What are pronouns?
In the English language, pronouns are the words we use when we talk about other individuals, for example “he said this…” or “she did that…” or “they went over there….”
The differences between he, she, and they are attributed to someone’s gender.
Gender identity is a person’s individual experience of gender and how they identify on the gender spectrum. The gender spectrum acknowledges that there’s a range of different gender identities and rejects the “gender binary,” or the idea that there are only two genders: man or woman.
Gender expression is how an individual expresses their gender publicly. They may express themselves through how they dress, their mannerisms, their tone of voice, etc. Gender expression can be feminine, masculine, or anything in between. Gender is also expressed and interpreted differently across places, cultures, and time periods.
Androgynous is a descriptor for a specific style that appreciates both masculine and feminine gender expression. It may also mean that one is neither masculine or feminine.
Why do pronouns matter?
Everyone wants to be referred to by the pronouns that accurately reflect their gender identity and expression. Some people identify with the sex they were assigned when they were born, but many people, like transgender and non-binary individuals, do not.
Transgender people are people who identify with a gender that is different to the one assigned at birth. Non-binary people are folks who do not identify with the strict categories of “masculine” or “feminine” in the gender binary.
Taking the time to find out what pronouns someone uses and making an effort to use the correct ones is a basic form of respect and courtesy. It is also a way to honour our peers and their sense of self. When we do so, we are more likely to be respected in return.
Misgendering is when you use a pronoun that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender identity and expression. Although sometimes people misgender others by accident, there are times when misgendering is done purposely to mock, bully, or otherwise abuse someone. Other times people misgender others because they don’t think it’s important to find out and use the right pronouns.
Whether this is as an act of hate, neglect, or carelessness, misgendering is a form of discrimination. It has the same consequences as other forms of discrimination against groups of people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc.
If you experience or witness discrimination happen at school, at work, or when trying to find a home or access a public service, you can pursue legal consequences. To learn more about those consequences, check the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s resource on gender identity and pronouns. Please find a trusted adult, like a teacher, parent, or guidance counsellor to talk about the next steps and for extra support.
How do I use the correct pronouns?
First and foremost, never assume what someone’s pronouns are.
You never want to force someone to share their pronouns because they may not feel safe to do so, especially in a group context.
Instead, you can create an environment where someone feels comfortable sharing their pronouns with you. For example, you can:
- Introduce yourself with your name and your pronouns
- Add your pronouns to your email signature
- Add your pronouns onto any online platform you use, like Zoom
- Ask more open ended questions like, “How would you like to be addressed?”
Avoid using pronouns, or use neutral “they/them” pronouns, until you find out what pronouns someone uses. For example, when talking about someone, you can say:
- “Someone in my class was asking about the homework.”
- “My coworker and I went out for lunch and they ordered a delicious pasta.”
- “I met this really great person at the party and we’re making plans to meet again.”
If you need to refer to someone by a title but you don’t know their pronouns, instead of using Ms./Miss/Mrs./Mr. you can use Mx. (pronounced “mix”).
What do I do if I use the wrong pronoun?
If you misgender someone but didn’t mean to:
- Correct yourself and apologize if you realize your mistake right away, then move on. Don’t make a big deal about it.
- Reach out and apologize in private if you realize your mistake later.
Check out this resource on accountability to learn more about how to be a good ally.
These resources may also help you learn more about pronouns and why it matters:
- Ontario Federation of Labour’s resource on pronouns
- Egale’s FAQ: Gender identity and Canada’s Human Rights System
- Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Glossary for understanding gender identity and expression