We are often taught gender pronouns as tools early in life in Phonics or language classes, and we may not think about them as we use them throughout the day. However, this gendered language has an impact on the lives of trans* people and others who seek to live beyond the confines of gender binaries.
In order to affirm each person’s gender identity, life, and experience, it is important that we ask and check in with others about pronouns. This simple effort can make a profound difference in a trans* person’s experience of safety, respect, and support.
Understanding Gender Pronouns
Pronouns are improper nouns that we use to refer to people without using their names. Common English examples include:
Beyond the Binary: Applying Gender Pronouns
What are gender inclusive pronouns?
Many sets of gender inclusive pronouns exist and are commonly used among trans* and other communities. Many of these pronouns may be new words to you or may be words you have heard that are repurposed. Some common examples used at WashU include:
|ze (zee)||zir (zeer)||zir||zirs||zirself||Ze walks zir dog|
|zie (zee)||hir (heer)||hir||hirs||hirself||Zie walks hir dog|
|they||them||their||theirs||themselves||They walk their dog|
|e/ey (ay)||em||eir (air)||eirs||emself/eirself||Ey walks eir dog|
Additionally, some people do not wish to be referred to with pronouns and ask to be referred to with their names only. For example: “Chris is going to Chris’s house. I want to go to Chris’s house with Chris.”
Why are gender pronouns important?
Understanding pronouns beyond the two options of she, her, hers and he, him, his creates space for experiences and identities outside of the gender binary. We have been taught to make assumptions about people’s pronouns based on the way they look and the way we perceive them. While using pronouns on autopilot may not have bad intent, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but also oppressive. When someone is mispronouned, it can make the person feel disrespected, alienated, dismissed, invalidated, or dysphoric.
How do I know which pronouns to use?
Though it may be coming from a very supportive and inclusive intention, we do not always need to know the pronouns of strangers or people around us. However, if this is someone you connect with regularly, and you do not know how to refer to them, it is best to ask.
How do I ask about pronouns?
Simply asking, “what pronouns do you use?” can provide an opportunity for someone to offer their gender pronouns for you to use. Other options include: “how would you like me to refer to you?” or “how would you like to be addressed?”
Another option is to begin by offering the pronouns you use. Try: “I use they, them, their pronouns. Do you mind if I ask what pronouns you’d like me to use when referring to you? I want to make sure I respect your identity.”
A note about gender pronouns changes
When someone shares their pronouns with you, check in with them about who knows about their pronouns. It is possible someone may not be out to family, friends, professors, staff, or other people in their communities. It is common for someone to switch their pronouns to something else based on the context. It is important to respect these conditions in order to not out someone and respect their safety.
In addition, a person’s pronouns can change over time, so it is best to check in regularly. It is not necessary to ask why their pronouns may have changed.
- In meetings, ask everyone to share pronouns when they introduce themselves.
- In class, instead of calling role with your list on the first day, ask students to introduce themselves with their preferred names and pronouns.
- List your pronouns below your name in your email signature.
- Ask attendees at events to put their pronouns on their nametags below their names.
- Put your pronouns on your nameplate on your office or residence door.
What if I make a mistake?
The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to say something right away, such as “I’m sorry, I meant ze.” If you realize your mistake after the situation, apologize in private and move on.
It can be tempting to go on and on about how bad you feel that you messed up or how hard it is for you to get it right, but please, do not! It is inappropriate, creates a spectacle, and makes the person who was misgendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you.
How do I respond when someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone?
When checking in with someone, it may be a good time to ask about how they want you to respond to someone mispronouning them. In some cases, correcting someone can cause more embarrassment for the individual, and it is important that they have power and autonomy over their identity. Depending on their wishes, it may be appropriate to gently correct someone who is mispronouning them, for example by saying, “actually, Jae uses the pronoun she,” and then moving on.
It may be appropriate to approach the individual and say something like “I noticed that you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be okay with me taking them aside and reminding them about your gender pronoun? I want to make sure that this group is a safe space for you.” Follow up if necessary, but take cues from the individual’s comfort level.
If people are consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone, do not ignore it! It is important to show that you care about the safety of trans* people as an ally.
A Note about Gendered Language
The English language is filled with many gendered words and phrases. As we consider gender pronouns, it is important to interrogate our language and to be intentional about the ways in which we talk with and about people.
