As transgender individuals become more prevalent in the media, and celebrities and other prominent figures in social media are coming out as transgender, issues surrounding trans rights are more widely discussed. One of the first topics that’s discussed is a persons pronouns and how to use pronouns correctly.
The importance of using the correct pronouns
When a person first comes out as transgender, one of the first things they’re likely to explore themselves (and/or request of you) is the use of a different pronoun.
I’m a transgender male and use the pronouns he/him/his or they/them/theirs. I’ve been out as transgender for five years and started my medical transition three years ago (when I started taking testosterone). Accurate pronoun use is always important, but it can be particularly important during the first few stages of transition because it helps a person feel validated in their gender as well as accepted.
When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (often all of the above).
One of the first questions cisgender people generally ask when the topic of pronouns is brought up is; how am I supposed to know which pronouns to use?
Know this is an okay question to consider, but before we jump into the answer and tips on how to use pronouns correctly let’s talk a bit about the history of gender and pronouns.
(If you don’t know what the term cisgender means, or dysphoria, or some of the other terms I may be using throughout this piece consider checking out this resource from It’s pronounced metrosexual on LGBTQ+ terms)
The Gender Binary
For most of us, when we were children we thought pronouns were simple. Those we viewed as boys used “he/him/his” pronouns and those we viewed as girls used “she/her/hers”. But in recent years we’ve realized we need to update our view on gender identity.
Our old views of gender, and subsequently pronoun use, was based on the outdated idea of there being a gender binary and having every person fit at one end or the other (women or man). But gender is not this simple- there are many people who identify outside of this gender binary and identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary or something else.
There are many ways to exist outside of the gender binary as well as a vast number of ways to express gender. Often, but not always, these individuals chose to use gender-neutral pronouns. A commonly used gender-neutral pronoun is they/them/theirs, but others chose to use a different pronoun like “ze”.
So, back to that question; how am I supposed to know what pronoun to use?
The best thing you can do is ask!
Tips on How to Use Pronouns Correctly
The first thing to remember is to not make assumptions. Gender identity and gender expression are not the same things! So, do not assume someone’s pronouns by the way they look. Also, consider for a minute what non-binary looks like. (The correct answer is you can’t. If you did picture a particular type of individual take a second to question those ideas and where they came from. Non-binary doesn’t mean androgynous).
The best way to find out what pronouns someone uses is to ask them. It may feel uncomfortable, so here are some suggestions on other ways to determine what pronouns someone uses: (note: in the meantime default to using someone’s name if you don’t know what pronouns they use).
- Pay attention in conversation and note the pronouns someone else uses for this person. Ideally, it would be someone who knows them well enough to know their pronouns, not a person who is making an assumption.
- When you introduce yourself to a new person introduce yourself with your pronouns and it will prompt the other person to do so as well. For example; when I introduce myself to someone new I say “Hi, my name is Emory I use he/him pronouns” (yes you can, and should, do this even if you’re cisgender because it not only makes transgender people feel accepted and included but makes it more comfortable for them to share their pronouns).
Once you know someone’s pronouns it is important to use them- always.
If you’re struggling with using someone’s pronouns, take the time to practice; in the mirror, or with another friend. Practice using the correct pronoun paired with the person’s name. This can be particularly helpful with gender-neutral pronouns that feel unnatural at first. If you’re struggling with gender-neutral pronouns, MyPronouns.org is a great resource.
What if I make a mistake?
Mistakes happen, you are at some point likely to make a mistake when using someone’s pronouns, that is okay. As a trans person I even sometimes make mistakes.
The most important thing when you make a mistake is to not make a big deal about it. Simply apologize, correct yourself, and move on. For example:
“Max was riding her bike- sorry I mean his bike to work when I saw him”
When you make a big deal about a mistake and apologize profusely, it not only draws attention to the person if they’re present and makes them uncomfortable, but it puts them in a position where they feel the need to manage your feelings. This means they often feel obligated to tell you it’s ‘not a big deal’ or something similar to comfort you. That’s not their job.
In short, don’t make the mistake about you.
If you realize after the fact that you made a mistake, apologize in private and again move on.
I hope now that you know how to use pronouns correctly, doing so isn’t as scary or challenging as you originally thought. All it really takes is good intentions and breaking down your assumptions about gender. Remember that presentation doesn’t equal gender identity and that it’s a privilege to not have to think about pronouns or have to correct people on your pronouns.
Originally published by Emory Oakley. Emory is a writer and LGBTQ+ educator who regularly discusses the intersections of queer identities and mental health.