He/She/They: A Guide to Pronouns and Gender Identity

Pride Month is over, but that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about equality, acceptance, and understanding – you know, all of those positive vibes that come with the rainbow flags of June. In the interest of that, we want to keep the discussions going as much as possible! 

Last month, we talked about fostering understanding by learning more about sexual orientations, and this month we’d like to continue down a similar path by discussing gender identity. Like the topic of sexual orientation, this topic can also cause a bit of confusion, and can even be a bit fraught, but it’s important to know how to talk about it, so we can all understand each other better! So let’s take a look at pronoun use, and gender identity, so everyone can feel included, as they deserve to be. 

Sex Vs Gender

While pronouns, those tiny little words – she/her, he/him, they/them – used to seem so simple (remember learning about them all the way back in elementary school?), today they might feel deceptively complicated. But before we get to the importance of using the right pronouns, let’s take a look at the root of why we’re talking about pronoun use: the issue of sex versus gender. 

2 gender pictograms next to each other
Your sex is assigned at birth, based on physiological characteristics, like your genitalia and chromosomes.

While the words “sex” and “gender” might seem like they should mean the same thing, the truth is that they don’t:

Sex refers to the physical differences between people who are male, female, or intersex. Your sex is assigned at birth, based on physiological characteristics, like your genitalia and chromosomes. 

Gender is a social construct. What do we mean by that? We have certain social and cultural roles that we as a society tend to think are appropriate for people of a certain sex. It’s more that we’ve been led to believe that gender and sex should always reflect each other than that they actually go hand-in-hand. Your gender identity and expression can be shaped by the environment in which you grow up, and can be independent of the sex you were assigned at birth. 

So sex and gender are two distinct things; not only that, but, while Western societies tend to subscribe to the idea of there being just two binary genders (male and female), that’s not the case, and can be very limiting. You might identify on any point of the gender spectrum, or you might feel like you fall outside of it entirely. You might identify with a gender that is different from the sex you were assigned at birth, or you might identify with multiple genders, or no gender at all (more on this below). 

The upshot is that only a person themself can determine their gender identity (and it can change over time), so telling people that there are only two strict, binary categories that perfectly align with assigned sex is not helpful, to say the least. The best thing we can do is openly communicate with each about our experience of gender – and we can start by knowing how to use pronouns correctly.

The Importance of Pronouns

It might seem like a little thing (again, those tiny little words) to use a pronoun that someone doesn’t identify with, but misgendering someone can leave them feeling misunderstood, disrespected, and invalidated at best – and can seriously affect their mental health and lead to thoughts of suicide at worst. 

Did you know, for example, that transgender and non-binary people are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than the general population, and are up to four times as likely to engage in risky substance use? We’re not saying that misgendering or using the wrong pronouns is the only factor behind these shocking statistics, but being constantly invalidated in that seemingly small way is part of the problem.

On the other hand, though, consider this amazing statistic about using the correct pronouns with young people. Studies show that young people who could use their chosen name and pronoun experienced 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression than their peers who couldn’t, and reported a 34% decrease in thoughts of suicide, and a 65% decrease in suicide attempts. Those little words don’t seem so little anymore, do they?

So how do you know which pronouns to use? Simple! they them written on blocks

  • First of all, don’t assume anyone’s pronouns, and learn about how pronouns can be used. For example, some people who identify as non-binary or non-gendered might use “they/them/their,” or others might use “ze” (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he, or “hir” (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her.
  • If someone doesn’t offer their pronouns to you on introduction, get the ball rolling by offering yours. 
  • You can also just respectfully and privately ask what pronouns someone prefers! Asking about and then correctly using other people’s pronouns can go a long way in fostering mutual respect.

In addition, if you make a mistake, it’s ok – it happens. Just politely apologize, move on, and start using the right pronoun. And if you’re in the position to address groups of people, avoid using gendered terms like “ladies and gentlemen,” or “boys and girls” – stick to “everyone,” “friends,” “colleagues,” etc. 

A Quick Guide to Gender Identity Vocab

So using the correct pronouns with others is a crucial  – and easy! – way to signal respect, understanding, and acceptance. As Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, points out, doing this one little thing when speaking to someone is “a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that’s consistent and true to who they are.”  Mary Emily O’Hara, a communications officer at GLAAD agrees: “It’s really just about letting someone know that you accept their identity. And it’s as simple as that.”

But now we’d like to take a closer look at not just the little words for expressing someone’s gender identity, but those gender identities themselves, so we can expand our abilities to communicate accurately and respectfully. So here’s a brief gender identity vocab lesson (or refresher) to get you started! And remember, this list is by no means exhaustive, is Western-centric (so other cultures might have different ways of talking about this topic), and should only be considered a guide – some people might prefer to refer to their gender identity in different ways, so it’s always best to be guided by whomever you’re speaking with.

Cisgender

Also simply known as “cis,” this adjective describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender

Also referred to as simply “trans,” this adjective describes someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man, for example, is someone who was listed as female at birth but whose gender identity is male.caucasian with a rainbow flag painted on their face

Non-Binary

A term that can be used by people who do not describe themselves or their genders as fitting into the categories of man or woman. 

Agender

An adjective that can describe a person who does not identify as any gender.

Gender Expansive

This term might be used to describe someone with a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the binary gender system. It might also be used by someone who is still exploring their gender identity.

Gender Fluid

This adjective could be used by a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender or has a fluid or unfixed gender identity.

Gender Non-Conforming

This is a broad term that refers to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category. While some might also identify as transgender, not all gender non-conforming people do.

Genderqueer

Genderqueer people typically reject the idea of fixed, unchanging gender, and embrace a fluidity of gender identity (and sometimes sexual orientation). People who identify as “genderqueer” might see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside these categories.intersex symbol

Intersex

This term is related to sex rather than gender: intersex people are born with a variety of differences in their sex traits and reproductive anatomy, including differences in genitalia, chromosomes, internal sex organs, hormone production, and/or secondary sex traits.

While some of these terms might have similarities, or feel confusingly similar to many people, they all help people to express the gender identity that feels right to them, at that moment. Having at least some knowledge of what they mean can help foster inclusivity, mutual respect, and understanding, and could even start some really productive conversations between willing parties. And using the right pronouns? It might be the easiest thing you can do to make everyone around you feel seen and accepted. 

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