On Friday, Janelle Monáe came out as non-binary, retweeting a post which read: “There is absolutely nothing better than living outside the gender binary.”
Monáe’s tweet came after the recent announcement of Sam Smith, who recently said he felt “just as much a woman as I am man”. Both celebrities joined the increasing number of young people who identify neither as male or female.
Non-binary people tend to prefer using they/them pronouns (although not exclusively – some use she and he interchangeably). If gender neutral pronouns intimidate you, you’re not the only one. As someone who is new to using them (a number of my friends have recently started to identify as non-binary), I confess it can be intimidating when you want to respect someone’s wishes without making any blunders.
Putting someone’s dignity before my shyness about how to use a pronoun is, of course, the bare minimum. But I admit to having made mistakes - even avoiding using pronouns in the past, for fear of getting it wrong.
It really isn’t that hard, however, to get it right.
Who uses they/them pronouns, and why?
More and more people are using gender-neutral pronouns. In 2015, of 4,000 students at Harvard who had submitted preferred pronouns, around 1% chose pronouns other than “he” or “she”. Last year, Merriam-Webster made the singular gender-neutral use of “they” its word of the year, based on the fact that it had seen a 313% increase in searches for its definition that year.
Reasons for choosing gender neutral pronouns are complex and personal. Some people do it because they don’t feel they fit into a gender. For others, it’s a form of protest: they contest rigid gender expectations and would rather live without them. Being gender non-conforming, right down to their pronouns, is how they choose to identify.
So please, if you learn someone uses they/them pronouns, don’t respond: “We get it OK – she’s gay!” – as my friend’s parents recently did.
Why they / them?
It is normal in the English language to use they/them pronouns when we don’t know the gender of the person to which we’re referring, or if we want our sentence to be applicable to all genders.
But what about the plural?
While it is no longer grammatically incorrect to use they/them as singular anymore, people still get confused about it. A friend’s parent recently responded to their pronouns, saying: “But if I tell Shelly you’re coming round for dinner, she’ll think you’re bringing extra people!”
Try this: if you are using the pronoun in a scenario where there is no confusion over singular versus plural, just go ahead and use it (“You are going to meet my friend Poppy today, I hope you like them”).
If you are using it in an instance where it might be misconstrued as plural, you can change the first part of the sentence to make it clear (“I may bring a friend, their name is Poppy”).
If you still feel that is confusing, you can be explicit (“I asked Poppy – who uses they/them pronouns – they might come”). This also takes the onus off your non-binary friend for having to explain it themselves later.
What to avoid
Avoid assuming every person’s gender. Feel free to ask people when you meet them what pronouns they use. Feel free to put your own pronouns in your email signature, or to introduce people using your pronouns (this can take the focus off non-binary people having to do all the work).
What to embrace
Embrace doing your own research on pronouns, without expecting non-binary people to educate you. Encourage open dialogue, which means being open about your own shortcomings or fears, when relevant. Ensure this is a means to steer conversation forward (“Hey, did I get that right just then?”) not back (“Well actually this is pretty scary for me, so you shouldn’t correct me”).
What if I get pushback?
People may use your respect for another’s pronouns as a means to argue with you about the broader political context around gender and/or LGBTQ rights. But you don’t need to be needlessly drawn into an argument unless that’s where you want to go. Briefly explain why you are doing it, and if the challenge escalates, consider shutting down the conflict (“It’s my choice to respect their wishes”; or even the more direct “I don’t want to argue about this”).
What if I make a mistake?
When you make a mistake, apologize, be gracious, and move on. Generally people aren’t out to get you. Don’t get too hung up: my experience is that people know getting it wrong is part of the process and are forgiving if they feel you are trying your best.
Sometimes you can check that you said the right thing first, rather than getting caught up in your head (“Hey, when I said that, was it offensive?’). Above all, recognize mistakes happen and apologies are OK, but don’t mistake them for real work. Saying sorry a handful of times might be fine, but if you’re misgendering someone over and over again you might want to think about why, and do better.
You’ll be OK
Exposure is key. Keep using they/them, and soon it will feel normal. That’s the aim.