They/Them/What now? Why respecting the preferred pronouns of trans people is important

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
"Names and pronouns are fundamental to who we are and how other people see us"
"Names and pronouns are fundamental to who we are and how other people see us"

A common frustration among parents trying to wrap their heads around gender diversity is the plethora of new pronouns doing the rounds. He/him, they/them, she/they, zee/hir, xe/xem… It's tempting to be dismissive and call the whole thing off.

One might also argue that continuously adding new pronouns to the list of gender identifiers creates more labels, which goes against the notion that those who are gender fluid don't want to be put in a box. Sometimes, however, people find it useful to have that label.

"It helps us search for information and to find other people like us. It also helps us stay well informed, so we can experience the support of a community that we might otherwise have been unable to access," explains trans father of two Noah Evans.

Gender language changes all the time and, simply put, pronouns can help people understand an issue that is convoluted and complex. Pronouns and the taxonomy they represent can also be incredibly validating for trans people.

A sign of respect

"Names and pronouns are fundamental to who we are and how other people see us," says counselling psychologist Jonathan Bosworth. "Often, we identify ourselves in language. We like to know that other people see us the way we see ourselves."

Moreover, misgendering someone can have a significant impact on their mental health, especially if they're gender dysphoric. "Using the right pronouns (and a person's chosen name) shows that you respect them. It can make a massive difference to an individual," says Bosworth.

Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide  

'It feels like I'm being called by someone else's name'

Early on in his transition, Noah asked two friends to try calling him by his chosen name, so he could see how it felt. Both friends changed Noah's birth name in their phones to his preferred name and sent a screenshot to him. "I don't think I've ever smiled so broadly," he says.

Similarly, the first time Noah was casually called by his chosen name, he couldn't pay attention to anything else. "I was grinning like an idiot. It was a massively validating moment," he says.

Noah adds that he had never felt like the name assigned to him at birth was right for him. "I never told a soul that I couldn't identify with my own name, because it seemed unquestionable and taboo (not to mention crazy)." He recalls how it jarred him – from childhood – to hear his birth name said out loud.

"It makes me bristle. And it's not because there's anything wrong with the name, or because I don't like it. It's that I feel like I'm being called by someone else's name. Being called Noah has never felt like that."

They/Them/What now?

Ignorance and prejudice aside, it remains particularly difficult for binary-minded people to make sense of any pronouns other than she/her or he/him, especially in the English-speaking world.

This might be because the English language is limited to two genders: he/him and she/her. But consider that German and Russian include three gender pronouns: he/him, she/her and a neutral pronoun (our equivalent of they/them). Zulu includes 14 genders.

Due to the English language's limitations on gender, English-speaking nonbinary people have opted for they/them as their preferred pronouns. If you're cisgender, the concept may still feel foreign, owing to the plural nature of 'they/them'. But consider how you might use 'they/them' in everyday language when the gender of a person is unknown:

Look, someone's left their suitcase on the bus. They must have forgotten it here.

Gender constructs aside, it's totally normal for native English speakers to adjust to the language's limitations on gender. We do it all the time! Moreover, gender language changes constantly to make room for our ever-expanding knowledge of the gender spectrum.

Neo pronouns

A 2020 survey of 40 000 LGBTQ young people found that 25% of youth in the US use nonbinary pronouns, while 75% opt for the more common he/him, she/her. Then there are neo pronouns, like ze/zir, xe/xim and fae/faer, which are largely unfamiliar to most people, but rising in prevalence.

Four per cent of the survey respondents reported using these types of pronouns, while the remaining 96% said that they used pronoun sets (including they/them) that were more familiar to people.

However, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit for queer and trans youth, the use of neo pronouns will continue to grow over the next few years.

The language does not inform the experience

Commenting on the complexity of language in the trans space, particularly as it relates to pronouns, trans woman and gender rights activist Anastasia Tomson notes that you cannot expect the trans experience to fit neatly into one singular pronoun category.

"For so long we forced people to fit into these stereotypes of male/female/gay/straight, etcetera, and that didn't work. So it's rather foolish to think that we could just generate another stereotype for the trans experience and force people into a different set of boxes," she says.

Tomson reiterates that identity is on a spectrum. "We are trying to keep up with the expansive breadth of human identity by developing new words. But we are not labels: trans man, trans woman, nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer. Sometimes they fit and they resonate, and sometimes they don't. The language does not inform the experience."

However, it should still be respected, particularly as it pertains to a person's preference. As straightlaced cisgender people, we have two choices here: Embrace and understand someone else's reality, or get your back up and put a mindblock on learning anything new about another person's lived experience.

As straightlaced cisgender parents, do we really have a choice? If we're going to alienate a portion of the population based on pronouns, labels and preferred names, we run the risk of alienating our children, who might come to identify with one label or another. We might also run the risk of conditioning our children to alienate other children for the same reason. With this in mind, inclusivity isn't just key here; it's crucial.

Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide


Share your stories, questions, or valuable feedback with us via email at Anonymous contributions are welcome.

Don't miss a story!

For a weekly wrap of our latest parenting news and advice, sign up to our free Parent24 newsletter.

Follow us, and chat, on Facebook and Twitter.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Eskom has considered continuous load shedding at Stage 2, instead of introducing it when the power system faces a crunch. What are your thoughts?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'm all for it - we're going to have power cuts regardless, so we might as well have some stability to better plan our lives
45% - 4714 votes
No thanks! I prefer having periods of no load shedding and we cannot normalise this crisis
55% - 5783 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.