Some common tips for creating more inclusive spaces with our language are:
- Notice and challenge assumptions about people based on their looks or the snapshots of information we may know of them.
- Mirror the language people use about others and themselves.
- Honor the names and pronouns people use and go by, even when they change.
- Mirror people’s names and pronouns, and remember that they may change with context. Code-switch with people to ensure their safety.
- When possible, use gender inclusive language such as: ‘partner,’ ‘student,’ ‘peer,’ ‘sibling,’ etc.
- When directing someone to a restroom, point out all restrooms nearby: women’s, men’s, and gender inclusive.
- Be open to making mistakes, and recover gracefully without taking up too much space.
- Commit to learning more and growing. Allyship is a journey, and we will never arrive.
Campus & Community Resources
- Faculty/Staff Safe Zones – contact Anna Warbelow
- SafeZones (Undergraduate Student Group) – contact
- Campus Life
- Metro Trans Umbrella Group – contact
- Washington University Preferred Name Policy
References & Resources
- “Action Tips for Allies of Trans People,” University of Wisconsin – Madison
- “Debunking Objections to ‘They’ Pronouns”
- “Gender Is Extraordinary,” Alex Barnawell
- “Gender Pronouns Guide,” University of Wisconsin – Madison
- Gender Pronouns Guide,” University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee
- “Preferred Gender Pronouns: A Guide for Faculty, Staff, and Allies at Michigan State,” Michigan State University
- “What the Heck is a PGP?,” Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools
- “Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us About Gender,” Davey Shlasko
- “Singular they,” Feministing
- “How Using ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun Can Change the World,” Feministing
- “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies,” Dean Spade
- “The GENDER Book,” Mel Reiff Hill & Jay Mays
- “Safe(er) Spaces Pack” by The GENDER Book
- “Tips for Allies of Transgender People,” GLAAD
- Trans Student Educational Resources
- “What Are Pronouns?”, YouTube video by Minus18
- “Why Pronouns Are Important to Trans People,” YouTube video by Kat Blaque
- “Why Pronouns Matter for Trans People,” YouTube video by BuzzFeedYellow
Agender – A person without gender. An agender individual’s body does not necessarily correspond with their lack of gender identity. Often, agender individuals are not concerned with their physical sex, but some may seek to look androgynous. [Related Terms: neutrois, genderless, gender neutral]
Androgyne – Person appearing and/or identifying as neither man nor woman. Some androgyne individuals may present in a gender neutral or androgynous way.
Assigned at Birth – Commonly utilized by Trans* individuals, the term illustrates that the individual’s sex (and subsequently gender in early life) was assigned without involving the person who’s sex was being assigned. Commonly seen as “Female Assigned At Birth” (FAAB or AFAB) and “Male Assigned At Birth” (MAAB or AMAB).
Bigender – A person whose gender identity is a combination of male/man and female/woman. They may consciously or unconsciously change their gender-role behavior from masculine to feminine, or vice versa.
Boi (pronounced boy) – 1. A female-bodied person who expresses or presents themselves in a culturally/stereotypically masculine, particularly boyish way. 2. One who enjoys being perceived as a young male and intentionally identifies with being a “boy” rather than a “man.”
Brown Boi – A masculine of center person of color.
Cisgender – someone who feels comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to them based on their physical sex. Also known as “cissexual.”
Cisgender Privilege – The set of privileges conferred to people who are believed to be Cisgender. (Examples: having one’s preferred pronouns used, no harassment in public restrooms, no denial of expected access to health care, etc.)
Cissexism – A pervasive and institutionalized system that others transgender people and treats their needs and identities as less important than those of cisgender people.
Demigender – A gender identity that involves feeling a partial, but not a full, connection to a gender identity.
FTM – Abbreviation for a female-to-male transgender person. This term reflects the direction of gender transition. Some prefer the term MTM (Male to Male) to underscore the fact that though they were biologically female, they never gender identity. [Related terms: transgender man, trans* man]
Gender – 1. A socially constructed system of classifications that ascribes qualities of masculinity and femininity to people. Gender characteristic can change over time and vary between cultures. 2. Someone’s innate sense of being male or female.
