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. 

Your A-Z Guide to Sexual Attraction, Behavior, and Orientation Vocab

Did you know that there are over 170,000 words in the dictionary, and that some counts put the number of words in the English language at around 1 million? One million words! And it can start to feel like we’re using around half of them to talk about sexuality, right? Just kidding – but we’d probably all agree that it is an endlessly interesting topic to humans! Endlessly interesting and endlessly diverse, which is why it’s great that we now have all of these terms in common use. 

Knowing how to talk to each other about sexual attraction, behavior, and orientation, whether our own or that of someone in our lives, as well as knowing what other people are experiencing, fosters inclusivity and can help us understand each other better, and that’s always a good thing. 

But all of these terms can become a little confusing if you’re not used to them, so you might need a little refresher course on exactly what all of the vocab surrounding sexual attraction, behavior, and orientation mean. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz afterwards (although it would be a pretty sexy one!), you’ll just hopefully come away with a better understanding of how you and those around you are experiencing this very fluid thing we call sexuality.

Allosexualcouple on the floor kissing half-naked

Do you experience sexual attraction? An Allosexual is anyone who can feel sexual attraction. The only people who would not identify as an allosexual are the asexual. 

Androsexual

A term used to describe those who are sexually or romantically attracted to men, males, or masculinity, including attraction to those who identify as men, male, or masculine, regardless of biology, anatomy, or sex assigned at birth.

Asexual

If you identify as asexual, you experience little or no sexual attraction to others. Asexuality is a spectrum, though, with people experiencing it in different ways. For example, some people who identify as asexual might have romantic feelings for others, or might even engage in sexual behavior (this is known as “cupiosexual,” or experiencing the desire to engage in sexual behavior or a sexual relationship, without experiencing sexual attraction). Some of the other many ways to experience being asexual include feeling sex-favorable, sex-averse, sex-repulsed, or sex-indifferent, or identifying as libidoist asexual, meaning you satisfy your sexual feelings with masturbation. You can also experience being “aromantic,” or not having romantic feelings for others.

Bisexual

Those who identify as bisexual experience sexual, romantic, or emotional attractions to people of more than one gender. Being biromantic, though, would mean that someone feels romantically, but not sexually, attracted to people of more than one gender. 

Demisexual

Demisexuality has its place on the asexual spectrum: if you identify as demisexual, you only feel sexual attraction under certain circumstances, usually after forming an emotional connection with someone.

Fluid

You might have been hearing this word a lot lately in relation to sexuality, and there’s a reason for that. It’s important to recognize that that sexuality, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior can change over time and vary based on circumstances. In addition, many of us will experience shifts in our sexuality, sexual attraction, or sexual behavior in different situations or throughout the course of our lifetimes. We can experience our sexuality in a fluid way, and also our gender. 

Gay2 men in suits holding hands

To some, this term to describe someone who is attracted to someone of the same gender can feel outdated, but others still feel like it describes their experience of sexuality. We put this pretty universally well known term here to point out that it’s always best to use whatever word someone feels best describes their experience, whether that’s “gay,” “queer,” “lesbian,” etc. What most people agree on, though, is “homosexual” is an outdated term.

Graysexual

When it comes to sexuality, and asexuality, there are definitely gray areas. Graysexual can help to describe the experience of those who do have some sexual desire, but perhaps not as much as others who would not consider themselves on the asexual spectrum. 

Gynesexual

Like androsexual refers to being attracted to those who identify as male, gynesexual refers to attraction to those who identify as female. 

Heterosexual

Most people know this term, but we wanted to point out that experiencing heterosexuality or being “straight” applies to both cisgendered and transgender-identified people. It only means that you are attracted to the “opposite” gender to you. 

LGBTQIA+

Not sure what the extra letters/symbols mean here? We got you: “Q” can be “queer” or “questioning,” “I” stands for “intersex,” “A” is for “asexual,” and the plus refers to the fact that there are many sexual orientations and gender identities that are part of the broader LGBTQIA community, but that aren’t included as part of the acronym.

Omnisexual

The next few terms are all somewhat similar, with just slight differences in experience. Omnisexual refers to people whose sexuality isn’t limited to those of a particular gender, sex, or sexual orientation.

Pansexualpansexual flag colors of pink, yellow and light blue

Similar to omnisexual, pansexual describes people who can experience sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction to any person, regardless of that person’s gender, sex, or sexuality.

Polysexual

Polysexual is a bit more of an umbrella term; it describes people with a sexual orientation that involves sexual or romantic attraction to people with varying genders, and can include orientations like bisexuality, pansexuality, omnisexuality, and queer, among many others. 

Queer

Remember when “queer” was a derogatory word? It has been reclaimed now, though (with the caveat that all terms should be used sensitively and respectfully, and should align with how the person views their own sexuality), and is used as an umbrella term to describe people who aren’t exclusively heterosexual. Having this word in our vocabulary can be a useful acknowledgement that sexuality is a spectrum, and not simply a collection of independent and mutually exclusive categories. It can also be a useful term for giving options to people beyond the categories of lesbian, gay, and bisexual if they feel they don’t fit neatly into them, or prefer a category that isn’t dependent on sex and gender.

Questioning

Are you still exploring how you experience sexuality and gender? Or are you curious about exploring your experiences of these categories? The “Q” in LGBTQIA+ might apply to you, since it can stand for either “queer” or “questioning.”

Sapiosexual

A word used to describe those who experience attraction based on intelligence, rather than sex or gender.

Skoliosexual

Identifying as skoliosexual means you are attracted to people with non-cisgender gender identities, like people who identify as nonbinary (experiencing both or neither genders), genderqueer (falling outside of or in between, or fluctuating among the binary gender categories of man and woman), or trans.

We get that all of these terms can be a little bit overwhelming, and you might not always be sure about them, but no one expects anybody else to be the carrier of all knowledge on sexuality. It is important, though, to build our vocabularies when it comes to sexuality, attraction, behavior, and orientation, so we can all better understand each other’s experiences, as well as our own. Knowing how to talk to each other about these things will lead to more validation, and can mean feeling part of an acknowledged community – and it can mean more satisfaction with our sex lives. Nothing wrong with that!