Am I Using the Right Pronouns?

In 2022, for us in Australia, there is now more open gender and sexual diversity that is being celebrated. From a mental health standpoint, this is an incredible feat as more people feel increasingly comfortable in expressing themselves and their sexual and gender identities.

For young people especially, this allows them the opportunity to learn ways of identifying themselves that feel most true to who they are. For many young people, when the conversation turns to gender, they begin first with their pronouns.

What are pronouns? Well, by definition, they are simply place-ins for nouns. More specifically, pronouns are used to refer to a noun already previously mentioned. Pronouns help us refer to the people talking (yourself or I), or someone or something that’s being talked about (she, it, them, and this).

In our focus today, we ask the question; Am I using the right gender pronouns? Gender pronouns specifically refer to people that are being talked about and hold an important place in the LGBTQIA+ conversation.

“Can I see people’s gender and know what pronoun to use?”

After all, aren’t people’s pronouns what they seem? The answer is; not quite, and definitely not for everyone. It is a social privilege to not be concerned about what pronoun someone will be using to refer to you. After all, if I look like a woman, surely I want to be referred to as she or her. This is not the case for many gender diverse people.

In English, there are gendered pronouns for men and women; he/him/his and she/her/hers. However, there are people that may appear to be male or female, but identify differently; and people who do not identify with either gender, and refer to themselves as non-binary.

The gender we judge a person to be based on their appearance might not be accurate, as can be the case for those identifying as transgender, non-binary, intersex, or queer. Our perception of others’ gender is impacted by what we have learnt to associate with the two genders; men and women. The reality for many LGBTQIA+ people is that this narrow scope of two genders does not include their various identities and expressions of those identities.

Why is it important to use the right pronoun?

Asking and correctly using a person’s pronouns is a basic way to show respect and inclusivity, and affirm their gender identity. Using incorrect pronouns to refer to people can have far reaching consequences for them; feeling disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, or alienated, in addition to exacerbating any dysphoria or discomfort they may be experiencing, thereby directly impacting their mental health. It also helps to look at the history of oppression surrounding people identifying as LGBTQIA+; political, social, and interpersonal.

How do I know if I’m using the right pronouns?

Well, how do you know if you’re doing it right? You simply ask. You may notice that many group activities that require an introduction begin with everyone sharing their name and their pronouns. Many gender diverse people opt for pronouns such as they/them, or adopte pronouns from other languages that have gender-neutral pronouns. If you are unsure, it is always better to ask.

If your pronouns align with the gender others around you perceive you as, it is helpful to begin conversations about identity as this normalises the act of sharing one’s pronouns, thereby making those with diverse identities feel safe and respected.

And you know what? You’re going to mess it up someday! We will all make mistakes, especially if it is your first time encountering someone with a different gender identity and pronoun than what you might assume.

The best thing to do if you have made a mistake, is to rectify it at the time it happens and use the correct pronoun; “Sorry, I meant ___”. If you catch yourself later on, apologising in private is okay. Most people with different pronouns recognise this and might even correct you themselves. It is important to remember that even if you are not a part of the problem, you can contribute to the solution. If you see someone’s pronouns being ignored or disrespected in favour of the comfort of others, support them through this by validating their pronouns and by extension, identity.

LGBTQIA+ individuals have a lot of social and political barriers, along with internal challenges with identity. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals seek mental health support to help cope with these challenges. The role of mental health support in relation to gender and sexual identity cannot be overstated, but we can make this easier by acknowledging, respecting, and affirming their way of identifying themselves in relation to the world.

Written by Ms Almaas, Psychologist