Understanding pronouns in the LGBTQ+ community

For members of the LGBTQ+ community, it may feel scary and vulnerable to inform those around you how to address and refer to you if you have only recently openly started to use different pronouns than the ones you may have been “born” with. Similarly, as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, inquiring about someone’s pronouns may initially feel awkward, maybe even a little daunting. Allies want to be respectful and address those within the LGBTQ+ community by their proper pronouns, but it may feel uncomfortable in the beginning to ask for clarification for fear of accidentally causing offense. It is also important to keep in mind that no one is perfect, and what matters most is that we are vocal about trying to educate ourselves and respect everyone. So, how do we go about this?

As tempting as it may sometimes be, we simply cannot judge or assume based on someone’s physical appearance that we know their biological gender, gender identity or sexual preference. When you are unsure of someone’s pronoun, refrain from making guesses or assumptions, and just ask. The best way to do this is quite simple. Asking “what pronouns do you use?” is straight-forward, polite, and respectful. Phrasing is important here: we must be mindful of any unintentional implications embedded in phrases such as “what is your preferred pronoun?” Cisgendered people aren’t asked what their “preferred” pronouns are; they are just assumed based on their physical appearance and inferred sexuality. To ask a member of the LGBTQ+ community what their “preferred” pronoun is can be disrespectful as it implies that their pronouns are somehow “chosen,” rather than reflections of the way that they authentically are and have always been. Just as individuals don’t “choose” to be gay, bisexual, or transgender, pronouns are not a choice. They are a reflection of someone’s true identity.

Sometimes people will avoid asking for fear that their question will somehow offend the individual, but it is important to remember that making an incorrect guess or assumption will be worse. In addition, many LGBTQ+ community members will likely be willing to help you along in the beginning, both because they want to be addressed properly, and to decrease the stigma surrounding these issues. They may also want to encourage others around them that asking about someone’s pronouns is the most respectful way to address this topic and should not be intimidating. As with anything, one way to decrease stigma is to try to normalize an issue by increasing how much we talk about it.

You may have also learned in elementary school that referring to a singular person by “they/them” was grammatically incorrect. Well, it’s 2019, and treating individuals with respect and courtesy takes precedence over outdated grammar rules. You will often hear the pronouns “they/them/their” used in the LGBTQ+ community to refer to a singular person to whom which “he/his/him” or “she/hers/her” do not apply, however, it is still always necessary to ask: we must not assume. Large dictionaries have also recently started to publish amendments to their grammar rules to reflect these human-rights focused changes.

If you have just recently joined the LGBTQ+ community, you may also feel uncomfortable bringing your pronouns up in conversation with someone who may not be aware, either who you just met or already know. As awkward as it may feel initially, you need to respect yourself and your own boundaries and know when to stand up for yourself. For many, this will mean taking initiative in a conversation where you are not being referred to correctly, and saying, “just so you know, ___ is my pronoun.”

It is vital that we do not minimize or downplay how complex LGBTQ+ issues are, or imply that navigating them is simple in any way. They aren’t: most of our population has never been questioned or judged based on their sexualities or the fact that their physical and personal traits do not abide by traditional male or female stereotypes. Most people have not had to lie to themselves and others around them about who they are in regards to their gender, anatomy, and sexuality. These are tragic experiences that no one should have to cope with, and we are actively working to decrease the stigma surrounding the wonderfully diverse LGBTQ+ community. It is everyone’s responsibility to normalize being gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, questioning, and anyone who falls on the spectrum of not identifying with traditional male and female roles, genders, and sexual preferences.

  • Ally: those who consider themselves supportive friends to the LGBTQ+ community.
  • **Lesbian: **a female who is romantically or sexually attracted to other females.
  • Gay: a male who is romantically or sexually attracted to other males. Often used as an umbrella term to describe all homosexuals (individuals who are attracted to those of their same gender).
  • **Bisexual: **individuals who are romantically or sexually attracted to both male and female genders.
  • **Transgender: **a general term that refers to individuals who self-identify as a different gender than the one they were medically assigned at birth.
  • **Cisgender: **an individual whose biological sex at birth corresponds with their gender identity
  • **Gender non-binary: **umbrella term that encompasses all gender identities that do not correspond to traditional male or female profiles.
  • **Transsexual: **these are transgender individuals who desire to medically transition from one sex to another (or already have).
  • **Two-spirit: **general term typically utilized by Indigenous populations to denote someone who embodies aspects of both traditional male and female genders; they are said to have two spirits within them.
  • **Queer: **general term for non-majority, non-heterosexual, or non-cisgendered individuals. This used to be considered a derogatory term, however the LGBTQ+ community has recently been re-introducing it in a more positive light.
  • **Questioning: **any individual who is currently unsure about the applicability of specific societal labels regarding their sexual orientation, gender or sexual identity.
  • **Intersex: **an individual whose sexual anatomy is not entirely male or female.
  • Asexual: individuals who identify as having little to zero sexual attraction to anyone, of any gender or combination thereof.
  • Pansexual: individuals who are sexually, romantically, or emotionally attracted to individuals regardless of their gender or sexual identity. Sometimes pansexual individuals will refer to themselves to as gender-blind, and assert that gender or sexual characteristics do not influence their attraction to another person.
  • Agender: individuals who do not self-identify with a particular gender.
  • Gender **Queer: **general term for individuals whose gender identities are not exclusively male or female.
  • **Bigender: **individuals who self-identify as having aspects and characteristics both genders, either at the same or different time points. They may express that they are both masculine and feminine at the same time, or that they alternate between the two.
  • Gender **Variant: **gender expression that defies stereotypical male and female gender norms.
  • **Pangender: **those who self-identify as embodying all genders.