The Pronoun Problem: How to Say it Right

K.Sosin's picture

Re-posted from my blog:

I was in the car with my brother a while back when I thought to ask him something a little funny.  "Is it hard for you to use the right pronoun with my friends?" I asked.

My brother is a white, corporate guy living in Wrigleyville.  "No," he said.  "At first, I had to learn what people wanted to be called.  But once you know what someone wants to hear, it's easy to think of them that way."

Ten points for you, dear brother.  

For some, the problem is not using the right pronoun, it's figuring out how to find out what that is.  I get a lot of folks (straight and otherwise) who ask me what the respectful way to navigate this is.

Here are my thoughts:
1.    Always ask, never assume-  It's better to ask than mess up.  Some people get confused or offended when asked for a pronoun, so this can be tricky.  Some people don't have a pronoun preference at all.  Some people use pronouns that sound like a different gender than their names.  Just ask.  I like to ask, "do you have a pronoun preference?"  This allows for people who are certain about their pronouns to say so, and it usually won't put someone on the spot who hasn't figured out their pronoun preference yet.

2.    Don't gender others in conversations- A lot of people talk about my friends by saying "this guy" or "lady" without thinking twice.  In the LGBTQ community, this is sometimes a problem.  Even people who use pronouns that correspond with how you see their gender may not like to be gendered with words such as "girl" or "honey."  So be mindful in the way you talk to people.

3.    Correct yourself and move on-
Yes, it's a little awkward when you mis-pronoun someone.  It's more awkward when you fall all over yourself to apologize.  Think about a moment when someone messed up in the way they talk about you.  Maybe they assumed your parents are still together when they're not or that you are straight when you aren't or any number of things.  It's more painful when you over-correct.  Simply fix your mistake and move on.  

4.    Don't try too hard to affirm someone's gender- A lot of people make the mistake of trying to make trans people feel "more legit."  This of course is a problem for people who don't identify strictly as male or female.  Everyone is complicated, so we can't possibly understand what people want all the time.  Also, it feels kind of funny to have someone actively try to make you feel more like yourself.  If you are aware that you're trying to make someone feel a certain way, they're probably aware that you're trying too, and that can sometimes feel bad.  

5.    Remember that some people use different pronouns or names depending on the situation- Some people will give you a pronoun that they won't use with others.  It's important to know that not all people like the same pronoun all the time.  Maybe someone wants to hear "he" from friends, but hasn't come out to their parents.  Make sure you don't out someone.  

6.    Check-in now and then- Some people will tell you that they prefer one pronoun and later change their minds.  Spreading the word is a lot of work.  If you think someone might want to be addressed in a new way, simply ask: "does 'he' still feel like the pronoun you want me to use for you?'" Asking in this way puts minimal pressure on someone else.  It also acknowledges that they might want you to address them in one way, while other people might use different words.  

7.    Correct others who mis-pronoun people- It is really awkward to correct the way that someone addresses you if you're trans or genderqueer.  You can be a great ally by correcting people who mis-pronoun people you know.  We all make mistakes so don't be mean or righteous about it.  Just say "hey, ______ prefers to be called_______."  

8.    Don't act like someone's identity is work for you-
Maybe it's a lot to take in at first.  It's a lot more to live it.  It's okay if you get overwhelmed and confused about gender-variance.  We're all learning.  But it's not okay to use that as an excuse to disrespect someone's identity.  So be mindful not to take your confusion out on someone who is gender-variant.

Questions?  Post them here, and I'll do my best. 

Also, I make no claims on being "right" on any of this.  Lots of people have different ideas about the best way to approach the pronoun question, so look around and ask around. 

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arvan's picture


Thanks so much for posting this.  You did a first-rate job of conveying the humanity and compassion of negotiating how we listen to each other in the act of defining ourselves. 

This is wonderful stuff - really.


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