There’s quite a lot out there on pronouns and who likes to use what to describe themselves and others. It’s a tricky topic. Here is a pretty quick explanation for those of you who are not aware of the discussion around gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns. For persons who identify as male, regardless of their genitals – they most likely will use the pronouns – he, him and his. For persons who identify as female, regardless of their genitals – they most likely will use the pronouns – she, her and hers. So far, pretty easy right?
For persons who are genderqueer or do not want to be associated with a social gender, they will most likely use a different set of pronouns. For example, “xe, xem, xer” is gaining some popularity (I’m assuming the pronunciation is “ze, zem and zer”, Keegs, help me out). Click here to read more pronoun combinations.
However, the set of pronouns Kegan and many other transpeople are using and are gaining the most traction are “they, them and their.” A lot of people (myself included) have a difficult time understanding how to use these pronouns in a singular way. But, it is important to be respectful and use the pronouns that the person you are speaking to wants to hear. Your personal opinion is secondary. I know that might sound harsh, but if you are female and someone consistently referred to you as “he” when you prefer “she,” don’t you think you’d get testy?
Besides, the American Dialect Society voted the singular “they” as the word of the year in 2015. Using “they” puts you on the right side of history.
So, how do you know what pronouns people want to hear? Ask them (but be discreet – you don’t know what their comfort level is or how out they are). Seriously, I know that you might feel you are being rude by asking someone what pronouns they prefer – but the truth is, people want you to ask them. It is the polite thing to do. It can be hard to switch from he, him, his, she, her, hers, especially if you are talking to someone you knew before they came out – but make the effort.
Here’s a personal example that is helping me get used to the change (and yes, I still slip sometimes – this ain’t easy); Kegan has a girlfriend, Rae (who, btw, I adore as if she was my own kid). You may have noticed that I just referred to Rae as “girlfriend” and as “she” – that’s because Rae identifies with those gender-specific terms. Kegan and Rae go to college together and are from the same hometown. Often people will ask when Kegan is coming home. I would answer “they are coming home this Wednesday.” In my head, I would then wonder if the asker would be confused about who I was talking about – Kegan or Kegan and Rae. So I came up with a solution that works for me; when I refer to Kegan, I use “they.” When I refer to Kegan and Rae, I use “they both.” As in, they both are coming home this Wednesday. Now, whether other people understand that subtlety, I do not know, but I know – and that works for me.
A good friend pointed out that switching pronouns has been tough for her but as she gave it thought she realized that it shouldn’t be because she is from the South. She uses y’all all the time. Y’all is quite regularly used as a singular in the South with the plural of “all y’all.” With that realization, my friend has been making the cutover to “they, them, their” much more easily (and she’s a schoolteacher!).
So to wrap up:
- they, them and their are here to stay – unless someone comes up with something that works better.
- don’t be afraid to discreetly ask what pronouns people like to use (btw, ask the question like this – What are your pronouns?)
- don’t panic if you slip occasionally, just correct yourself and move on
- be on the right side of history
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. Kegan reads this too, so if you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask – just be respectful. We are here for you.