Pronouns 101: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?
Jun 07, 2021
Using a person’s correct pronouns is important because it affirms that person’s identity, helps them feel comfortable in their own body, and shows that you respect them for who they are. Trans and gender diverse youth are at significantly high risk for things like depression and suicide. We know from research that 1 in 3 transgender youth reported attempting suicide in 2017. Using the correct pronouns for trans and gender diverse youth is one very easy way we can all contribute to reducing the rates of these devastating outcomes.
As a non-binary pediatric psychology provider, I am often asked about pronoun use. Below are some common questions and concerns people may have about pronouns. Do any of them sound familiar to you? If so, read on for tips, tricks, and facts to support happy and healthy lives for gender diverse youth.
“What is a pronoun?”
Pronouns are simply the way we gender people in our language. For example, “She went to the store,” or “I saw him today!” and “Have you heard from them yet?” When speaking about inanimate objects, we may use this, that, or it. It is never appropriate to refer to another person using this, that, or it.
“My child asked me to use different pronouns. What do I do?!”
First, thank them for sharing this with you! It may be scary for some children, teens, and even adults to share this information with others for fear of rejection, disapproval, or safety concerns.
Second, use the pronouns your child asked you to use. Research shows that gender diverse youth experience best outcomes when parents, families, and communities use pronouns that align with a child’s gender identity.
Third, seek support if you need it! If it feels especially challenging for you or your family to use your child’s pronouns or to respect their gender identity, it is important to get support. Look for mental health providers who are trans-allied or are trans or gender-diverse themselves.
At first it can feel scary, surprising, or confusing for parents to hear this information. Take a deep breath, pause, and remember that your child is sharing this information because they trust you with it. How you respond will greatly impact their well-being and your relationship.
“What if I mess up?”
You will! And it’s okay! Contrary to popular thinking, it is not hard to learn new pronouns for someone, but it does take active practice. Getting used to using different pronouns or a new name for someone is a learning process, similar to what you might have had to do when a friend got married and started using a different last name, or when you misgendered a friend’s pet or newborn baby.
Don’t over-apologize! Correct yourself in the moment and move on. If someone corrects you, say “thank you,” correct yourself, and move on. Most gender diverse people understand that using new pronouns and names takes practice. Additionally, if you give an emphatic apology, it may be distressing for a gender diverse person to have to reassure you that “It’s okay” to misgender them (use the wrong pronoun for someone).
“I can’t keep up with the new terms…non-binary? They/them? Why can’t I just use the pronouns that match what someone looks like?”
Gender diversity is often thought of as something “new” in modern society, but gender diverse folks have been re-introducing themselves with different pronouns for centuries and on every continent.
Science tells us that gender is a non-binary construct, allowing for a spectrum of gender identities, which may not align with sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is not the same as gender identity.
Folks often think using singular “they” is too difficult or grammatically incorrect, but we already use it all the time. For example, “Someone left their phone! I hope they come back.” If you were talking about me (non-binary, they/them pronouns), you would say, “Tabi left their phone! I hope they come back.”
We can’t actually tell someone’s gender by what they look like. Clothes, makeup, body hair, jewelry, or other ways a person dresses or decorates their body, do not indicate someone’s gender or sex. This is because things like clothing, makeup, and body hair don’t have a gender.
What do I do if I’m not sure what someone’s pronouns are?
Just ask. It’s easy! “Nice to meet you. I’m Tabi, I use they/them pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
It is important for cisgender people (people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth) to normalize the practice of stating their pronouns and asking pronouns of others. It encourages practice and helps gender diverse people feel welcome and safe.
I hope these tips help you in your journey to include and affirm others. Remember: practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make life safer and easier for the trans and gender-diverse folks in your life.
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