Pronouns 101: there are more than 3 sets of pronouns
Welcome to the first post in a cis person’s guide to pronouns, my mini-series explaining why trans people are always talking about pronouns. Spoiler alert: it’s because it’s 2020 and cis people are still using the argument that they/them is plural, not singular, to misgender trans and non-binary folx. In case you didn’t know, the singular ‘they’ has been around since 1375, but there are lots of other pronouns that you need to get comfortable with using.
Disclaimer: this is not extensive list of all the pronouns that non-binary and trans people use.
We use pronouns all the time: ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘yours’ and ‘they’ are all pronouns that we use without even thinking about them. Often cis people say “I don’t have any pronouns”, fundamentally misunderstanding that pronouns are not special things that only trans and non-binary people have, but normal parts of language. The reason cis people rarely think about pronouns is because they are generally “read” as their gender, so the pronouns that we assume they use usually are their pronouns.
We are used to using they/them pronouns for people whose gender we don’t know because we can’t see them – i.e. “someone left their umbrella in the coffee shop”. What is harder is remembering that we cannot assume everyone’s gender or their pronouns from looking at them. With cis people and binary trans people, they will often be “read” as their gender, but with non-binary folx there is no way to “pass” as genderfluid and assuming their pronouns can mean you misgender them. (And if you do get someone’s pronouns wrong, next week’s post will talk about how to apologise!)
Lots of non-binary people use they/them pronouns, and non-binary identities and they/them pronouns are being increasingly normalised – helped in part by celebrities like Janelle Monáe and Sam Smith. Of course, not everyone whose gender falls under the non-binary umbrella uses they/them pronouns. For example, Jonathan Van Ness is gender non-conforming and uses he/him pronouns, and Ruby Rose is gender fluid and uses she/her pronouns. It’s totally valid to be non-binary and still use he/him or she/her pronouns.
However, it’s also important that we get comfortable with the idea that there are more than just three sets of pronouns. While they/them/theirs are one set of gender neutral pronouns, they are not the only ones. My pronouns are ze/hir, which are so uncommon that I include how to pronounce them whenever I come out to someone as trans. Ze rhymes with bee, hir is pronounced hear I type again and again, knowing that I’m going to be misgendered because people just aren’t used to using them.
Gender neutral pronoun sets – like ze/hir or xe/xem – are created explicitly by and for the non-binary and genderqueer communities. I often get asked if my pronouns are German, but they’re not. Ze/hir are derived from earlier used sie/hir, which were used by non-binary folx until they were considered to feminine because “sie” is is German for “she” and “hir” was a feminine pronoun in Middle English.
It will take some time to get used to these pronouns, and they probably won’t feel natural at first. I’ve put some of the most common pronouns that trans and non-binary folx use in a table here, so you can see how you’d use ‘nem’ or ‘eirs’ in a sentence:
No one will expect you to never make mistakes or misgender them, but it is important to put the effort in to get comfortable using different pronouns! If you’re worried about getting someone’s pronouns wrong, try talking about them using their pronouns until it feels normal. Saying “xe left xyr book” over and over again will help you not mess up when you’re talking to or about xem. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, but it is important.
Did you just learn something new about pronouns? Please consider buying me a coffee to help me keep creating content on how to be a better trans ally in a world that constantly misgenders me. If you don’t have any money right now to throw my way right now, why not share this post and make sure you’re following me on Twitter?
Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a queer, trans, disabled sex writer. He’s a sex nerd with vaginismus who creates educational content about trans inclusivity. Quinn can usually be found wearing stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots and figuring out what it means to be a feminist who’s also a trans guy. For more explicit writing about his adventures in learning to fuck without fucking up, check out onqueerstreet.com.