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Answering Your Questions About Gender and Personal Pronouns

By Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams (they/them) and Pam Dewey (she/her) • personal pronouns, pronouns, gender, gender identity, exploring gender identity, questioning gender, gender exploration, defying the binary, nonbinary, transgender, trans, genderqueer • March 17, 2022

In the U.S., many children are taught gender is a binary: male or female, man or woman. What you may not realize is that gender is a socially constructed idea. The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) young people, states, “You may not notice it all the time, but each gender comes with a set of expectations, like how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people.”

To be a man, you must act tough and drive a truck. To be a woman, you must like pink and cry easily. But many people reject these gendered expectations, even cisgender people. A cisgender person is someone who has never questioned their assigned gender or sex.

Why isn’t gender binary?

Other people may not feel that their sex aligns with their gender. The Trevor Project states, “If you don’t feel that your gender identity – meaning, your own personal sense of what your gender is – matches the gender you were assigned at birth, you might identify as transgender (or trans).” Typically, transgender people identify as male or female.

People may also identify as genderqueer or non-binary, which means their gender exists outside the binary. The National Center for Transgender People, states for non-binary individuals, “Some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don't identify with any gender. Some people's gender changes over time.”

Why are personal pronouns so important?

Gender, like sexuality, is a spectrum. When you meet someone, you shouldn’t assume their gender based on their appearance. This is where the importance of personal pronouns comes in. states, “These assumptions aren’t always correct, and the act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message – that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.”

Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams uses they/them pronouns and identifies as non-binary because they never really fit inside the gender binary.

“In the end, it comes down to showing respect and empathy for the other person,” says Milo. “It’s just like if someone prefers the name Jenny instead of Jennifer. If you call them Jennifer, you’re going against their wishes. By using the correct pronouns, you’re showing you care about who they are and you’re giving their personhood validity.”

How should you ask what someone’s preferred pronouns are?

The straightforward approach is generally the best, says Milo.

“It may feel awkward to ask the question — ‘What are your preferred pronouns?’” says Milo. “But more times than not — a person who isn’t cisgender — will be very understanding. And it’s more comfortable for that person to be acknowledged and addressed the way they prefer.”  

What should someone do if you accidentally misgender someone?

Despite your best intentions, you may still misgender someone. When that happens, you don’t have to beat yourself up. Milo says among their trans and non-binary friends, it’s generally agreed that a simple apology and then moving on is the best way to address the situation.

“Just keep it simple and brief, and don’t blow it up into a big thing,” says Milo.

There are a variety of situations when you might misgender someone. For a situation with someone you’ve known for a long time, suggests you say something like, “Hi Tennishia, how are you? … I recently was learning about personal pronouns and so I’ve started to tell people that I go by ‘she’ and ‘hers’ pronouns myself. It helps me to create an environment where other people can feel comfortable to tell me what pronouns they go by, because some people really aren’t comfortable with the pronouns everyone around them assumes work for them. I know we’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve always used ‘she’ and ‘hers’ pronouns to refer to you, but I realized I might be making some assumptions. Is ‘she’ and ‘hers’ okay or should I be using another set of pronouns to refer to you?”

By saying this, you’ve created a safe space for someone to state their preferred pronouns, and you’ve let go of your assumptions about gender. also has several other examples of situations where you might misgender someone, and how you can handle it gracefully.

How can you create a more inclusive environment?

Asking someone their preferred pronouns is one way to create a more inclusive environment. Also sharing your own pronouns creates a more comfortable environment for those who may exist outside the gender binary. You can even do something as simple as adding your preferred pronouns to your email signature or nametag.

Here are some resources to learn more about gender and pronouns: