Pronouns are small little words to cause such a fuss, am I right?
In my ideal world, my pronouns would require no footnotes, no extra explanation, or citations. But as we don’t live in a gender utopia, at least a little explanation is required, if for nothing more than to move the conversation along productively.
I spent a long time debating with myself about whether to be ‘out’ with my pronouns as a professional. I was worried that it would be too disruptive, too exhausting, put too much attention on something that felt irrelevant to my work, and make people uneasy around me, even if only for the fear of messing up or offending me. I was afraid I’d end up disappointed and frustrated. I was thinking about my trans and gender-variant friends who are ‘out’ and dealing with all kinds of demoralizing reactions. And really it just felt like something private and personal that shouldn’t have to be the subject of public discussion.
But you can’t change something without at least trying to interact with it. I’d been doing a ‘half in, half out’ approach for a few years already where I would carefully not misgender myself when writing my own bios and whatnot (often through linguistic gymnastics and impressively bad run-on sentences to avoid pronouns altogether, which frequently were then edited by well-meaning folk to do exactly what I’d been trying to avoid), but wouldn’t ask the same of other people. It was silly and sent mixed messages and didn’t get me what I wanted. So a couple of years ago I decided to go for it, awkwardness be damned.
What I learned is that talking about my pronouns is disruptive. It has to be. I try for it to be a useful kind of disruption, stirring up the earth a little to make it ready to receive something new. It can also be exhausting, having the same conversation on repeat and sitting with people in their uncertainty and discomfort while being unsure what to do with my uncertainty and discomfort. I try to balance the load by assuming the best about people’s capacity to deal with a little uncertainty instead of trying to manage it all for them. I’m learning how to shine just enough light on my pronouns to turn them into an opportunity for discovery without pointing a big blinding spotlight at them all the time. I’ve accepted that I may make some people uneasy, even to the point of being uncomfortable to work with me, but that I’ll also be welcoming people in by being open about who I am and, hopefully, inviting them to do the same.
So that’s why I talk about my pronouns. The rest of this is my attempt to answer the questions that have come up the most when I do that, those things you might want to know but aren’t sure if you can ask or don’t know how to ask. These are all based on real exchanges and experiences I’ve had.
As a caveat, I’m very deliberately writing this as a resource on my pronouns, not as a universal guide. While there may be overlaps between my answers to these questions and how others would answer them, there will be lots of variation as well. So I hope you find this instructive and insightful, but please remember to keep being kind, curious, and open to different experiences and different preferences around if and how to talk about things like this with other gender-variant people.
I’m also assuming that anyone reading this already embraces the idea that gender-variant people exist as part of the beautiful natural diversity of the world, so I don’t answer any questions about that. If you’re not sure about where you stand on that, I’ll also share some additional reading resources at the end.
How do I use your pronouns?
Fantastic question! I use “they” as my third-person singular pronouns, so that means “they” and “them” and “their” in place of words like “he” and “him” and “his” or “she” and “her” and “hers”. (First- and second-person pronouns—the I’s, you’s, and we’s—are unchanged.) These are the pronouns you would use when speaking about me but not to me. For example, “I’d like you to meet my friend Carolyn. They’ve just flown in from Vancouver and, boy, are their arms tired!”
You can also treat the verbs the same as if you were referring to a plural “they”. So that would look like, “Carolyn is here and they have pie!”, as opposed to, “Roger is here and he has brownies!” (Notice that the first verb in the sentence is the same because it points to my name, not to the pronoun.)
Does that seem complicated? Don’t worry—if you are fluent English speaker, then you already know how to do this and you do it all the time without thinking about it. Singular they is what we use in situations when the gender of the subject is unknown to us: “Oh no, someone left their water bottle behind. I hope they come back for it.” The only difference in my situation is that we generally assume that if we know who we are speaking about, then by default we know their gender (oh look, it happened again). But, trust me, if I don’t know my gender, you definitely don’t, so singular they applies.
What if I don’t want to be grammatically incorrect?
Let’s be clear, I spent all of high school walking around with a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White in my backpack. Grammar is my thing. I’m gaga for good, clear communication, of which grammar is an essential component. I’m also a big nerd who will have delighted conversations with you about the merits and demerits of the Oxford comma. Grammar pedantry, on the other hand, is a buzzkill and works against effective, inclusive communication in a world of evolving and emerging ideas that we need to be able to talk about together.
I can sum up my answers to this question in a few brief points:
The use of singular they in English is not grammatically incorrect. See above. (This applies at least as far back as Shakespeare.)
Language evolves. It has too! Human knowledge and human experience do not stand still so human communication cannot either.
People are more important than prescriptivist language rules.
If I sound a little terse here, it’s because in my experience this particular argument doesn’t always reflect a genuine concern about grammar so much as someone’s need for a palatable justification to avoid dealing with the deeper-seated discomforts they didn’t want to acknowledge. That’s why points 2 and (especially) 3 are there, since if it were only about grammar, point 1 should have been enough.
(That being said, I do understand that grammar usage is bound up in a lot of classism, ableism, racism, and other baggage and bullshit, and I get how this could be a real source of anxiety for some. Fortunately, we’ve got Shakespeare in our corner! It’s all good.)
When is it okay to use your pronouns? What if I out you?
Hey, right away, thank you for being aware of the fact that outing someone as trans or gender non-conforming can be dangerous, that people can lose their jobs, homes, health, friends, families, and lives around this. Cherish that instinct to be concerned and keep looking out.
