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A Guide to Using Gender-Neutral and Neo Pronouns

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The gender-neutral pronouns they/them/theirs and neopronouns like xe/xem/xir and ze/hir/hirs intimidate some people. The idea that gender is not binary — that not everyone falls into the category of “man” or “woman” and that even those categories are spectra, not boxes — is in no way new. However, as gender-neutral pronouns and neopronouns become more widely accepted, more cisgender people (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) encounter trans and genderqueer people (those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). For a lot of cis people, the idea of using pronouns new to them can be intimidating. Here are a few tips from a non-binary trans person on using gender-neutral and neo pronouns:

1. Expressions of gender outside of the binary do not invalidate your gender 

The rise of gender-neutral and neo pronouns in the mainstream does not do anything to invalidate the gender of people who fall into the cisgender category. I’ve heard a fair number of concerns about this. It might seem contradictory, but breaking down the constructs of gender allows us all to explore gender outside of the limitations that assign certain characteristics (such as being maternal or emotional) to women and certain characteristics (such as being tough and sexual) to men. This movement of breaking down the gender binary is a feminist movement and movement of overall equality as well as an LGBTQIA+ movement. Recognizing and respecting people’s pronouns, even if they don’t meet your expectations or are new pronouns to you is part of allowing gender to be whatever you — and all of us — want it to be. Gender is a personal experience, and gender-neutral and neo pronouns are part of making it so. 

2. Don’t assume someone’s going to get mad at you for misgendering them 

Misgendering is when you use the incorrect pronoun for someone; it’s a very common experience for people to make this mistake. The number one thing that makes a misgendering situation so much worse is the person who’s misgendered someone assuming that the person they’ve just misgendered is going to be angry at them. If you misgender somebody, it’s awkward, of course, but try to resist that temptation to start rambling about how hard it is for you to remember someone’s pronouns or how you’re not used to thinking about people’s pronouns or how they look like x gender, etc. These are all responses that come from a place of feeling defensive and uncomfortable because you’ve just messed up and misgendered someone. They also tend to come from a place of assumption that trans/genderqueer people are angry at you when you misgender them. People are often uncomfortable and even frustrated at being misgendered, but that rarely translates into anger. However, I’ve seen many simple situations of misgendering turn into a nasty interaction because the person who messed up gets really defensive immediately. Don’t act like you’re in trouble if you misgender someone; give a quick apology and correct your mistake, then move on — just like you would if you got someone’s name wrong! This ties into…

3. Don’t make a situation of misgendering someone else about you 

Just like assuming the person you’ve misgendered is going to be mad at you and getting really defensive, making the situation about you just makes everyone way more uncomfortable than they need to be over a mistake. Spouting off a million apologies is harmful just like coming up with excuses for why you misgendered someone. All of those apologies shift the responsibility of response from you to the person who’s been misgendered because now they feel responsible for comforting you and telling you it’s okay. That invalidates the frustration of being misgendered for the other person. Again, a simple apology and correction of your mistake is the best way to go — that way you acknowledge your mistake and the discomfort and frustration that might’ve caused the other person and move on. 

Gender is a social construct. That doesn’t mean it can’t be super important to you; it also doesn’t mean it can’t be the very bane of your existence (and for many people, it’s both of these things, just depending on the day)! But, no matter what gender means to you, it’s important to respect gender-neutral and neo pronouns (and everyone’s pronouns!) to help make sure that everyone can experience gender in the way they need and want to. So, do your part to remove a little bit more discrimination and add a little bit more love into the world! 

For more information about pronouns, check out this guide to using they/them, he/him, she/her, and some common neo pronouns!

Andy Little

Chapel Hill '24

Andy Little (they/them/theirs) is a sophomore at UNC and an English major with a concentration in editing and publishing. Andy is an aspiring writer and editor with a passion for creative fiction and poetry; their dream is to publish a book and a poetry manuscript someday. Andy brings their identity as a queer trans person of color into their writing and works to be a part of the movement bringing a diverse variety of voices to a diverse college audience!
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