The ways that people come to understand the world, and convey that understanding to others, is often reflected through the language they use. Some gendered language relates to the gender of a person performing a task – spokeswoman vs spokesperson, for instance. Some language carries gendered histories – think of terms like “craft” versus “skill”, or of how gendered characteristics (“caring” for feminine professions or “strong” for masculine) continue to shape how certain professions are perceived. This is just a taste of how gendered language perpetuates binary forms of gender.
They: A Gender Neutral Pronoun
In English, this is especially apparent in the use of pronouns – while “she” and “he” are common pronouns, using the possibly less familiar, though long-ago established “they” is often met with resistance. Some of this resistance stems from a lack of familiarity – it is difficult to learn a new concept.
Here are some sentences that include each of these types of pronouns –
She/her/hers: She keeps her things in her locker. Hers is the furthest to the left. You can ask her for the number.
He/him/his: He keeps his things in his locker. His is the furthest to the left. You can ask him for the number.
They/them/their: They keep their things in their locker. Theirs is the furthest to the left. You can ask them for the number.
The LGBT Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee makes a point that it is important to respect people’s pronouns because
[y]ou can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.
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).
It is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. If you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else’s gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but also oppressive.
Using correct pronouns communicates to gender non-conforming people who use gender neutral pronouns that you have some understanding of their identity. It can be a way to provide support to, advocate for, and affirm the identities of gender non-conforming people. For people who consistently use gender neutral pronouns, your use of gender neutral pronouns communicates to others what pronouns to use for that person, and helps to relieve the burden of explanation that many gender non-conforming and nonbinary people face on a day-to-day basis.
More information on other gender neutral pronouns is available on the UWM LGBT Resource Center gender pronouns page.
Activity (approximately 15 minutes):
Find an article online that speaks primarily about a person by using she/her/hers or he/him/his pronouns. On your own sheet of paper, transcribe the article but replace all pronouns with they/them/their. Be sure to format the sentences to make grammatical sense. Read your transcription aloud.
This activity will help you gain familiarity with using they/them/their pronouns in writing and when speaking.
Follow this link for the next section – Microaggressions.