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Pronouns, Language, and Allyship

Gender Pronouns

Q: What are Gender Neutral Pronouns?

A: Gender Neutral Pronouns are pronouns that do not associate a gender with the person or animal being discussed. A precedent for a gender neutral pronoun actually exists in English; both “ou” and “a” were accepted pronouns in the English language, but they died out in the 1400s.

Q: Why do we need Gender Neutral Pronouns?

A: Some languages, such as English, have no truly gender neutral third person pronoun available or commonly used, thus gender neutral pronouns are created in the interest of greater gender equity. In addition to being able to use them to refer to people whose genders are unknown to us at the moment of conversation, gender neutral pronouns can be a preferred option for some within the transgender and genderqueer communities.

Q: Isn’t ‘it’ gender-neutral?

A: “It” is used to denote objects, and thus is considered offensive in reference to people. Some transgender and gender non-conforming people report “it” being used in reference to them in demeaning, disgusted, and threatening ways.

Q: What are some examples of Gender Neutral Pronouns?

A: The two sets of most commonly used gender neutral pronouns are below, along with their pronunciations and the gendered pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ for easy reference. They, Them, & Their is can be used a singular plural pronoun for folks there is also the following:

Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
She Her Her Hers Herself
He Him His His Himself
Ze /zee/ Hir /here/ Hir /here/ Hirs /heres/ Hirself /herself/
E /ee/ Em /em/ Eir /air/ Eirs /airs/ Emself /emself/

 Examples of how to use these pronouns:

She went to her bedroom.
He went to his bedroom.
Ze went to hir bedroom.
They went to their bedroom.
E went to eir bedroom.
I am her sister.
I am his sister.
I am hir sister.
I am their sister.
I am eir sister.
She shaves herself.
He shaves himself.
Ze shaves hirself.
They shave themself.
E shaves emself.

Q: Doesn’t this sound kinda awkward though?

A: Integrating a gender neutral pronoun into an already existing language can prove difficult, but not impossible. It can be achieved through intentional practice, and can really help someone feel included and respected. Also, knowledge about and usage of gender neutral pronouns are often a good way to communicate allyship to trrans and gender variant folks.

*Parts of this terminology sheet is adapted from a document created by Eli R. Green (eli@transacademics.org) and Eric N. Peterson at the LGBT Resource Center at UC Riverside ® 2003-2004.  Other parts are adapted from various sources including wiseGEEK, Aether Lumina, trans@MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology), Vanderbilt University, and the University of Missouri.


Terminology

A note about these definitions: Each of these definitions has been carefully researched and closely analyzed from theoretical and practical perspectives for cultural sensitivity, common usage, and general appropriateness. We have done our best to represent the most popular uses of the terms listed; however there may be some variation in definitions depending on location. Please note that each person who uses any or all of these terms does so in a unique way (especially terms that are used in the context of an identity label). If you do not understand the context in which a person is using one of these terms, it is always appropriate to ask. This is especially recommended when using terms that we have noted that can have a derogatory connotation.
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Agendered – Person is internally ungendered.

Ally – Someone who confronts heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, heterosexual and genderstraight privilege in themselves and others; a concern for the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex people; and a belief that heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are social justice issues.Androgyne – Person appearing and/or identifying as neither man nor woman, presenting a gender either mixed or neutral.

Berdache – A generic term used to refer to a third gender person (woman-living-man). The term ‘berdache’ is generally rejected as inappropriate and offensive by Native Peoples because it is a term that was assigned by European settlers to differently gendered Native Peoples. Appropriate terms vary by tribe and include: ‘one-spirit’, ‘twospirit’, and ‘wintke.’

Bigendered – A person whose gender identity is a combination of male/man and female/woman.

Binding – The process of flattening one’s breasts to have a more masculine or flat appearing chest.

Bottom Surgery – Surgery on the genitals designed to create a body in harmony with a person’s preferred gender expression.

Butch – A person who identifies themselves as masculine, whether it be physically, mentally or emotionally. ‘Butch’ is sometimes used as a derogatory term for lesbians, but it can also be claimed as an affirmative identity label.

Cisgender – describes someone who feels comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to them based on their physical sex.

Coming Out – May refer to the process by which one accepts one’s own sexuality, gender identity, or status as an intersexed person (to “come out” to oneself). May also refer to the process by which one shares one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersexed status with others (to “come out” to friends, etc.). This can be a continual, life-long process for homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and intersexed individuals.

Cross-dresser – Someone who wears clothes of another gender/sex.

