Pronouns ain't what they used to be: A TRANSGENERATION grammar primer

Nobody wants to be that person in a social situation. You know, the one who gets their pronouns all wrong? There you are in a room with people identifying as ze, they or hir and it doesn’t even occur to you to ask. You make a few assumptions about peoples’ genders, are met with blank stares or even worse, and pretty soon you’re in a corner all alone. Well, we’re here to help you not be that person.

If you’re not sure what went wrong, but are sure you don’t want to be that person in any room, then it may be time for you to update your gender and pronoun vocabulary. Avoiding a social faux pas and respecting a person’s ability to identify themselves, will ensure you get an invite to the next function.  Pronouns are a basic building block of language that indicate the gender of the person you’re referring to. Traditionally, pronouns come in he/him or she/her, and are determined based on what’s assigned at birth. For example, when somebody is born and the doctor says, “It’s a girl! She’s beautiful. What will you name her?” Cisgender folks are those who feel their bodies are aligned with their gender assigned at birth, which is the experience most supported by society.  So, for many cis folks, the story of their gender ends right there, as does their thinking about the appropriate label in which to address a person.

But the two-party system of pronouns is outdated, as there are a range of people whose gender stories are more complex. Finding self-descriptive language that feels right can be a tricky process, and one that only the individual can determine best. Some transgender folks identify as male or female, though it’s the opposite gender of the one assigned at birth. Genderqueers don’t subscribe to the idea of only two genders and may feel more comfortable somewhere in between. Bigenders identify as male and female and some First Nations folks embody both feminine and masculine spirits. Agenders identify as no gender at all. Luckily, there are more neutral personal pronoun options now, including they/their, ze/hir, ey/eir and the newborn, Swedish ‘hen’ . Recognition of diverse gender identities has a long history around the world, and neutral pronouns are language’s way of catching up.

So, where does this leave you? When you’re mingling at a party, heading up a meeting, or in school, just be mindful of the potential for multiple genders in the room. If you’re unsure of someone’s preferred pronouns, don’t be afraid to ASK. Once you learn them, use them every time, like you would for anyone else. Not being that person can be as simple as that.

Thank for asking!

Want to learn more? Check out:

  • Melissa Harris-Perry hosts an awesome show on MSNBC. Watch her recent episode on being transgender in America.
  • Queer women of color talk gender, during Episode 2 of the phenomenal web series The Peculiar Kind.
  • This interactive map lets you learn the names, history and culture of different gender identities around the world.
  • Transgender People of Color Coalition work together to address issues that impact trans men and women of color. Get involved!
  • Genderfork is an amazing online, volunteer run community for people across the gender spectrum to connect. Here you’ll find photos, words of encouragement and opportunities to make friends.
  • BLITZ is a comprehensive nationwide resource guide and online community for all people under the transgender umbrella and their allies.

(image via The Corner Window)