You can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.
When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (often all of the above.)
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 also oppressive.
A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (I or you) or someone or something that is being talked about (like she, it, them, and this). Gender pronouns (he/she/they/ze etc.) specifically refer to people that you are talking about.
She/her/hers and he/him/his are a few commonly used pronouns. Some people call these “female/feminine” and “male/masculine” pronouns, but many avoid these labels because not everyone who uses he feels like a “male” or “masculine.”
There are also lots of gender-neutral pronouns in use. Here are a few you might hear:
Never refer to a person as “it” or “he-she”. These are offensive slurs used against trans and gender non-conforming individuals.
Note: the top line is meant to indicate two separate – but similarly spelled – sets of pronouns. They are ae/aer/aers and fae/faer/faers.
The only way to know with certainty which pronouns a person—nonbinary or binary—prefers is to ask them. Many, though not all, nonbinary folks use gender-neutral pronouns to affirm their identity and communicate it to others. “They/them/their” is the most commonly preferred set of gender-neutral pronouns among nonbinary English speakers, though lesser-known alternatives like “ze/hir/hirs” and “xe/xem/xyrs” are also gaining popularity (1).
If you’re hearing about singular “they” for the first time here, this one-set-of-pronouns-fits-all solution may seem counterintuitive. But singular “they” has usage dating back to the 1300s, according to Merriam-Webster (2), which notes instances in works by Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray and Shaw. Nonbinary people themselves have also existed throughout history, employing “they” and a variety of other pronouns and titles in cultures around the world (1).
This page was adapted from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee LGBTQ+ Resource Center and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
(1) "Call Them By Their Pronouns" - True North