Discrimination – Prejudice + power. It occurs when members of a more powerful social group behave unjustly or cruelly to members of a less powerful social group. Discrimination can take many forms, including both individual acts of hatred or injustice and institutional denials of privileges normally accorded to other groups. Ongoing discrimination creates a climate of oppression for the affected group.

Drag – The performance of one or multiple genders theatrically.

Drag King – A person who performs masculinity theatrically.

Drag Queen – A person who performs femininity theatrically.

Femme – Feminine identified person of any gender/sex.

FTM / F2M – Abbreviation for female-to-male transgender or transsexual person.

Gender Binary – The idea that there are only two genders – male/female or man/woman and that a person must be strictly gendered as either/or. (See also ‘Identity Sphere.’)

Gender Confirming Surgery – Medical surgeries used to modify one’s body to be more congruent with one’s gender identity. See “Sex Reassignment Surgery.”

Gender Cues – What human beings use to attempt to tell the gender/sex of another person. Examples include hairstyle, gait, vocal inflection, body shape, facial hair, etc. Cues vary by culture.\

Gender Identity – A person’s sense of being masculine, feminine, or other gendered.

Gender Normative – A person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender based expectations of society. (Also referred to as ‘Genderstraight’.)

Gender Oppression – The societal, institutional, and individual beliefs and practices that privilege cisgender (gender-typical people) and subordinate and disparage transgender or gender variant people. Also known as “genderism.”

Gender Variant – A person who either by nature or by choice does not conform to gender-based expectations of society (e.g. transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, cross-dresser, etc.).

Genderism – see “Gender Oppression.”

Genderfuck – The idea of playing with ‘gender cues’ to purposely confuse “standard” or stereotypical gender expressions, usually through clothing.

Genderqueer – A gender variant person whose gender identity is neither male nor female, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders. Often
includes a political agenda to challenge gender stereotypes and the gender binary
system.

Genderstraight — See ‘Gender Normative.’

Hermaphrodite — An out-of-date and offensive term for an intersexed person. (See ‘Intersexed Person’.)

Identity Sphere – The idea that gender identities and expressions do not fit on a linear scale, but rather on a sphere that allows room for all expression without weighting any one expression as better than another.

In the Closet – Refers to a homosexual, bisexual, transperson or intersex person who will not or cannot disclose their sex, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity to their friends, family, co-workers, or society. An intersex person may be closeted due to ignorance about their status since standard medical practice is to “correct,” whenever possible, intersex conditions early in childhood and to hide the medical history from the patient. There are varying degrees of being “in the closet”; for example, a person can be out in their social life, but in the closet at work, or with their family. Also known as ‘Downlow” or ‘D/L.’

Intergender – A person whose gender identity is between genders or a combination of genders.

Institutional Oppression – Arrangements of a society used to benefit one group at the expense of another through the use of language, media, education, religion, economics, etc.

Internalized Oppression – The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate stereotypes applied to the oppressed group.

Intersexed Person — Someone whose sex a doctor has a difficult time categorizing as either male or female. A person whose combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, gonads, and/or genitals differs from one of the two expected patterns.

LGBTQI – A common abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed community.

MTF / M2F – Abbreviation for male-to-female transgender or transsexual person.

Oppression – The systematic subjugation of a group of people by another group with access to social power, the result of which benefits one group over the other and is maintained by social beliefs and practices.

Outing – Involuntary disclosure of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status.

Packing – Wearing a phallic device on the groin and under clothing for any purposes including: (for someone without a biological penis) the validation or confirmation of one’s masculine gender identity; seduction; and/or sexual readiness (for one who likes to penetrate another during sexual intercourse).

Pangendered – A person whose gender identity is comprised of all or many gender expressions.

Passing – Describes a person’s ability to be accepted as their preferred gender/sex or race/ethnic identity or to be seen as heterosexual.

Prejudice – A conscious or unconscious negative belief about a whole group of people and its individual members.

Queer –
1. An umbrella term which embraces a matrix of sexual preferences, orientations, and habits of the not-exclusively- heterosexual-and-monogamous majority. Queer includes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transpeople, intersex persons, the radical sex communities, and many other sexually transgressive (underworld) explorers.

2. This term is sometimes used as a sexual orientation label instead of ‘bisexual’ as a way of acknowledging that there are more than two genders to be attracted to, or as a way of stating a non-heterosexual orientation without having to state who they are attracted to.

3. A reclaimed word that was formerly used solely as a slur but that has been
semantically overturned by members of the marginalized group, who use it as a term of
defiant pride. ‘Queer’ is an example of a word undergoing this process. For decades
‘queer’ was used solely as a derogatory adjective for gays and lesbians, but in the
1980s the term began to be used by gay and lesbian activists as a term of selfidentification.

