The importance of correct pronouns

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You start by acknowledging why it is important to get pronouns right; then you think about getting them right; and lastly you consider some of the tricky situations or negotiations that may have to happen around pronouns, writes Dr Nyx McLean.

Cape Town – Imagine for a moment that your closest friend has told you that they are transgender – they’re either a transman, a transwoman or a non-binary person. This means that if they were a woman ‘before’, they’re now transitioning to ‘become’ a man; or if a man ‘before’, now a woman; or if either, now somewhere in between or completely outside of gender.

[It’s difficult to write of ‘before’ because often transgender people have felt uncomfortable for a long time in the gender they have been presenting to the world, and sometimes the telling someone that they are another gender or no gender, is one of the last steps in becoming a ‘new’ gender.]

How do you go about being a supportive and respectful friend and support them? One way is to respect their identity, the one they have opened up and shared with you. If they tell you that their name is now something else, please use that name when referring to them. Their old name, if they no longer want to use it, is now dead to them – it is often called a ‘deadname’.

The next step is getting their pronouns right.

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If they’re transitioning from man to woman, then you use she, her, hers. If they’re transitioning from woman to man, then you use he, him, his. If they’re non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid or agender, then you may need to ask for a little more guidance. Some who are outside of the binary use they, them, theirs. Others use a variety of pronouns available, it depends on what they’re comfortable with.

It’s a little odd trying to think about gender pronouns when you’ve been taught not to consider them at all, to rather roll them off your tongue based on who or what you think is a man or a woman in this world. A world intent on gendering almost everything. People, animals, clothing, cars, any object really.

For some, being asked to use the pronouns that match someone’s gender – the gender they feel and express in the world – feels uncomfortable when we’ve been taught all of our lives that boys look and behave a certain way, and girls look and behave another.

How do you then make sense of those bodies that are moving from one gender to another? Bodies that don’t quite yet match the cut-out we’ve been told to look for to successfully identify men and women? Let alone those who are not moving towards any end of the gender spectrum, because they’re constantly in movement, such as genderfluid or they are outside of the binary, such as non-binary and agender.

How do we get those pronouns right?

It’s quite simple, even if it is uncomfortable. You start by acknowledging why it is important to get pronouns right; then you think about getting them right; and lastly you consider some of the tricky situations or negotiations that may have to happen around pronouns.

Why is it important to get pronouns right?

It affirms the identity of the person you’re engaging with. Someone who may have recently told you that they’re a transgender person, be it a transman, transwoman or a genderqueer/non-binary person. This has been a difficult step for them, they’ve had to find it in themselves to acknowledge their identity and how they feel, then they’ve had to find the courage to tell those closest to them, and all the while moving through a world that isn’t always supportive of transgender people.

In getting their pronouns right, especially after the difficulty in getting to the point where they’ve trusted you with who they are and how they would like to be referred to, you bring much needed relief to their emotional and psychological wellbeing. It is stressful, frustrating and sometimes agonising being a transgender person. When your friends, your partner, parents, colleagues acknowledge your gender identity, and make the effort to use the correct pronouns for you, correct themselves when they get it wrong, and do the work to correct other people, it affirms your identity. It gives you the courage to keep moving forward and living your life as your most authentic self.

For instance, I’ve been using gender-neutral pronouns for more than six years. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t been misgendered, or had the wrong pronoun used when being referred to. There have been days when I’ve wondered what the point of it all is, asking that my identity be respected, feeling as if I’m rocking the boat or asking too much of people.
But then a friend, my partner, a colleague, a student or a stranger will refer to me with the correct pronoun, or will ask me what my pronouns are, and in that moment I feel damn good about myself in this world.  I feel acknowledged, respected, and seen. Something that all people, not only transgender people, long for, an acknowledgement of their existence, a respecting of their humanity.

How to get this right?


Ask the person in front of you what their pronoun is. It sounds simple enough, but it can feel odd or uncomfortable when you’ve spent most of your life not thinking about pronouns. In some of my social spaces, we’ve made it quite common to introduce ourselves to new people by asking for their name and their pronoun, and then introducing ourselves with our names and pronouns.
It makes the person feel comfortable to ask to be referred to as themselves.

Maybe think about if you were a transgender person, and how you’d like to be treated and referred to by the correct pronoun. Consider the sweet relief they may feel when hearing you ask, “what is your pronoun?” Here they may feel that there is a space for them, that someone cares enough to ask them what would make them feel comfortable. Even if the person isn’t transgender, it may be nice to be given the option for once to decide how they are referred to. If you’re unsure, ask.

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Dr Nyx McLean is a caffeine-fueled queer academic who researches LGBTIAQ identities and social movements. Picture: Alexa Sedge.
Somethings to consider

It may not always be easy to use the correct pronouns for someone, this may be because you’re unsure or because some spaces need you to be a little more careful. For instance, some people may not yet be using the pronouns that match their gender identity with everyone around them, this may be because of concerns around safety, comfort or being ready to tell people that they are transgender. Let the person lead you, ask them if a new space is comfortable, and if you can use their pronouns in that space.
Consider adopting gender neutral pronouns when talking to all people, especially if you don’t know their gender identity, it’ll help make it feel less weird when it is used in referring to one person. Except in the case of when someone has worked very hard to express the gender they are, and using a gendered pronoun would affirm their identity.

In concluding, the importance of using the correct pronoun comes down to a simple thing: using the correct pronoun for a person lets them know they are safe with you, that you respect them, and that they are seen.

It may be uncomfortable for you at first, but if you ask respectfully, listen carefully, and allow yourself to be guided by someone else’s needs, you’ll find that getting pronouns right isn’t that difficult.

* Dr Nyx McLean is a caffeine-fueled queer academic who researches LGBTIAQ identities and social movements.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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