For me though, you can always use my pronouns. I’ve considered and weighed the risks, and I’ve accepted them. I’m in a much better position than a lot of people to be publicly ‘out’ and I’ve made a choice to try using that position to make the world a little more open, understanding, and aware. That means being visible and I appreciate you helping me with that.
In fact, if you’re introducing me to someone for the first time (which is when this question is most likely to come up), I really, really, really appreciate you helping me start things off well. It’s easier and less awkward to start with setting the right expectations than it is to try to shift them after the fact.
However, if you genuinely feel that there’s a direct risk to my safety or the safety and well-being of others (including yourself!) by even implicitly raising the topic of gender variance, I trust your judgement. Go with your gut. People are also more important than pronouns.
What do I do if I use your pronouns and people ask me questions about you I don’t know the answer to? What do I tell them?
For starters you can direct them here. (That’s partly why I wrote this.) Another useful, multipurpose answer is, “I don’t know!” It’s okay not to know. I don’t always know either. None of us are experts here.
If the questions seem to go beyond simple curiosity and into interrogation, one thing I’ve learned about introducing people to my pronouns is that ‘less is more’ applies. I’m tucking this big essay here in a corner of my website as a resource, but I don’t open with the info dump. I stick “they/them” in the signature of my emails, I scribble it onto my name tag at conferences, I put it out there where people will see it, and I let them work out for themselves what to make of it. It’s less overwhelming and more normalizing that way. If I do call attention to it, I use a tone that is cheerful and matter-of-fact—“Hi, I’m Carolyn, I use they/them pronouns”—and avoid the lengthy, anxious explanations that start to sound more like I’m apologizing for being so weird and suggest that my identity and experiences are up for debate. Curiosity is grand, but the point I’m making here is that questions don’t always need answers and unanswered questions don’t need apologies and that’s okay.
How does this translate into [another culture/language]?
Such a good question. I don’t know! Gender and language are both deeply contextual and culturally-mediated, and different languages handle gender differently. The way my gender does (and does not) show up in my own linguistic context doesn’t necessarily translate to another one. If I had to describe my gender to you from within my own cultural frame of reference, the closest I can get is “the sound of dial-up internet in the 90s” or “incomprehensible error message”. In an English-speaking context, “they/them” was the best-fitting pronoun for that for me, but I’m open to suggestions for other contexts.
Gender itself is not the same across cultures and this variation is not neutral. The Euro-Western paradigm of gender that I’m steeped in and reacting to is also notoriously racist and colonialist, including in how Whiteness impacts whose non-binary identities are accepted and privileged and how they are understood and represented. I try always to be mindful of that when I’m navigating gender across different contexts and not rely uncritically on my own internalized framework (which I certainly have even if consciously I find it a silly and alienating way to conceptualize gender). When I am a guest in another space (literally or metaphysically), as a general practice I default to the cultural norms and expectations of that space, and keep myself open to dialogue and deeper understandings as I go.
What if I make a mistake?
Don’t panic. Mistakes happen. I make them too, with my own pronouns as well as with other people’s. You’re swimming against the current of your own habits and ingrained social expectations, so it happens.
The best thing to do is to acknowledge the mistake, correct it, and move on. If you catch yourself in the moment, correct it in the moment—“Whoops, scratch that, they are here to help us with our logic model.” If you realize it after the fact, acknowledge it to yourself, make a note of it, and keep trying. Sometimes people feel the need to draw me aside for a personal apology and check-in, and I can appreciate that and where that comes from, but the coolest thing for me is to know people are making an effort. Having someone handle the inevitable slip-up in a relaxed way, especially if it’s around other people, is awesome for me, because it models that learning to use unfamiliar pronouns is do-able, socially acceptable, and doesn’t have to be scary or dramatic.
If you find yourself getting stuck on it though, the best advice I can offer is to keep going, be kind to yourself, avoid attaching negative self-judgements to the process (the last thing I want people associating me and my pronouns with is feeling crappy about themselves), and think of it as an opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. We adapt our terms of reference for other people all the time—we understand that people don’t stay the same age as when we first met them, that we may learn to use new names with them over time (like when someone grows out of a childhood nickname, or changes their name through marriage or divorce). While habit plays a role in sustaining old patterns, another factor is whether we genuinely embrace and feel comfortable in the new pattern. If that seems like it could be a hold-up, try digging into that a little deeper. Exploring ideas of gender identity and gender expression can be valuable for everyone. Who isn’t refreshed by a good old-fashioned paradigm shift? It can also be helpful to connect with other people who are working through the same thing (my mother and sister help keep each other on track, for example). Doing things together is always easier than going it alone. Even if I’m the first person you meet who asks you to use different pronouns than you expected, I’m unlikely to be the last, so it’s all good practice.
If you do slip up around me, chances are that I won’t correct you. Not because it doesn’t matter to me, but because it’s just a lot to invest the time and energy in across all the people I interact with on a daily basis. I can’t micromanage it, so I put it out there and trust that together we’ll make it work in time. If I ever do check in with you about it, be assured it comes from a place of trusting you and wanting to work with you around it.
(Also going to re-iterate here that this is all advice specific to me which should not be assumed to be universally applicable.)
Same! It’ll be okay.
Can I talk to you about gender stuff?
Yes, but promise me you’ll get to know me first and that we’ll talk about more than gender stuff and that you’ll talk about gender stuff with lots of other people too. I’m a multifaceted and fascinating individual. I have many thoughts and opinions on things beyond gender, like the Oxford comma, leopard slugs, Irish soda bread recipes, and the Alien film franchise. (And program evaluation!)