Warning: This article may blow your mind if you are an English major.
A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns such as “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers” are what we use when referring to others, during Elementary school days. We learned to identify the other person as either male or female before assigning a pronoun. The pronouns that most of us were not taught to use, however, are, “they/them/their” when referring to one person. We learned that people and animals must fit into the male or female category. What about people that don’t fit into either of these categories? There are people that don’t identify as male or female. Some believe that gender is a spectrum that one can move back and forth on. New York believes that there are 31 genders and protects them all. Facebook has 58 options in regard to gender. Gender is no longer a binary thing.
Since our society is becoming more aware of our non-binary world, we need to start using the correct pronouns when referring to people. We need to shift our thought patterns from believing that everyone we speak about must be a he or she. I believe that instead of attempting to figure out someone’s gender so that we can use the correct binary pronoun, we should just use “them/they/their” until proven otherwise. I once had a client explain it this way “I do not identify as only male or female. Some days I don’t feel that I am either, and other days I may feel more one way than the other. It’s like I am two people, that’s why I prefer they/them as pronouns” Not everyone experiences being non-binary in this way, but it’s the best way they could explain it. It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with gender is different.
Most people can remember the Saturday Night Live character, Androgynous Pat. The entire premise of the skits were to try to figure out what gender Pat was by what they did, said or wore. In reality, this shouldn’t even matter, just use “they/them” as their pronouns, or use their name, Pat. It’s not our job to place labels on others to make ourselves feel comfortable.
Some people feel that changing this way of speaking can be difficult. It can take a little bit of getting-used-to. With practice, however, it does get easier. One example I use to help people understand how to use “they/them/their” pronouns is:
“Taylor said that they are going to sweep the floor. Can you tell them that their broom is in the corner?”
It takes a little extra time and thoughts, but its something that can mean a lot to someone that identifies as non-binary. The other tip I can give you is this: if you make a mistake referring to someone in front of others, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself and move on. Later, when you can pull the person that was mis-gendered aside, you can then apologize. This shows that person that you respect them and their gender identity. Something as seemingly small as a three-letter pronoun can have a big impact on people. My suggestion is: Let’s all drop the labels and use “they/them/their” as our default pronoun. We no longer live in a binary world.
Melissa DaSilva, LICSW is a licensed therapist and certified hypnotist in private practice at her group practice called East Coast Mental Wellness. Melissa has been a therapist for over 10 years, is an advocate for LGBTQ rights and public speaker. She is the host of the podcast called Pride Connections. You can find out more about Melissa on Facebook and Instagram.