When we think of gender, most of us think of one of two options: men and women.
We view those labels as black and white, mutually exclusive opposites – you are a man, or you are a woman. But in fact, the issue of gender identity is much more complex than that.
Many people these days identify as non-binary or genderqueer, a fluid identity that does not fall entirely into the category of either man or woman. For these people, traditional gender pronouns such as “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her” can be hurtful. Read on to learn more about what non-binary means and how to use non-binary gender pronouns.
What Does Non-Binary Mean?
Non-binary people do not identify completely as either a man or a woman. Merriam-Webster defines genderqueer, an alternate term for non-binary, as “of or relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female.” Non-binary people have been around for millennia, but the language to describe their identity is still relatively new.
There are a variety of different ways within the non-binary identity that a person may present. For example, they may present as butch, a female person who dresses in stereotypically male style; bearded lady; queer femme; or any other number of identities and presentations that fall anywhere along the gender spectrum. These presentations may also change with time; this is all healthy and valid.
Why Gender Pronouns Matter?
Have you ever misgendered someone, either on the phone or in-person – called a man ma’am or a woman sir on accident? When this happens, we’re embarrassed and apologize to the other person for getting their identity wrong. If it happens to us, we may feel hurt or confused, wondering if we aren’t “man” or “woman” enough.
This is why gender pronouns matter so much, especially to non-binary people. When you use the wrong pronouns, it can hurt them, making them feel embarrassed and disrespected. But when you use their preferred pronouns, you tell them that you respect them as a person and accept them for who they are.
Normalizing Asking About Pronouns
Part of the difficulty non-binary and transgender people face is explaining to people around them what it means to identify with a gender that may be different than their sex. Imagine if you had to explain several dozen times a day what it means to be a man or a woman. One way we can help is to normalize asking about pronouns.
Even if you don’t identify as non-binary, be proactive about telling people what pronouns you prefer. You can put them in your email signature, add them to your social media profiles, and put them down on medical forms. This will help prompt other people to ask about pronouns, whether or not they think a person may be non-binary or transgender.
One of the most common non-binary pronouns is the singular they/them. If you grew up learning old-school grammar, you may have learned that this is incorrect, but that is a misconception. In fact, you may use singular they/them without realizing it – think about the last time you were telling a story about someone and said, “And then they said this!”
The singular “they” can take the place of “he” or “she” in sentences. For example, you might say, “They came into the store yesterday,” or “They want the lo mein.” “Them” can take the place of “him” and “her,” and “their” can take the place of “his” and “hers.”
Another popular non-binary pronoun is xe/xir, also spelled ze/zir. You may also see people using “hir” in place of “xir” and “zir.” These pronouns stick with the traditional modifications “he” and “she” use, but they replace the gendered “h” and “sh” with a gender neutral “x.”
“Ze” or “xe” may be used in place of “he” and “she;” the “xe” spelling is pronounced the same way as “ze.” “Zir,” “xir,” and “hir” can be used in place of “his” and “hers.” “Zem” and “xim” can be used in place of “her” and “him.”
A person may also prefer to avoid using pronouns at all and simply use their name. Which pronouns a person chooses to use depends on what feels right for them, and none of the pronoun options we’ve mentioned may fit for someone. But their name is as important a part of their identity as their pronouns, so they may prefer to stick to that.
If someone tells you they prefer no pronouns, use their name every time you refer to them. So for example, you might say, “Taylor went to the store yesterday and when Taylor got in line, there was one of Taylor’s old high school classmates there.” This may feel strange to use at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
Tackle More Tricky Topics
Gender is a tricky and personal issue that each one of us must define for ourselves. Asking and using someone’s preferred gender pronouns is a simple way to show that you respect them and establish a good relationship with them. And don’t be afraid to give out your preferred pronouns, too!
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Check out our blog on STD Myths and Taboos: 9 Common Myths About STDs That Are Just Wrong!