Eventually, it came to be used as an umbrella term that included gay men,
lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. Nevertheless, a sizable percentage of
people to whom this term might apply still hold ‘queer’ to be a hateful insult, and its use by heterosexuals is often considered offensive. Similarly, other reclaimed words are
usually offensive to the in-group when used by outsiders, so extreme caution must be
taken concerning their use when one is not a member of the group.

Sex – A medical term designating a certain combination of gonads, chromosomes, external gender organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormonal balances. Because usually subdivided into ‘male’ and ‘female’, this category does not recognize the existence of intersexed bodies.

Sex Identity – How a person identifies physically: female, male, in between, beyond, or neither.

Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) – A term used by some medical professionals to refer to a group of surgical options that alter a person’s “sex”. In most states, one or multiple surgeries are required to achieve legal recognition of gender variance. Also known as “Gender Confirming Surgery.”

Stealth – This term refers to when a person chooses to be secretive in the public sphere about their gender history, either after transitioning or while successful passing. (Also referred to as ‘going stealth’ or ‘living in stealth mode’.)

Stereotype – A preconceived or oversimplified generalization about an entire group of people without regard for their individual differences. Though often negative, can also be complimentary. Even positive stereotypes can have a negative impact, however, simply because they involve broad generalizations that ignore individual realities.

Stone Butch – A person who may or may not desire sexual penetration and/or contact with the genitals or breasts. (See also ‘Butch’).

Stud — An African-American and/or Latina masculine lesbian. Also known as ‘butch’ or ‘aggressive’.

Top Surgery – This term usually refers to surgery for the construction of a male-type chest, but may also refer to breast augmentation.

Trans – An abbreviation that is sometimes used to refer to a gender variant person. This use allows a person to state a gender variant identity without having to disclose hormonal or surgical status/intentions. This term is sometimes used to refer to the gender variant community as a whole.

Transactivism – The political and social movement to create equality for gender variant persons.

Transgender – A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that expected based on anatomical sex. Sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.

Transgender (Trans) Community – A loose category of people who transcend gender norms in a wide variety of ways. The central ethic of this community is
unconditional acceptance of individual exercise of freedoms including gender and
sexual identity and orientation.

Transhate – The irrational hatred of those who are gender variant, usually expressed through violent and often deadly means.

Tranny Chaser – A term primarily used to describe people who prefer or actively seek transpeople for sexual or romantic relations. While this term is claimed in an affirmative manner by some, it is largely regarded as derogatory.

Transition – This term is primarily used to refer to the process a gender variant person undergoes when changing their bodily appearance either to be more congruent with the gender/sex they feel themselves to be and/or to be in harmony with their preferred gender expression.

Transman — An identity label sometimes adopted by female-to-male transsexuals to signify that they are men while still affirming their history as females. Also referred to as ‘transguy(s).’

Transphobia – The irrational fear of those who are gender variant and/or the inability to deal with gender ambiguity.

Transsexual – A person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and surgically to match their inner sense of gender/sex.

Transvestite – Someone who dresses in clothing generally identified with the opposite gender/sex. While the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘transvestite’ have been used synonymously, they are in fact signify two different groups. The majority of transvestites are heterosexual males who derive pleasure from dressing in “women’s clothing”. (The preferred term is ‘cross-dresser,’ but the term ‘transvestite’ is still used in a positive sense in England.)

Transwoman – An identity label sometimes adopted by male-to-female transsexuals to signify that they are women while still affirming their history as males.

Two-Spirited – Native persons who have attributes of both genders, have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes, and are often involved with mystical rituals (shamans). Their dress is usually mixture of male and female articles and they are seen as a separate or third gender. The term ‘two-spirit’ is usually considered to specific to the Zuni tribe. Similar identity labels vary by tribe and include ‘one-spirit’ and ‘wintke’.

Ze / Hir – Alternate pronouns that are gender neutral and preferred by some gender variant persons. Pronounced /zee/ and /here,/ they replace “he”/”she” and “his”/”hers” respectively.

*This terminology sheet was created by Eli R. Green (eli@transacademics.org) and Eric N. Peterson at the LGBT Resource Center at UC Riverside ® 2003-2004, adapted from the University of Missouri.


Action Tips for Allies of Trans PeopleThe following are several actions tips that can be used as you move toward becoming a better trans ally. Of course, this list is not exhaustive and cannot include all the “right” things to do or say—because often there is no single, easy, or “right” answer to every situation a person might encounter! Hopefully this list will provide you with food for thought and a starting place as you learn more about trans people, gender identities/presentations, and gender differences.

