Gender Pronouns and Why They Matter

From a young age, we are taught that sex and gender mean the same thing and one co-relates with the other. This correlation is far from the truth, as sex refers to the biological differences between people and gender identity refers to how people present themselves in society. Growing up in a world that has traditionally been binary has exposed people to third person pronouns of ‘he’ or ‘she’ for the longest time. The topic of gender-neutral pronouns is just now gaining momentum in society. Some other gender pronouns are they/them, ze/zers etc. 

A study found that trans folks experience depression twice as much as cis-gendered people do due to the lack of a gender-affirming environment. Not acknowledging someone’s preferred pronouns is disrespecting them and creating an uninclusive environment. Cis-gendered people that use she/her or he/him pronouns often don’t acknowledge the privilege that they have and it is not a conversation that is had enough. The American Psychological Association recently endorsed the use of “they/them” and made it mandatory for scholars, writers, and scientists to use gender-neutral pronouns. This is done so readers don’t make assumptions about the gender of the person being described which makes it more inclusive.

I had the pleasure of interviewing David Corwin who is the Associate Director for Academic Affairs and an instructor in the Women and Gender Studies Department. David holds a B.A. in English and Humanities from Milligan College and an MAIS in Women and Gender Studies and an MA in English literature. They are currently a doctoral student. David Corwin has taught a number of LGBTQ courses including WMST 208: Introduction to LGBTQ Studies and WMST 318: Race, Gender, Sexuality, and the Environment. I have taken a number of classes with them and have always appreciated how they asked students to introduce themselves with names and pronouns at the beginning of the semester. I found that introductions with pronouns were not consistent across my undergraduate classes and my other professors often made assumptions about students’ genders. 

In the interview below, Corwin  talks about the importance of gender pronouns:

Nikita Fernandes (N.F): Could you please introduce yourself and your pronouns? 

David Corwin (D.C): I am David Powers Corwin and I use they/them/theirs pronouns. 

N.F: What is a gender pronoun? 

D.C: A gender pronoun is a word that is used in place of a person's name. In the English language, these have often been gendered and can cause some misunderstandings of people's identities. I also want to note that some people just prefer that their name is used rather than a pronoun. 

N.F: What are some gender-neutral pronouns? 

D.C:  Some gender-inclusive pronouns are they/them and ze/zers. 

N.F: As a Women and Gender Studies professor, what is the importance of having students share their pronouns (if they are comfortable) at the beginning of the semester?

D.C: It is important because we all make gendered assumptions about folks based on their presentations and the first day of class is no exception. When students feel comfortable using their pronouns in class, I feel they are more comfortable discussing their authentic selves throughout the semester. My research focuses on students who come to classes with traumatic pasts and being misgendered can be a traumatic experience for students. Also, asking students to say their pronouns on the first day of class (if they are comfortable) also holds the rest of the class accountable for using people's correct pronouns. 

N.F: What are some of the resources available at Mason to educate people about pronouns? Are these resources effective?

D.C:  Our Safe Zone program through LGBTQ+ Resources is a REALLY FANTASTIC resource for students to learn more about pronouns. I would suggest that everyone take the entire training, but the gender identity module really hones in on the importance of pronouns. I would also suggest students taking WMST 100, 200, or 208. 

N.F: What can George Mason do as a university to help individuals feel more secure and respected about how they identify? 

D.C:  I think Mason does a good job of making LGBTQ identified students feel at home here, but I think we all could continue to normalize the use of pronouns in our meetings, classes, and events. 

N.F: Can using people's preferred pronouns improve their sense of belonging? Why do you think so?

D.C:  I totally agree that using a person's correct pronouns increases a person's sense of belonging. If people feel they can be their authentic selves, then they are more likely to feel that they belong and have a voice. 

N.F: As someone who uses "they/them" pronouns, how did you make people aware of your pronouns? 

D.C: This is a very interesting question...I just changed my email signature and told a couple of close friends. HA! This "coming out" works differently for a lot of people and this is just what worked for me. 

N.F: How do I ask someone what their pronouns are? 

D.C: I think just asking "what pronouns do you use, mine are _______" is a good strategy. ]

Related: Why It's Important to Use Correct Pronouns



Using gender-neutral pronouns before assuming someone’s identity can make a huge difference in creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ people. Teaching undergraduate students about LGBTQ identities and asking them to introduce themselves with pronouns may even help change the campus climate for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, who often are exposed to mistreatment. Thus, we need to do better as a society and this can start in classrooms or institutions of learning by making people aware of how harmful misgendering someone can be.