyone slips up from time to time. The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to say something right away, like “Sorry, I meant [insert correct pronoun].”

If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on. A lot of the time it can be tempting to go on and on about how bad you feel that you messed up or how hard it is for you to get it right. Please don’t! It is inappropriate and makes the person who was misgendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you, which is absolutely not their job.

As a student or faculty member, it can also be very helpful to take an active role in your classes, as you may hear a student using the wrong pronoun for someone. In most cases, it is appropriate to gently correct them without further embarrassing the individual who has been misgendered. This means saying something like "Michael uses they/them pronouns" or “Alex uses the gender pronoun she” and then moving on. If other students or faculty are consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone, do not ignore it! It is important to let students know that you support them and respect their identity. Even just one supportive voice can mean a lot.

As a faculty member, it may be appropriate to approach or email them and say something like “I noticed that you were getting referred to by the wrong pronouns earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be helpful for you if I took them aside and reminded them about your pronouns?” Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the comfort level of your student. Your actions will be greatly appreciated.