What is a pronoun?
Pronouns are the words that people use to refer to other people or things instead of using their names. When talking about others in the third person we commonly use pronouns like “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers,” and “they/them/theirs.” Less common are neopronouns, such as “xe/xem/xyr,” “ze/hir/hirs,” and “ey/em/eir.”
Why are we talking about pronouns?
Much of the time, pronouns indicate a specific gender. Often we assume someone’s gender, and therefore their pronouns, based on their name or appearance. However, those assumptions aren’t always correct, and can sometimes be harmful. While most of us have been raised to believe that gender is something we are born with, if we look more closely we can see that gender is actually a cultural construct. The categories of “male” and “female” carry all kinds of cultural assumptions about how a person should behave or what kind of body they should have. Some people don’t fit the expectations that often come with these categories, and some people identify outside of the male/female binary altogether. An identity outside the male/female binary is sometimes referred to as “non-binary” or “genderqueer.” “Gender non-conforming” is another term you might hear in relation to gender–it’s a blanket term that refers to anyone whose gender identity doesn’t conform to the prevailing cultural and social expectations.
Gender identity is a reflection of our identity at a deeply personal level. When you guess at someone’s pronouns, you are going along with the cultural assumptions, and these assumptions will sometimes be wrong. This can lead to a person feeling unseen, invalidated, or alienated. The truth is that you can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. If you are cisgender (which is when your gender identity is the same as the gender you were assigned at birth), it is easy to take pronouns for granted. However, many people view pronouns as an indicator of respect for their gender identity, so it is important to be considerate and use someone’s correct pronouns, even if they aren’t in the room with you. Pronouns are just one way for people to express their gender identity – and asking for and using someone’s correct pronouns is a simple way to create a welcoming, respectful environment. Please help by sharing your preferred pronouns and asking others for theirs. Thank you!
Frequently Asked Questions About Pronouns:
- What should I do if I get somebody’s pronoun or gender wrong? Everybody messes up sometimes. Just apologise, correct yourself, and be more mindful of getting it right the next time. You may feel embarrassed or guilty, but it’s important to remember not to center your own feelings. It’s likely that the person you’re talking to feels much worse in this situation. So the last thing they want to do is to have to manage your emotions. They probably just want to move on with the conversation.
- This pronoun stuff is all so new and confusing to me. Do I really have to learn how to do this? Don’t worry, like any concept it can take some time and practice to adjust. But it’s worth practicing, because getting people’s pronouns right is not just a matter of politeness, it has a real effect on trans people’s emotions, and a profound cumulative effect on their lives. Respecting a person’s pronouns goes hand-in-hand with the practice of refraining from harmful speech, and creating a harmonious sangha in which we all feel seen, included, and understood. Creating an inclusive sangha – and world – is part of our practice. We can not bypass it because it feels difficult or makes us uncomfortable.
- Am I supposed to introduce myself with my pronouns every time I meet somebody – doesn’t that seem like too much? You don’t have to do it every time. Introducing yourself with your pronouns is a good custom to observe in certain contexts such as meetings, workgroups, or introductions at a retreat. These are situations where multiple people may be meeting each other for the first time, and so it is particularly important that we make sure everybody knows each other’s pronouns.
- I understand why transgender people share their pronouns, but I’m not transgender, so why should I do it? There are a lot of good reasons for cisgender people to introduce themselves with their pronouns. Among them:
- When transgender people are the only ones sharing their pronouns in a given space, it draws extra attention to them and to the fact that they are transgender. This is likely to make them feel hyper-visible and uncomfortable. If cisgender people share their pronouns too, then this problem goes away.
- Sharing your pronouns as a cisgender person is an easy way of signaling to transgender people that you care about their safety and wellbeing.
- Your individual decision to share your pronouns models this behavior for other cisgender people, making it more likely that they too will share their pronouns. The more people who share their pronouns, the less awkward it becomes for everybody to share their pronouns – cis or trans.
- Sharing your pronouns raises other people’s awareness about the fact that you can’t assume a person’s gender just by looking at them. By doing this you are helping educate the people around you about gender identity. Usually the burden of educating people about gender identity falls entirely on trans people. Sharing some of this burden is a basic act of allyship.
- Can I say that my pronouns are “I/me” or that I “accept any pronoun”? If you’re cisgender, we would encourage you to think about what you are trying to say to others. We share our pronouns as a way to communicate our gender identity or our preferred language regarding our gender. Saying that your pronoun is “I/me” does not really communicate anything. Saying that you “accept any pronoun” could communicate that you identify as non-binary or gender-fluid, rather than cisgender, since most cis-gender people actually prefer a specific set of pronouns that correspond with their gender identity, so please reflect on whether that is actually true for you. Some people might also choose this as a way to say they are not offended if called by various pronouns, but this does not really help people know which ones you prefer and puts the onus on them to decide. If you still genuinely do not know what fits or what you prefer, please see the next section for a discussion of some options. Lastly, humorous responses (e.g. she/her/pizza), even when well-intentioned, are never appropriate. Many transgender people don’t have the luxury of taking these things lightly, so humor can be seen as treating a very personal and important issue in a trivial and disrespectful way.
- What are neopronouns? For some people, they as a gender-neutral pronoun just doesn’t resonate with their gender identity. There is a growing community of people who prefer other gender neutral pronouns, called “neopronouns,” to refer to themselves in the third-person. Despite containing the prefix “neo,” neopronouns are anything but new. Historical records show that neopronouns have been in use for a very long time – possibly since the 1780s, but definitely by 1864, when the writer J.W.L. developed the gender-neutral ze. You may encounter people who use pronouns such as ey/em/eir, ze/hir/hirs, or xe/xem/zyr, to name but a few. While it may take a little bit of time and effort on your part, an easy way to show respect for those who use neopronouns is to keep trying until you get it right.
- What about people who don’t use pronouns? Some people prefer no pronouns; always refer to these people by name, and restructure sentences to avoid the need for pronouns.
- I’ve been thinking about my gender identity and I don’t know what pronoun I want people to use for me. What should I do? There’s no harm in experimenting. You don’t have to identify as transgender to change what pronouns you use, and there are no rules about how many times you can change! So if you feel comfortable we encourage you to try out different pronouns and see what feels good. If there are a couple different pronouns you’re interested in having people switch between, you can do that too. (In writing, this could look like: “I use he/she/ze pronouns”) You could also write that you accept “any pronoun” but this will usually result in people using whatever pronoun they’re accustomed to using for people who “look like you,” which may not actually be what you want.