Pronoun Primer: Non-Binary Identities and You (a Cisgender Person)

Hi, my name is Tony and I am trans. I am also genderqueer, meaning that, while I am undergoing hormone reassignment therapy, I also use the gender-neutral pronouns they/them. I am non-binary and trans, meaning that my gender does not match the one I was assigned when I was born. This is the opposite of cisgender, meaning your gender does match the one you were assigned at birth.

I exist at all points on the gender spectrum. And I am here to offer you, dear cisgender reader, a quick primer on some common pronouns and ways that you can be a good ally to your queer loved ones because, whether or not they have come out to you, there is a very good chance that you have some queer loved ones.

The actual hard statistics we have reflecting the population of queer people in North America are patchy at best (Statistics Canada in 2016 held that same-sex couples make up around 1 percent of couples, and there are no readily available numbers for genderqueer and trans people). At least part of that is due to a lack of access to educational resources or to a fear of potential consequences for coming out.

Which is as good a segue as any to talk about why respecting someone’s pronouns is so important.


Harry Potter and the Non-Binary Pronouns

Stop for a moment and think about a subject that you consider yourself to be an expert on, something that you are passionate about and that you know from the ground up. It can be anything: coffee, ’90s cartoons, Harry Potter—in fact, let’s go with Harry Potter for our purposes here. Let’s take something that is just factually true about the story: that Harry was sorted into Gryffindor in the first book. This is not a plot point that is open to interpretation or opinion. This is a fact.

Now let’s say that the vast majority of people you meet and interact with are 100 percent certain that Harry was actually sorted into one of the other houses; that Harry was sorted into Hufflepuff. That would probably feel pretty strange, right? But not only that—almost every single interaction you have with a person results in this being brought up in some way. And approximately half of those interactions result in that person verbally harassing you, and 10 percent result in you being physically attacked. Yes, there is a 1 in 10 chance that someone will try to physically hurt you because you say that Harry Potter was sorted into Gryffindor.

And now imagine that the house that Harry Potter was sorted into was an essential part to who you are as a person.

I understand if that all feels pretty hard to wrap your head around. But based on a fairly comprehensive report by the National Center for Transgender Equality published in December 2016 and updated in 2017, compiling responses from a sample size of 27,715 individuals, those are the rates at which trans people experience violence and harassment in the US.

I specifically chose that Harry Potter comparison because the Hogwarts house that Harry is sorted into is ultimately not integral to the plot. My pronouns, in the grand scheme of things, do not matter very much. There are much bigger things going on in the world, so it makes sense that you (a cisgender person) might not immediately grasp why this actually does matter. And it matters precisely because it is such a small thing.

Every interaction I have in which the wrong pronoun is used is a slap in my face, a reminder that this person views me in a radically different way than I view myself. It is an interaction where I have to weigh whether I want to keep quiet or say something and risk a 50 percent chance of verbal harassment and a 10 percent chance of being physically attacked. I need to decide if I want to die on that metaphorical hill every time I speak to a new person on any given day.

So how can you (a cisgender person) help someone like me (a trans person) deal with this?


How to be an ally

Well, first off, slipping up and using the wrong pronoun does not make you a bad ally. It is highly unlikely that any queer person would get even remotely upset with you because of an honest mistake that you acknowledge and apologize for. Trying is the really important basic component of good allyship.

But what about great allyship?

Well, you (a cisgender person) are in a uniquely privileged position. There is a better chance that another cisgender person will be willing to listen to you than there is that they will listen to me. You can proactively use that privilege to intervene in situations where you notice your trans loved one being misgendered (as long as you have discussed it with said loved one in advance to ensure that you are not accidentally outing them). Even if your intervention does not result in the misgendering person changing, it shows your loved one that you are willing to stand up for them and support them, and that they are not alone.


But what about the different kinds of gender-neutral pronouns?

I’m glad you asked, convenient framing device.

This table contains several gender-diverse pronoun options, as well as their different forms. While they/them is the most commonly used gender-neutral pronoun, the others are still valid and could be employed by people if they feel it is the right fit. The best thing you can do is, again, to ask the individual what pronouns they use and try your best to use them.

You might also be surprised to see so many different variations. The simple fact of the matter is the English language is one of many languages that do not have a gender-neutral or third gender pronoun readily available. And that simply means that people have had to create their own, which they can do because English is a living, fluid language that changes and incorporates new words all the time.


Words of affirmation for trans readers

If you are trans and/or genderqueer, then I hope you also found this article helpful, and that it is a useful basic primer to share with the people in your life. And if you are struggling with your identity, I want to remind you that your feelings are valid. Even if you choose to use the public bathroom that matches the gender you were assigned at birth because you are scared of using the other one, your identity is valid. Our visibility is increasing. You are not alone, and you have people who love you.


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