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How to use Gender Neutral Pronouns: a guide for allies & gender diverse folk

“Hello, my name is Bea and my pronouns are they/them”

This is how I often introduce myself. Sometimes I am met with dead silence and perplexed looks.

Other times I am greeted with questions: “What does that mean? Bea? But what's your real name? So are you a boy or a girl?”

But most of the time people introduce themselves to me and life goes on.

There are many reasons why someone might choose to use gender neutral pronouns. Gender identity is a complex topic and a journey that is unique to each individual.

Whether you are a non-binary, gender fluid, gender questioning, gender queer, transgender, third gender, two-spirit or bi-gender, using gender neutral pronouns can raise some challenges.

Gender neutral pronouns are not limited to they/them, however these are the pronouns that I have come across most often when meeting other gender diverse folk.

The reason I choose to use these pronouns is because they are already in everyone's vocabulary. I thought it might be an easier transition for most people and while for some it was, for others it was not.

I often received such feedback as: “But it's grammatically incorrect” “you're a singular individual, why am I using a plural pronoun?” “You'll just have to get used to the idea that I won't be able to learn this”.

If you use gender neutral pronouns you might have already come across such feedback, and if you are thinking of using gender neutral pronouns please don't be scared off!

If you have a person in your life that uses gender neutral pronouns and you want to get better at using them, I have some helpful tips!

Be respectful, patient and kind

The person who has started using gender neutral pronouns has put themselves out there and shared something important to them. Opening up can make you feel vulnerable, give the person time and space to open up to you.

However, just like cis-gender individuals are not asked to explain why they choose to use gendered pronouns, people whom use gender neutral pronouns are not required to explain their choices.

Some people feel comfortable articulating the reasons why they use GNP while others do not. You can ask the person to send you online resources or go ahead and do a little research yourself to be able to understand neutral pronouns (GNP) a little better.

Be aware though that there are a lot of different reasons why a person might choose to use GNP and other people's journey's might not be representative.

As the person using GNP you must also be patient. People will make mistakes and you cannot control that, but you can control how you react to those mistakes.

Especially in the first year of using GNP people will need time to adjust and you can do certain things to make that adjustment easier.

You can let people know that if they do get your pronouns wrong you will correct them, that it is not an attack on them but a good way to help them learn the new pronouns. In turn you should try to be kind when you do this, be friendly and encouraging.

When they do get your pronouns right let them know that you have noticed. If you are able to support each other through this time it will make it that much easier, however for most people it is an emotional time and we do slip up and correct someone angrily or with a note of irritation in our voices.

That is okay, as long as you are making an effort to correct this. Respect is a requirement from everyone and aggression from any party should be addressed.

Practical tips

You would not use the incorrect pronouns of a female or male identified person when you are speaking about them to someone else, so use this opportunity to practice using GNP.

It is easy to slip back into old habits specially if someone is not there to correct you, but if you make an effort to correct yourself in conversation with others it will make the learning process easier!

This is also true of name changes. Change the name on your devices to the new name and make sure you use the new name across all areas of your life (if appropriate) to make the transition easier.

This also works when you are thinking, while all our brains are unique and work in wonderful ways, most of us will think in partial sentences. Make sure that you are using the correct name and GNP when you are thinking about that person, correct yourself if you got it wrong because if you can think it correctly you are more likely to say it correctly.

Imaginative tip

If you are a visual person and have a good imagination you might enjoy this tip.

Imagine that the person using GNP has a little mouse (or other creature) companion with them at all times. You are no longer referring to an individual but to multiple individuals.

Grammar tip

For those people who struggle to bend the rules of grammar, you can use this helpful example.

When we are referring to a professional that we have not met we often use they/them pronouns. “The doctor came in this morning and did their rounds, they gave us good news”.

There are other historical examples in English speaking culture were assuming someone's gender would have been impolite, therefore they/them pronouns were used until individuals voiced their preference.

Remember that language is forever changing and evolving, grammar is a set of arbitrary rules that we have made up, they can be change and modified to suit us.

Mindfulness tip

As a counsellor, I try to welcome questions and aim to displace stigma through education and friendly conversation, however not everyone is able or willing to engage in such conversations.

Therefore, if you ask questions to a gender diverse person and they are not forthcoming with information or they seem uncomfortable, please consider that they might not want to answer your questions.

We are all humans and we all have subjects that we are uncomfortable discussing, so please be mindful and respectful of your fellow human beings.

Solidarity tip

If you use GNP and have allies that are happy to help, there are a couple of things you can all do when meeting new people.

Being the only person to voice their pronoun preference can be awkward, have other people join even if their pronouns seem obvious.

Give permission to family and friends to share your pronoun preference with extended family and acquaintances if you feel comfortable.

Consent tip

It is NOT okay to out someone against their will or without their permission!

Consent is extremely important, if you are in doubt (even a little bit) ask the person using GNP.

If you are a person using GNP make sure you inform your allies who knows about your GNP and who does not.

Coming out, in whatever capacity that might look like for you, can be a slow process but be prepared for people to make mistakes.

Learning new pronouns is hard, swapping between pronouns is even harder. Talk to your allies and discuss what can be done if you are mistakenly (or purposefully) outed to someone you were not ready to tell.

Dealing with rejection or resistance

Unfortunately you are highly likely to encounter some individuals whom are unwilling to use your correct pronouns.

They might not say it out right, it might come in the form of consistent arguments or questioning; they might argue that they are unable to learn your new pronouns or just refuse to use them.

It is up to each of us to decide how we want to handle each of these situations, your actions will be informed by the nature of the relationship you have with this person.

When you come across such situations remember you are not alone, you can reach out to friends, family, other people using GNP, mental health professionals and emergency services.

Your pronoun choices are valid, important and should be respected. If your choices are not being respected you may need to remove yourself from the situation, keeping yourself safe should be your priority.

No one should have to endure abuse of any kind. So if you do meet a person whom reacts verbally and/or physically violently, aggressively and/or negatively towards you, reach out for help.

It is not your responsibility to educate everyone or anyone.

Were I'm at today

People still get my pronouns wrong. I have

decided to pick my battles, I correct people when I find it appropriate and try my hardest to do it with a smile. I have not always been successful at this, and that is okay because each time I get better at it, as I have chosen to learn from my experiences. Everyone's gender journey is different, these are just a few tips and tricks I have collected throughout my journey.

If you have made it to the bottom of this article and you are reading to educate yourself, I would like to thank you for your time and openness. If you are using or thinking of using gender neutral pronouns I would like to take the time to say that no matter what you decide to do, your choices are valid. You are the author of your journey and you can share as much or as little of that story as you want, with whomever you want.

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