Gender Binary – The idea that there are only two genders – male/female or man/woman and that a person must be strictly gendered as either/or. [See also: Identity Sphere]
Gender Confirming Surgery – Medical surgeries used to modify one’s body to be more congruent with one’s gender identity. Also known as ‘Sex Reassignment Surgery,’ especially within the medical community. In most states, one or multiple surgeries are required to achieve legal recognition of gender status.
Gender Dysphoria – Discomfort or distress caused by one’s assigned sex and the desire to change the characteristics that are the source.
Gender Expression – How one presents oneself and one’s gender to the world via dress, mannerisms, hairstyle, facial hair etc. This may or may not coincide with or indicate one’s gender identity. Many utilize gender expression in an attempt to determine the gender/sex of another individual. However, a person’s gender expression may not always match their gender identity.
Gender Identity – A person’s sense of self as masculine, feminine, both, or neither regardless of external genitalia.
Gender Non Conforming – A person who either by nature or by choice does not conform to gender-based expectations of society (e.g. transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, butch, cross-dresser,etc.). Also known as ‘Gender Variant.’
Gender Normative – A person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender based expectations of society.
Gender Oppression – The societal, institutional, and individual beliefs and practices that privilege Cisgender and subordinate and disparage transgender or gender non conforming people.
Genderqueer – An individual whose gender identity is neither male nor female, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders. Sometimes this includes a political agenda to challenge gender stereotypes and the gender binary system. Genderqueer individuals may or may not pursue any physical changes, such as hormonal or surgical intervention, and may not identify as trans*.
MTF – Abbreviation for a male-to-female transgender person. This term reflects the direction of gender transition. Some people prefer the term FTF (female to female) to underscore the fact that though they were biologically male, they never had a male gender identity. [Related terms: transgender woman, trans* woman]
Neutrois – A person who identifies as being neither male nor female. This differs from androgyne, in that an androgyne sees themselves as a mix of two genders and neutrois individual sees themselves as not having a gender. [Similar terms: genderless, agender, or non-gendered.]
Stud – A term used by people of color to describe a masculine lesbian. Also known as ‘aggressive.’
Trans* – An abbreviation that is used to refer to a transgender/gender queer/ gender non-conforming person. This use allows a person to state a gender variant identity without having to disclose hormonal or surgical status/intentions. This term is sometimes used to refer to the whole gender non-conforming community that might include (but is not limited to) transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderf*ck, transsexual, agender, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, trans man, trans woman, gender non-conforming, masculine of center, and gender questioning.
Transfeminine – 1. A term used to describe those who were assigned male at birth, but identify as more female than male. 2. Those who identify as transfeminine, as opposed to simply as MTF or a woman, trans or otherwise, often place themselves feminine of center. That is, they identify more closely with femaleness than maleness, and generally desire a physical appearance that reflects this identification, but do not identify as wholly female or as a woman. It should be noted that transfeminine is not a descriptor of gender expression but of identity. Transfeminine people do not necessarily have to be stereotypically feminine in their interests or even presentation.
Transgender – A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that expected based on sex or gender assigned at birth. Sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.
Transition – This term is primarily used to refer to the process a gender variant person undergoes when changing their bodily appearance either to be more congruent with the gender/sex with which they identify and/or to be in harmony with their preferred gender expression.
Transmasculine – 1. A term used to describe those who were assigned female at birth, but identify as more male than female. 2. Those who identify as transmasculine, as opposed to simply as FTM or a man identify more closely with maleness than femaleness, and generally desire a physical appearance that reflects this identification, but do not identify as wholly male or as a man. It should be noted that transmasculine is not a descriptor of gender expression but of identity. Transmasculine people do not necessarily have to be stereotypically masculine in their interests or even presentation.
Trans Man – An identity label sometimes adopted by female to male trans people to signify that they are men while still affirming their transgender history.
Trans Woman – An identity label sometimes adopted by male to female trans people to signify that they are women while still affirming their transgender history.
Transphobia – The irrational hatred of those who are transgender or gender non-conforming, sometimes expressed through violent and sometimes deadly means.
Transsexual – A person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and surgically to match their inner sense of gender/sex.
Two-Spirit – A Native American term for people who blend the masculine and the feminine. It is commonly used to describe individuals who historically crossed gender. It is often used by contemporary LGBTQ Native American people to describe themselves.