Guide to Understanding They/Them Pronouns & Nonbinary Identity18.04.2022
Pronouns are a type of speech that most people learn in elementary school. Pronouns can be used to refer to third-person people. These words have meaning and impact and are an important marker of identity for transgender people, who don’t fit into one of the gender binary categories (male or female). Instead, they/them/their or a combination of binary pronouns (he/him/his) or neopronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/eirs better expresses their gender identity.
“There is this notion that gender is a spectrum, that is, men are on one side and women on the other, and nonbinary persons are somewhere in between,” Leigh Thomas (they/them), communications director at the National Center for Transgender Equality/NCTE Action Fund explains. This is not true for everyone’s views of gender. At the end, the spectrum is defined by what is on either side — men and women.
They continue, “Some people believe gender is more like an galaxy or a solar system.” “Here, people inhabit different parts of space in their world. Gender is more multi-dimensional or four-dimensional than two-dimensional. This is part of the freedom to be non-binary. We don’t have to identify ourselves with the two genders that are default.”
Perhaps a friend, family member or classmate recently revealed that they are nonbinary and genderfluid. Or they shared with you that they use they/them or multiple sets pronouns. Perhaps you’ve heard about someone who has been open about their nonbinary identity such as Sam Smith, Amandla Strenberg, or Demi Lovato. As you want to learn more about their experiences and identity, it’s normal for questions to be raised.
Rae Sweet (they/them), Education Coordinator at It Gets Better Project and Elliot (they/them), two of It Gets Better’s Youth Voices, spoke to us to help unpack common questions about pronouns they/them and nonbinary identity.
It is important to remember that every person’s journey will be different. The experiences of Leigh Rae, Elliot and Alejandro are not representative of the whole LGBTQ+ community. Different cultures have different gender systems, so the experiences shared here are not comparable.
What is the purpose of using they/them pronouns in English?
People who don’t identify with the gender binary might use they/them pronouns. This is a cultural or social structure that divides gender into male and female. People who are not binary may identify as either male or female, but they might also identify with other aspects of the binaries. They might also identify as bigender, genderqueer, or agender. Leigh says that if an individual’s identity is not in the binary of gender, they/them/theirs pronouns may be used as an alternative to he/him/hers or she/her/its pronouns.
Elliot said, “Personallly, as a nonbinary individual, I use they/them pronouns since I’m outside of binary genders.” “I don’t feel like a girl or a boy. I am just me. I don’t want anyone to look at me and say, “Oh, that girl is a girl” or “Oh, that boy is a boy.” I want them to get a better understanding of me as a person.”
“I didn’t see myself in the mirror my whole life. Rae said that she didn’t understand what it meant. Later, I discovered that I could change my pronouns and name every day in a place that encouraged it. After trying out the they/them pronouns for a whole day, I finally looked in the mirror. It was the first time that I recognized myself.”
Nonbinary people may choose to use neopronouns. This is a category that includes pronouns beyond they/them/theirs or he/him/his or she/her/hers. These neopronouns are ze/hir/hirs and ey/em/eirs. Per/per/pers is another.
How can I ask for someone’s pronouns
One of the best ways to meet people is to say hello and introduce yourself. Rae stresses the importance of introducing oneself with your pronouns, particularly if you are a cis person. It creates an open and inclusive conversation, and invites the other person, if they are comfortable, to share their pronouns.
Isabella and Elliot advise that you ask all members of the group to provide their pronouns if you are meeting more than one person. Isabella advises, “Open the table for all and don’t single anyone out.”
How to find the best pronouns for you
Elliot says that it is important to respectfully check in on people as well. Someone’s pronouns may have changed since your last conversation or connection with them.
You should also be aware that not all people will be able to share their pronouns. Elliot says that there might be situations in which they aren’t comfortable sharing their pronouns or they’re close to someone they don’t want to share them with. These are just a few of the possibilities. Elliot says that you should never make someone feel isolated or forced to use their pronouns.
What is the point of asking for my pronouns in public?
Leigh explains that there are many ways people can present themselves to the outside world. To ask for someone’s pronouns means to show respect for them and their identity. It is not appropriate to assume someone’s identity just because of their appearance or clothing.
They continue, “There is no one way for a woman or a man to look.”
Elliot says that people ask for the pronouns of others so they can respect their identity and use the correct terms for them. They are being polite and respectful. Pronouns are a common feature in almost everyone’s vocabulary.
Why are some people using two different pronouns for their names?
There are many reasons someone may choose to use multiple pronoun sets. Isabella who uses both pronouns explains that she feels like Isabella. “Sometimes I feel like a boy, and sometimes like a girl.”
He continues, “It will change throughout the day. So using my multiple pronoun sets gives me freedom.” I don’t need to spend my energy trying to figure out one set of pronouns. Instead, I can use that energy to express myself and look in the mirror, affirming myself with positive affirmations like, “I use his/her Pronouns and am valid.”
Elliot uses only they/them pronouns. However, they spoke to friends who identify with more than one set of pronouns. These people stated that they feel a connection with both sets pronouns and feel more comfortable using each set.
Alejandro says that if someone uses multiple pronouns, and you are unsure which one to use, Alejandro suggests paying attention to how they present their pronouns. “My pronouns belong to him/her because I prefer people to use mine before his.”
Elliot says that some people might ask you to change their pronouns from time to time. It’s okay to talk to them if you are unsure. They say, “It might be beneficial to ask because it differs from person to person.”
Are nonbinary people allowed to use the they/them pronouns?
Yes. “Pronouns do not always equal gender,” Elliot says. Isabella says that nonbinary people don’t necessarily fit into one group. She explains that they can identify as agenders, bigenders, genderqueer or genderfluids, among other things. (Elliot also mentions this graphic, which helps to explain some of these nonbinary identities.
Leigh agrees with this assertion. They state that nonbinary identity can be both an identity by itself and a umbrella term for many types of identities. Nonbinary people may identify as either a man or woman in part, which could be why they choose to use a binary pronoun.
What should I do if I don’t know the right pronouns to use for someone?
You can make a mistake by misgendering someone. Elliot says, “If you make a big deal of it, over-apologize or victimize yourself it’s not very helpful and it really makes everyone feel terrible.”
Practice, practice, and practice changing someone’s pronouns in your head. Rae says, “Make it easy for your dog to use the they/them pronouns. Or your cat. The more you practice correcting yourself in your head and in your language, the easier it will be in real life.”
Alejandro Isabella is one example of someone who uses multiple pronouns. It’s a joy when they recognize the pronouns and can use them interchangeably in conversation. She explains that a person may use both sets of pronouns because they have a purpose. I do feel euphoria when people tell me that Alejandro is great. “It is because she is a Youth Voice. I experience euphoria when people say, ‘Alejandro is great.’
Is it wrong to use “preferred pronoun”?
Pronouns do not have a preference; they are a requirement. Leigh, Rae and Elliot all echo this sentiment. “Preferred pronoun” implies that they can choose or that their pronouns can be used in any way. Simply put, it is impossible to choose — the pronouns of someone are facts.
Alejandro stated, “You are who and what you are.” “We don’t have to conform to the opinions of cisgenders. We are just who we are.”