In recent years, pronouns have become more talked-about than ever before. Why? The National Institutes of Health reports that “more and more individuals are finding the language and support to identify as something other than their assigned sex at birth, and are then entering the workforce empowered to identify as transgender or gender-non-conforming.” The website cites a recent study to back up this claim: “millennials are more than twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ (at a rate of 20 percent) than previous generations. [And] 56 percent of Generation Z respondents, the most diverse generation in the US, know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns—a significant increase from previous generations.” So, it should not be a surprise that gender pronouns are becoming more common, and rightfully so. Gender identity is important and should be respected. What exactly are pronouns, and why are they so important? Let's explain.
First of all, let’s define pronouns (or gender pronouns). Mary Emily O'Hara, who is a communications officer at GLAAD, stated in a recent NPR article that pronouns are "basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation. And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity." Examples of pronouns include she/her, he/him, or, the gender-neutral option, they/them. Think of your own pronouns — how do you identify? It’s important that people use the right pronouns when referring to you, right?
In the NPR article, O’Hara stresses that “using the correct pronouns for trans and nonbinary youth is a way to let them know that you see them, you affirm them, you accept them and to let them know that they're loved during a time when they're really being targeted by so many discriminatory anti-trans state laws and policies." In other words, pronouns are crucial if you want to respect the LGBTQ+ community and show that you understand them.
The National Institutes of Health stresses the importance of using the right pronouns when addressing someone. They report that when the wrong pronouns are used, it can be “hurtful, angering, and even distracting. Some might find it equivalent to being told they do not matter or deserve respect. Invalidating someone’s identity puts a strain on how a person moves about in society and how that individual interacts with others.”
It's likely that a large part of the trans and nonbinary community had to work hard to have their pronouns accepted by those around them, and by using the wrong pronouns you’re disrespecting their efforts. Plus, your use of the wrong pronouns could follow the person for days or weeks (or even months) to come. Imagine if you introduced a new colleague to your 200-person office and used the wrong pronouns while doing so. Coworkers would also assume the wrong pronouns for this person—and would have no idea they’re wrong.
And now imagine the pressure that a trans or non-binary person would feel when trying to correct the wrong pronoun usage. It's awkward enough correcting someone when they get your name wrong. Imagine doing so with something as sacred as gender pronouns.
If you wrongly assume someone’s pronouns, apologize. The Trevor Project, which is an organization whose mission is to “end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning young people,” stresses that one of the best ways to be a transgender and nonbinary ally is to admit when you make a mistake. The Trevor Project recommends that you swiftly and directly apologize — don’t make excuses or feel bad for yourself. “If you misgender someone by accident, apologize swiftly without making an excessive show out of the mistake or your guilt, which can create even more discomfort for the person who has been misgendered. Show that you care by doing better moving forward.” On the other hand, the Trevor Project stresses that you call out someone who is purposefully using incorrect pronouns.
Gender pronouns are crucial. They're one of the biggest ways we, as a society, identify ourselves. And, for many people, it took time for their gender pronouns to be accepted by friends, family, or coworkers. By using the wrong gender pronouns when referring to someone, we risk making them feel unwanted or unimportant, but by using the correct pronouns empowers them to live their best lives and recognize them for who they truly are.