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Gender Identity Q & A

June 29, 2022


Why do pronouns matter?
Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is a simple way to show your respect for that person and their gender identity. We all have pronouns; it is disrespectful to not refer to someone as they would like to be referred. You do not need to understand why the person has/states any specific pronouns to use them. Just remember that doing so affirms the person’s identity.
Are gender identity and sexuality the same thing?
Gender identity and sexuality are not the same. In fact, sexuality or sexual identity, biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression are all different things. Biological sex refers to how a doctor categorized an individual based on their external genitalia at birth: a penis indicating male, a vulva indicating female. Hence, we refer to this as “sex assigned at birth.” You may hear someone use the term AFAB, assigned female at birth, or AMAB, assigned male at birth. Some babies who have external genitalia, internal organs, or chromosomes that do not fit the standardized boxes of male or female are assigned intersex.
Identities, such as sexuality and gender, describe our internal sense of who we are and may not line up with expectations based on anatomy. Gender identity is one’s deep personal sense of being male, female, both, neither of these, something else, or a fluid identity that shifts over time. An individual identifies as cisgender when their sex assigned at birth matches their internal sense of who they are. An individual identifies as transgender when their gender identity doesn’t align with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is an ‘umbrella’ term that refers to various gender identities, including transwoman, transman, non-binary, genderqueer, gender expansive and genderfluid.
Often, people assume one’s gender identity by the way the person talks, what they wear, or what they are interested in. However, these characteristics make up one’s gender expression, not gender identity. Gender expression is how one outwardly presents their gender. You might also hear the terms gender conforming and gender nonconforming. Anyone of any gender identity (cis, trans, etc.) can be gender nonconforming; this essentially means an individual’s gender expression does not conform to traditional gender norms.
Sexuality is the way that you feel towards others. This identity is based on romantic and/or sexual desire that exists along a spectrum. Sexual identities include lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual (straight), pansexual and asexual. Queer is an umbrella term for individuals who do not identity as heterosexual and/or whose attraction does not depend on sex nor gender.
What does it mean to be non-binary?
Non-binary means an individual does not exclusively describe themselves along the gender binary of either male/man or female/woman. A range of identities may fall under the non-binary umbrella, including gender-expansive and genderqueer.
How do I know which pronouns to use?
Always start with sharing your own pronouns. For example, “Hi, my name is Jen, and I use she/they pronouns. What about you?” She/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs are commonly used pronouns. People commonly shorten them to she/her, he/him, or they/them. Avoid referring to different pronouns as female/feminine or male/masculine, as not everyone who uses certain pronouns may feel that way. If you are cisgender, do not say you “don’t care which pronouns are used for me.” This reinforces your privilege and invalidates the experience of trans people who struggle with people not using their correct pronouns.
What if someone uses a pronoun I’ve never heard of?
Respect them! If you are unsure of pronunciation, you can politely ask someone to repeat their pronouns or use someone’s name until you are sure.
What if I use the wrong pronoun? I don’t want to offend anyone.
Genuine mistakes are okay. If you slip up, simply say something right away, “Sorry, I meant (insert pronoun),” and then move on. If someone else corrects you, say, “Thanks (insert pronoun),” and move on. If you realize your mistake too late, apologize in private to the person, and then move on. Please don’t over-apologize for how you messed up or how hard it is for you to get it right. This puts the person you misgendered in the place of comforting you, which is inappropriate and awkward.
If I hear someone use the wrong pronoun for someone, how can I correct them without making them uncomfortable?
It is appropriate to correct someone by saying, “Jules uses the pronoun she,” and then allowing the conversation to move on. Do not ignore the consistent misgendering of an individual. You can always approach the person being misgendered privately to acknowledge what has occurred and to ask if they are comfortable with you reminding others of their pronouns. If you have cisgender privilege, it is especially important for you to advocate for those who are being misgendered.
Can someone’s pronouns change?
Yes! People change their pronouns for a variety of reasons, and your only responsibility is to continue to respect them by using their pronouns.
I know someone who uses they/them pronouns, so that must mean they’re nonbinary, right?
Not necessarily. Sharing pronouns is simply what a person wants to be called and does not necessarily equate to a specific gender identity.
You’re only one person. How can you go by they/them?
The singular use of “they” has historical precedent since the 1300s and is natural to English speakers in situations where the person’s identity is unknown or unspecified. Consider this sentence, for example: “If someone calls, tell them I will be back soon.” It is also this way with the nonbinary they: “I saw Ari yesterday. They have good news!”
How is it possible to be both he and they? Don’t you have to choose?
Some individuals use more than one pronoun (i.e., he/they or she/they). You can alternate between those when referring to them. Sometimes the pronouns are given in the order of preference.
You look like a boy/girl. Why use ‘they’ instead of he/she?
You cannot assume one’s gender identity based on their appearance, which is the (external) gender expression of their (internal) gender identity. The idea that certain gender identities “look” a certain way, and hence use certain pronouns, is false. Respect and affirm what someone wants to be called.
Where can I find more information about gender identity?
For Children:
For Adolescents and Adults:
For Parents: