[Image description: A picture of the author wearing a black knit winter hat that has the word “they” across it in white capital letters with a row of pink hearts above and below the word. The hat has a white pom-pom at the top. West is a white non-binary person with very short brown hair just peeking out of the hat. They are wearing a blue plaid flannel buttoned all the way to the top, a red hoodie that is unzipped, red tights with black shorts, and a green watch. They are sitting on their couch, with a black bookshelf filled with books, a poster of a mermaid, and a kitchen table with four chairs in the background.]
I’ve been using the pronouns they/them/theirs for almost three years. The decision to switch my pronouns was scary. Even though I’d met several non-binary people who used pronouns other than he and she, I was still worried about what people would think if I did. Who would actually use them, and how hard would it be to make people respect them?
In the end, I made the change, because my pronouns made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. It was a difficult transition, however. No one but my closest friends made a serious effort to change the pronouns they used for me. I’m sure all of my other friends had good intentions, but it was really strange and hard for them to refer to me as they. Often they would just forget, and I would have to decide whether to correct them or let it slide.
It’s difficult for a lot of people to imagine the stress and anxiety this puts on the shoulders of a trans person. Imagine someone calling you he every single time they referred to you, when your pronoun is she. No matter how many times you corrected them, they immediately went back to he. You’d probably end the friendship at some point, right? Who would want to be friends with someone who disrespected you so much that they kept calling you by the wrong pronouns?
I understand that adding a new set of pronouns to one’s vocabulary involves a learning curve. When I first met someone who used they/them/theirs as pronouns, I was still identifying as cis and it was hard for me to figure out which one to use in a sentence. It felt unnatural to refer to one person as they. I messed up just about every sentence, and I had to correct myself every time a pronoun appeared in my words.
So I get it. I’ve been there. I know exactly how it feels to learn a new pronoun. I didn’t begin using they/them/their pronouns and immediately have them become integrated into my vocabulary. But I practiced, I remembered that a person’s pronouns were they/them/theirs, and every time I messed up, I corrected myself.
I want to be clear: The thing that hurts me most is not when someone messes up my pronouns. It’s when they know my real ones, but they don’t even try to correct themselves. They just let it sit there, and it’s on me to bring it up, again, that “It’s they, not she.”
It’s fine if it takes someone a while to get used to new pronouns. I promise, it really does get easier and more natural. They/them/theirs is so default for me now, because so many of my friends use them, that I no longer have to struggle. The same is true for ze/zir/zirs. That was a learning curve too, and although I am a little slow with them because I don’t get to use them in real life as much, I’m better at using them than when I started.
If someone you know uses different pronouns, please put in the effort. It makes a world of difference to that person. Here are a few resources to practice pronouns:
If you mess up (which happens, I still do it too), apologize, correct the pronoun, and move on. That’s all that’s needed. In the first year I began using “they,” every time someone used the wrong pronouns for me (and knew better), it felt like a literal punch to the gut. I’ve gotten more desensitized to it over the years, and although it’s better for my mental health, it’s also pretty sad. But it still sucks to be misgendered and makes me feel awful. It makes me feel like I can’t really be close with someone if they won’t use the words I need to be comfortable.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a person against a white background. The bottom half of the person’s face is visible, along with the person’s neck, shoulders, and upper chest. The person is white and wearing red lipstick, a white button-down shirt with black stripes, a black tie, and a black jacket.]