Old Friends, New Pronouns

 Photo by  Valerie Elash  on  Unsplash

Pretend there’s a mouse in your friend’s pocket.

by Yvonne Hanson

When it comes to pronouns, most people are familiar with the traditional classics: She/ Her and He/ Him. We feel comfortable using them to refer to each other because we have been referring to other people by one or the other for our entire lives. However, there's a third set of pronouns that we use almost as often, sometimes without even realizing it: They/ them.

These pronouns are often used to refer to multiple individuals/ groups but are also used to refer to a nonspecific individual or a specific individual whose gender is unknown or unimportant for the context of the conversation. Some people feel most comfortable when people refer to them with these pronouns.

There are many reasons why a person may choose to identify as they/ them, but usually these reasons are personal, and its best not to ask if you are not close to them.

People with non-binary or fluid gender identities often prefer they/them to avoid a lengthy explanation of their gender expression or daily updates on the binary pronouns they currently prefer.

You do not have to ‘get it’ to use it; understanding someone’s gender identity is not a prerequisite for respecting it, and no one should have to explain their gender to you before you agree to use their chosen pronouns.

That said, understanding the basics of why someone has chosen to use they/them pronouns can help you remember to use them. If you are close friends with someone who has recently started using they/them pronouns, don’t be afraid to start a conversation about their gender identity for the sake of clearing things up. Many trans people have done a lot of work and personal growth in the process of figuring out their gender identity and may appreciate an opportunity to explain their findings to someone who will understand what they have accomplished (or at least try to).

In an ideal world, everyone would remember to use everyone else’s pronouns all the time, but this is not the case and no one really expects it to be. Humans make mistakes, pronouns get forgotten, and usually, a simple apology and a correction are all it takes to move on. Often, people will change both their pronouns and their name at the same time, and they don’t expect everyone in their lives to seamlessly adapt to the changes right away. Don’t chastise yourself for hitting the learning curve, even if you misgender an old friend with new pronouns for the third time in the same conversation. The best thing you can do is show that you are sincerely trying, and demonstrate that you fully intend to get there as soon as possible

Tips on how to remember to use they/them

I asked a few of my friends who identify with they/them pronouns to give some tips on how to remember to use them. They mostly agreed that the best thing to do is apologize for slip-ups and move on quickly after mistakes are made, but I did receive a few gems with some proactive measures for remembering their pronouns:

1. Pretend there’s a mouse in your friend’s pocket.

When you refer to your friend, refer to both them and the mouse. This makes it easier to remember to say “they/ them” because you’re essentially using it as a plural pronoun instead of a gender non-specific pronoun.

2.  Imagine a distinctly male, a distinctly female, and a distinctly androgynous version of your friend, all hanging out together.

When you talk about your friend, remember this image, and talk about all three of them. Again, this makes it easier to remember to use they/them, because its being used as a plural pronoun.

3.  Imagine that you have made a new friend who reminds you of your friend before they transitioned.

Maybe your pre-transition friend was a sibling or cousin of your trans friend. Remind yourself that they are different people, even though they have a lot in common. Thinking of them as different people can help prevent old identity markers from coming up while you're referring to the ‘new’ friend. You could even make a show of reintroducing yourself in your head, imagining a scenario in which you and your friend meet for the first time and they are introduced to you with they/ them pronouns.

And some words of advice

In addition to these tips, my friends offered some words of advice:

1. Be sure not to “out” someone by correcting others on their pronouns.

If they have only recently started transitioning, they may be experimenting with new pronouns and just testing things out. If you are close with someone and they tell you they want to start identifying with they/ them pronouns, don’t be afraid to ask if this information is for public disclosure or not.

2. Let your friends know it is okay to correct you.

Some trans folks and allies may feel weird about constantly policing the language their friends use around them. Unsavoury parts of the internet act like correcting someone on your pronouns are “making your gender everyone else’s problem”. Make sure your friend knows that this is not true and that correcting you is not inconveniencing you. Thank them for correcting you because it helps you strive to make them feel comfortable and acknowledged.

3. Don’t get offended when you get corrected multiple times in the same conversation.

It will happen. Correct yourself, apologize, and move on. The bigger the deal you make out of it, the more apprehensive your friend may be to correct you in the future. Forgetting their pronouns does not make you a bad friend, but try replacing responses like “I’m doing the best I can, okay?” with “sorry, I’ll get better!”

Yvonne Hanson