Above: Illustrsation by Sapna Satyanarayana
Transgender (trans) is an umbrella term for anyone who’s gender doesn’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth, non-binary people fall under the trans umbrella.
I’m Chloe, I’m non-binary, and my pronouns are they/them. This is a fact that angers and baffles many a person out there, and I’m here to tell you how to use them and why you need to use them.
First things first, what are pronouns? They’re the little words that let us know who you are referring to without you having to use a name each time. He/him pronouns typically refer to men, and she/her pronouns typically refer to women. This isn’t the case in all situations as what pronouns you use are a personal choice that is made for a whole rake of reasons. However, this common gendering of pronouns is the motivation behind why a lot of non-binary people use they/them pronouns, or other gender-neutral pronouns such as ze/hir and ey/em.
In conversation, it just means that instead of saying “she/he has an excellent nose”, you would say “they have an excellent nose”. It’s a simple change in the words you use, that makes a big difference to the person you are using them for.
If you’re having difficulty using the correct pronouns for someone, practise. The issue a lot of people have with they/them pronouns is that they aren’t used to using them. This may be a reasonable explanation for a certain amount of slip-ups for a certain amount of time, but there’s a point where that excuse falls through.
It might take some time to get used to, and this why you have to actively try to get used to doing it. More and more people are using they/them pronouns, and other pronouns you may not necessarily expect, so it’s a useful skill to get the hang of. It’s not okay to just ignore it and keep misgendering people because it has a significant impact on that person’s mental wellbeing.
When your gender and the gender people assume of you align, being accidentally referred to with the wrong pronoun simply doesn’t hold the same weight.
Misgendering someone means that you are referring to a trans person with the wrong name/pronoun/gendered noun. If I was referred to as a girl or with she/her pronouns by someone, they would be misgendering me. If this isn’t a daily reality of your living situation, it can be difficult to understand how harmful it is. When your gender and the gender people assume of you align, being accidentally referred to with the wrong pronoun simply doesn’t hold the same weight.
The thing about being misgendered is that it physically hurts. The more I’m misgendered in a situation, the quieter and quieter I get until I just can’t speak. Another useful term here is gender dysphoria. And in particular for pronouns, social dysphoria is at play. Gender dysphoria is essentially the disconnect and discomfort trans people experience, in this case when being referred to incorrectly.
Gender dysphoria can result in anything from losing a sense of who you are, even outside of your gender, to physical symptoms like chest and stomach pains. It can be incredibly alienating to be called something that just doesn’t reflect who you are. Each trans person experiences dysphoria differently, but the general consensus that unites us is that it is Not Fun.
That’s why if you are asked your pronouns in a situation; don’t say “just use whatever” if you know that people are going to refer to you correctly. It makes trans people sound unreasonable when they have a specific pronoun (or pronouns) they need you to use, that people would not otherwise use.
Also don’t joke about even being okay with being referred to as “it”. Again, it makes us seem unreasonable, like asking you to use they/them pronouns for us is as bizarre as calling a person “it” (a term we can all recognise as dehumanising).
What I have found in my journey of transness is that the best way to find out someone’s pronouns is to introduce yourself with your own name and pronouns. This doesn’t place the burden on the person you’re talking to. It’s best to make a habit of introducing yourself this way, instead of leaving it to when you think you might be talking to a trans person.
The important thing to note here is that all trans people are different, and we don’t all look the same. I don’t have a sign on my head letting people know I’m non-binary, and I also don’t glow a nice neon yellow colour to signal to people that I use they/them pronouns. You can’t make assumptions about someone’s pronouns much like you can’t make assumptions about someone’s name.
My last two pieces of advice are 1. Use people’s pronouns even when they aren’t around, it’s just disrespectful to do otherwise and 2. If you don’t know whether someone is comfortable with having their pronouns used in all situations, ask them to find out how best to proceed.
My overall message: respect people’s pronouns!