You may have noticed more and more people are offering their pronouns—when they introduce themselves in meetings, in an email signature, in class, during casual conversation, or on TikTok. The reason is simple: the concept of gender is ever-evolving, and so are gender identities.
There is scientific evidence to support that gender identity is biologically determined, meaning a person’s gender identity cannot be changed any more than eye color, physical height, or being left-handed. What is changing is societal acceptance of using the pronouns that correspond with a person’s gender identity.
Everyone’s situation is unique. Some people use nontraditional pronouns such as zie/zim, someone’s name and pronouns may change after you have already been introduced to the person, or some people use more than one set of pronouns for themselves.
My personal experience with pronouns has been a long and tumultuous journey. It was a freeing experience when I decided to transition and start using they/them pronouns when I was 39 years old. Embracing being non-binary and changing my pronouns fit like a puzzle piece in my life.
If you’re wondering about why pronouns are so important, read on to learn why and to pick up some easy ways to make a difference for those around you.
Don’t assume someone’s gender
The first thing to keep in mind is to not assume someone’s gender based on their physical appearance or name. While most of the population is cisgender—meaning their sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex—this is not true for everyone.
A person could be a man or a woman or both or neither—and use any number or combinations of pronouns. Which pronouns they use are not even necessarily indicative of their gender.
The best way to be sure you’re using the right pronouns: just ask.
Offering pronouns promotes diversity and inclusion
When you offer your pronouns, it helps normalize the fact that not everyone’s pronouns correspond with their gender. Normalizing pronouns is a powerful way of minimizing harm for transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people. By simply offering your pronouns, you can become a better ally and help normalize gender identity and sexual orientation.
Using someone’s correct pronouns is also a way to show you respect them and helps create an inclusive environment. It signals that the person matters to you.
One of my biggest frustrations is when I ask someone to use they/them, and they ignore me. When someone believes that a person’s voice or their gender expression dictates their pronouns, it is offensive to intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people. And ignoring a request to use a name or set of pronouns is disrespectful—and an act of violence.
Dana Garber, our Transgender Intake Coordinator, reflected on how it feels when someone misgenders her:
“When you misgender someone intentionally, you’re saying to the person, ‘I don’t believe you are the gender you say you are. I don’t respect your gender identity, and I don’t care if I am causing you emotional and mental anguish. Your feelings and your sense of self do not matter to me, nor do they deserve my respect.’”
Recognize your privilege
It’s also easy to forget that there is a lot of privilege in appearing in a way that seems to match your pronouns. If someone assumes your correct pronouns, you never have to correct others or explain your pronouns or why you use them. For cisgender people, sharing your pronouns is a great way to disrupt the normalization and privilege of assumption.
Pronoun usage is just one step in changing language and supporting those living outside of the binary. It’s also important to remember that other gendered terms must also be put into perspective when someone changes their pronouns.
I am no longer a daughter, a sister, stepmother, aunt, grandmother, and wife. I am a child, a sibling, a step-parent, untie, grand Len, and a spouse.
Small changes in language can make a big difference in people’s lives
Recently, award-winning sexuality educator and Black queer femme activist Ericka Hart provided training to Planned Parenthood of Illinois staff. Here are some of the key takeaways.
Pronouns don’t have a gender; pronouns are simply replacements for nouns. It’s also important to remember that pronouns are NOT preferred — this implies that pronoun usage is a preference or a choice, not a lived reality.
If you misgender someone, simply apologize. And be mindful to do better in the future. Messing up isn’t about you, however, misgendering someone can be an act of violence, whether or not it is intentional. Making it a habit to ask everyone you meet if they want to share their name and pronouns is a sign of allyship and safety. But be careful of asking for pronouns in a large group because this could force someone to “out” themselves when they don’t feel the space is safe.
Gender-neutral language exists in many languages. African American Vernacular English is a perfect example. However, “guys” is not gender-neutral. Sorry, Midwesterners. A better choice can be “Hi, friends” or “Hey, Superheroes!” Play around with words that include everyone.
Pronouns matter in health care
At Planned Parenthood of Illinois, we know there is still a lot of work to be done to create an equitable and inclusive society—especially in health care. As one of the leading providers of gender-affirming hormone therapy in Illinois, we continually strive to do our best to make our patients and staff feel welcome and accepted. It’s why we start every appointment—either in person or through telehealth—by asking our patients what pronouns they would like us to use. Our clinicians and staff also prominently display their names and pronouns on their nametags.
We know that pronouns alone aren’t going to change the world—but it’s a small first step that everyone can take. The small act of offering your pronouns and respecting others’ is a powerful way to spark inclusivity and normalize the gender spectrum. Join us in making it a habit when you share your name—you can use your pronouns at the doctor’s office, in meetings at work, within your social networks, or by adding it to your email signatures.
While it seems like a minor thing, using someone’s correct pronouns and offering your pronouns can be lifesaving. I know because it saved mine.