In English, we often use pronouns to refer to someone in the third person. These pronouns have an implied gender – such as “he” to refer to a man or “she” to refer to a woman – and these associations aren’t always accurate or helpful. We often make assumptions about the gender of person based on our perceptions of their gender expression (like their appearance, name, behavior, clothing, voice, etc.), and these assumptions aren’t always correct.
Using a person’s chosen gender pronouns is a way to respect them and create an open, inclusive environment. It can be offensive or triggering to someone to be mis-gendered (i.e. being referred to by the wrong pronoun). We use the language of “chosen gender pronoun” to emphasize that the pronouns are personal and refer to a unique, individual person.
When a person shares their pronouns, they are explicitly naming what pronouns they want to be referred to by in the singular third person. This can sound something like:
“Hi, my name is Alex Smith and I use they/them pronouns.”
Usually, “they/them” pronouns are acceptable to use when you don’t yet know if a person goes by another set of pronouns. It’s also important to remember that just because a person goes by a certain set of pronouns, it doesn’t not always align with their gender identity.
Gender identity refers to a person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither — how an individual perceives themselves and what they call themselves. This can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. When someone’s gender identity is aligned with their sex assigned at birth, they are considered “cisgender” (i.e. assigned male at birth, identifies as male). Regardless if someone is transgender or cisgender, their chosen pronouns are personal to them, and we should do our best to respect them.
In the English language, there are two categories of pronouns: gendered and gender neutral. Gendered pronouns include he/him/his and she/her/hers, while gender neutral includes they/them/theirs. Additionally, someone may choose to use ze/hir pronouns (which emerged from the genderqueer community) or use no pronouns at all. Some people wish to just be referred to by their name only. A person may also choose to use more than one set of pronouns (e.g. he/him/his and they/them). This can also be used in titles like Mr. / Ms. / Mrs. / Mx. (pronounced like “mix”).
If you’re unsure where to start, consider the following three points: ask someone what pronouns they use, normalize the use of pronouns in daily activities, and practice using the right pronouns. Easy ways to start this work include adding pronouns into your introductions in meetings and including them in your email signature. And if you make a mistake, that’s okay. Fix the mistake and carry on. These small steps can help create a more gracious and safe space for someone.
Together, we can make Neighborhood House a more inclusive place.
By Jomar Figueroa, Professional Development & Program Systems Manager