Donʼt assume you can tell if someone is transgender. Transgender and transsexual people don’t all look a certain way or come from the same background, and many may not appear “visibly trans.” Indeed, many trans people live most of their lives with very few people knowing their trans status.Donʼt make assumptions about a trans personʼs sexual orientation. Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to. Gender identity is about how we know our own gender. Trans people can identify as gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual.Be careful about confidentiality, disclosure, and “outing.” Some trans people feel comfortable disclosing their trans status to others, and some do not. Knowing a trans person’s status is personal information and it is up to them to share it with others. Do not casually share this information, or “gossip” about a person you know or think is trans. Not only is this an invasion of privacy, it also can have negative consequences in a world that is very intolerant of gender difference — trans people can lose jobs, housing, friends, and sadly have even been killed upon revelation of their trans status.

Understand the differences between “coming out” as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) and “coming out” as trans. Unlike “coming out” in an LGB context, where the act of disclosing one’s sexuality reveals a “truth” about that person’s sexual orientation, disclosing one’s trans status often has the opposite effect. That is, when a person “comes out” as trans, the listener often assumes the “truth” about the trans person is that they are somehow more fundamentally a member of their birth sex, rather than the gender/sex they have chosen to live in. In other words, sometimes “coming out” makes it more difficult for a trans person to be fully recognized as the sex/gender they are living in.

Do not tolerate anti-trans remarks or humor in public spaces. Consider strategies to best confront anti-trans remarks or jokes in your classroom, lab, office, living group, or organization. Seek out other allies who will support you in this effort.

If you donʼt know what pronouns to use, ask. Be polite and respectful when you ask a person which pronoun they prefer. Then use that pronoun and encourage others to do so.

Be patient with a person who is questioning their gender identity. A person who is questioning their gender identity might shift back and forth as they find out what identity and/or gender presentation is best for them. They might, for example, choose a new name or pronoun, and then decide at a later time to change the name or pronoun again. Do your best to be respectful and use the name and/or pronoun requested.

Donʼt try to tell a person what “category” or “identity” they fit into. Do not apply labels or identities to a person that they have not chosen for themselves. If a person is not sure of which identity or path fits them best, give them the time and space to decide for themselves.

Don’t assume what path a trans person is on regarding surgery or hormones, and donʼt privilege one path over another. Affirm the many ways all of us can and do transcend gender boundaries, including the choices some of us make to use medical
technology to change our bodies. Some trans people wish to be recognized as their gender of choice without surgery or hormones; some need support and advocacy to get respectful medical care, hormones, and/or surgery.

Donʼt ask a trans person what their “real name” is. For some trans people, being associated with their birth name is a tremendous source of anxiety, or it is simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind. Respect the name a trans person is currently using.

Donʼt ask about a trans personʼs genitals or surgical status. Think about it—it wouldn’t be considered appropriate to ask a non-trans person about the appearance or status of their genitalia, so it isn’t appropriate to ask a trans person that question either. Likewise, don’t ask if a trans person has had “the surgery.” If a trans person wants to talk to you about such matters, let them bring it up.

Donʼt ask a trans person how they have sex. Similar to the questions above about genitalia and surgery—it wouldn’t be considered appropriate to ask a non-trans person about how they have sex, so the same courtesy should be extended to trans people.

Don’t police public restrooms. Recognize that gender variant people may not match the little signs on the restroom door—or your expectations! Encourage schools, businesses and agencies to have unisex bathroom options, and offer to accompany a trans person to the bathroom, in a “buddy system,” so they are less vulnerable.

Don’t just add the “T” without doing work. “LGBT” is now a commonplace acronym that joins lesbian, gay, bisexual, gay and transgender under the same umbrella. To be an ally to trans people, lesbians, gays and bisexuals need to examine their own gender stereotypes, their own prejudices and fears about trans people, and be willing to defend and celebrate trans lives.

Know your own limits as an ally. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know everything! When speaking with a trans person who may have sought you out for support or guidance, be sure to point that person to appropriate resources when you’ve reached the limit of your knowledge or ability to handle the situation. It is better to admit you don’t know something than to provide information that may be incorrect or hurtful.

Listen to trans voices. The best way to be an ally is to listen with an open mind to trans people themselves. They are the experts on their own lives! Talk to trans people in your community. Consult the reading and film lists of this Allies Toolkit to find out where to learn more about trans lives.

*This document was created by MIT as part of the Trans@MIT Toolkit at http://web.mit.edu/trans Some of the above items were adapted from the following resources: “Ideas for Allies of the Transgender and Intersex Communities” by Eli R. Green and Eric N. Peterson of the University of California, Riverside and “Action Steps for Being a Trans Ally” by Samuel Lurie. Adapted from the University of Missouri.