The One Thing You Need to Know About Using Preferred Gender Pronouns

Welcome to One Small Thing—my biweekly newsletter that provides you each time with one small thing you can start doing today to make a difference in the life of a person who identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming.

Thank you for being here.

Today I’m going to reveal the one thing you need to know about using someone’s preferred gender pronouns (affectionately referred to as PGPs).

In general, we use pronouns to refer to ourselves and others. Like, all the time.

Other than “I” and “you,” I think it’s fair to assume that the most frequently used pronouns in the English language are she, her, hers; and he, him, and his—those associated with being female or male.

These are considered gendered pronouns.

There are also gender-neutral pronouns, which aren’t associated with a particular gender.

A PGP is simply how someone wants to be referred to.

There has been a growing dialogue about pronouns, which is awesome. Numerous colleges and universities have added a space for PGPs on their admissions and student health forms. Some progressive places of employment know to ask about potential employees about their PGPs.

This means that there is a growing recognition that people should be able to choose how they’d like to be referred to. How can we go wrong with expanding our hearts and minds to make room for people to be who they are?

For some people, recognizing that someone might choose to identify outside of the binary—either male or female—is hard to fathom: we are used to what we know, what is comfortable, and what makes sense to us. We process the world based on our own experiences and worldviews.

If we’ve referred to the people in our lives—even strangers!—as solely male and female our entire lives, making room for additional pronouns can be tough.

I read a metaphor recently about the way our brains form habits and how difficult it can be to change those habits that really resonated with me. It was written by Christine Hassler in her book Expectation Hangover, and it goes like this:

Visualize a house in the middle of a really overgrown field. See yourself in a truck that is a football field’s distance from the house. Your job is to drive the truck to the house. On your first trip it’s a bumpy ride, as you have to get through all of the weeds, bushes, and rocks. You are holding on to the steering wheel tightly and are highly focused on your destination. Now imagine you take the same route day after day. Over time the wheels create a path in the field, and eventually, the truck will naturally gravitate toward the path you’ve carved by driving the same route over and over. It would not require much steering or effort at all.

But say you wanted to create a different path to the house. The first time you steered the truck off the grooves of the path you already made, it would once again be a bumpy ride. You’d have to steer with focus to get the truck off the easier, well-worn path. But if you took the new route day after day, a new path would form that would eventually feel as natural as the first path you carved.

So, it’s understandable that it might take time to learn to use pronouns that aren’t associated with being male or female. And the good news is that we can create a different path.

Here are some examples of pronouns that people use outside of the binary (this list is by no means exhaustive):

PronounsSo, after all of that, the one thing you need to know about pronouns is this: how people want to be referred to is their choice. It’s their identity. It’s their person. Let them make the choice.

They can choose. You can respect.

There are a host of arguments against pronouns outside of the binary, but here’s the thing: we’re talking about a person and how they feel dignified in the world. How they feel seen. Lit up. We’re not talking about grammar rules. We’re not talking about what’s convenient or easy for you.

We’re talking about the right we all have—all of us—to feel worthwhile in this world.

It is that big of a deal.

Again, you don’t need to be perfect right now. If you mess up someone’s pronoun, acknowledge it by correcting yourself and move along.

For a while, my brother would sweetly apologize every time he used the wrong pronoun for me, and eventually I was like: “Dude. It’s okay; I don’t need you to apologize every time it happens. Just correct yourself and move on.”

The correction let me know that he knew he had used the wrong pronoun but had every intention of using my PGPs. And that was what mattered to me most: his intention and caring enough to make a correction in the moment.

If you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, just ask. I can assure you that asking directly is so much better than assuming and using the wrong pronouns for someone.

When an institution or person asks me about my pronouns, I automatically feel like there is space for all of me to be there and that the other person has taken the initiative to make that space. And in a world where gender non-normative folks are constantly carving out space for themselves, it means a lot to have someone else do it every once in a while.

You had me at...
So, let’s practice. What are your PGPs? Let me know in the comments below. It can feel awkward at first—I know—but take a deep breath and be part of the conversation.

I’ll start: my name is grey, and I use gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, theirs). Now you.

If you learned a lot (or even a little!) or know someone who has questions about PGPs, please share this post!

Hankering to know more? Check out one or all of these amazing resources on pronouns put together by amazing activist-educators:

I look forward to seeing you again soon.

With gratitude,
grey doolin

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