What is a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (like I or you) or someone or something that is being talked about (like she, it, them, and this). Gender pronouns (like he, her, and they) specifically refer to people that you are talking about.
What are some commonly used pronouns?
She, her, hers and he, him, his are the most commonly used pronouns. Some people call these “female/ feminine” and “male/masculine” pronouns, but many avoid these labels because, for example, 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:
At the 2017 APALA Convention, members voted on a resolution to be more gender inclusive in our language and in our programming. Use the gender neutral “sibling” unless someone has otherwise shared their gender pronoun. In referencing groups of people use “brothers, sisters, and siblings”.
Why is it important to respect people’s pronouns?
You can’t always know what someone’s gender pronoun is by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronoun 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 (or, 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.
How do I ask someone what their pronoun is?
Try asking: “What are your pronouns?” or “Which pronouns do you like to hear?” or “Can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?” It can feel awkward at first, but it is not half as awkward as getting it wrong or making a hurtful assumption. If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what a pronoun is, you can try something like this: “Tell us your name, where you come from, and your pronouns. That means the pronoun you like to be referred to with. For example, I’m Xena, I’m from Amazon Island, and I like to be referred to with she, her, and hers pronouns. So you could say, ‘she went to her car’ if you were talking about me.”
What if I make a mistake?
It’s okay! Everyone slips up from time to time. The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to say something right away, like “Sorry, I meant she.” If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on. A lot of the time 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, don’t! It is inappropriate and makes the person who was mis-gendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you, which is absolutely not their job. It is your job to remember people’s pronouns.
Taking an active role
You may hear someone using the wrong pronoun for another person. In most cases, it is appropriate to gently correct them without further embarrassing the individual who has been mis-gendered. This means saying something like “Actually, Xena prefers the pronoun she,” and then moving on. If others are consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone, do not ignore it! It is important to let your trans and gender non-conforming people know that you are their ally. It may be appropriate to approach them 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 pronouns? I want to make sure that this group is a safe space for you.” Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the comfort level of the trans or gender non-conforming person. Your actions will be greatly appreciated.
Based on materials written by Mateo Medina for Hampshire College Orientation training, August 2011.