What are pronouns and why are they important to our communities

What are pronouns and why are they important to our communities
Photo by Delia Giandeini

Pronouns, or how we identify or refer to someone, are such a common part of our everyday speech that many do not think twice about how they use them. In fact, pronouns are much more than a part of speech -- they represent who a person is. The LGBTQ+ community has many different kinds of pronouns that individuals use that represents gender, whether they have one, multiple, or none at all. With such a vast array of pronouns, it can be difficult to know which exactly to use when speaking to or about someone. Below is a helpful guide for ensuring a person is correctly referred to.

What Is Gender and Sex Exactly?

Many people who are unfamiliar with the different kinds of pronouns that exist or unfamiliar identities may wonder how to define them. It’s been commonly taught that there are either males or females, and everyone is born one way or the other. This is actually not the case. The genitals one is born with do not make up the individual. Rather, the idea of "males" or "females" is a social construct, or an idea that society itself created and often expects an individual to fit into. While someone may be born with certain genitals, that does not mean they have to conform to the specific expectations, habits or behaviors and that may be commonly associated with males or females. Common examples include clothing or hair styles, certain hobbies or interests, or physical attributes such as having or not having facial or body hair. Someone's sex, on the other hand, is the biological characteristics they had when they were born that a doctor or midwife assigned. This is where the labels of "man" and "woman" come from, though "intersex" has also been used for someone whose biological characteristics do not into either category.

Why Is Using the Correct Pronoun Important?

Using the right pronoun creates a safe and inclusive environment for all. When someone uses the incorrect pronoun to refer to someone, it can make the individual being incorrectly referred to uncomfortable, unsafe, and invalidated. The consequences of these feelings can include dysphoria and alienation, along with a sense of disrespect for one's identity. This is especially true for two groups: trans individuals and gender-neutral individuals. Trans individuals are those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Many trans individuals undergo surgical procedures to transition from one sex to the other, while others do not. Either way, it’s important to use correct pronouns for both groups in order to ensure mental and physical well-being. Gender-neutral individuals are those who does not identify with one particular identity. As with the trans community, many individuals in this community may feel disrespected or hurt by not having their pronouns used correctly.

How I Do Find Out Someone’s Pronouns?

The best way to find out someone’s pronouns is to simply ask! You can ask a question like, “Which pronouns do you prefer?” or “How would you like to be referred as?” This ensures that the person you are speaking with is being respected and feels comfortable in the environment. It is also important to note that one's identity should never be an assumption. For instance, just because an individual seems to “look like” a man or woman, that does not mean that the person identifies as one. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and that includes pronoun use as well. If you happen to make a mistake, simply apologize and ask for clarification.

What Kinds of Pronouns Are There?

There are many identities and therefore the pronouns listed here are not exhaustive, but instead are commonly used pronouns:

She/her/hers & He/Him/His: There is a common misconception that these are completely feminine/masculine conforming pronouns, but this is not accurate, as not all individuals may feel “completely” female/male.

They/them/theirs: This is an oft-used pronoun for a gender neutral individual.

Ze/hir/hir: This pronoun is often alternatively used instead of they/them/theirs. “Ze” is pronounced like the letter “Z” and “Hir” is pronounced like “here.”

Additionally, an individual may choose to just go by their name and not use any pronoun whatsoever. For example, if an individual named Taylor chooses to go with no pronoun, Taylor's name would always be used in replacement of a pronoun: “Taylor is eating her food/Taylor thinks we should go there.”

As is evident, the existence and use of pronouns is complex and not always obvious. This is why, in the end, it is always better to ask than to assume someone's pronouns, creating a safer and more inclusive environment for all.

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