The Importance of Pronouns

Grease Rag has had a lot of conversation and practice around respecting and exploring pronouns. This is not meant to be a complete resource, but a snapshot of where our conversations and practice have brought us.

What is a pronoun?

“Pronoun” is a fancy word for, “How do you like to be referred to?” As she? As he? As they? (And there are others, too! And it’s okay if you don’t feel comfortable sharing that with me.)

Examples of pronouns are “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” “they/them/their,” and “zie/zim/zir,” and there are others, too. “Female” and “male” are not pronouns. “Feminine” and “masculine” are not pronouns.

Sometimes people say “preferred gender pronoun,” but we just say, “pronouns” because we don’t think our pronouns have to be “preferred” or “gendered.”

Pronoun go-arounds

At Grease Rag events, we like to take a moment to stop, put down our projects and pause our conversations, and get to know each other as a group.  We gather in a circle, share our names, the pronouns we use if we feel comfortable sharing them, and answer a short question.

At Grease Rag we make a sincere attempt to not judge people’s bodies, or assume how people want to be seen and referred to. Asking for people’s pronouns is another way that we resist making assumptions about people.
Saying “You can call me mud,” or, “Just don’t call me late for dinner,” during a go around is extremely disrespectful and does not have a place in a go around. Some people struggle their whole lives to arrive at pronouns that affirm them, and not taking it seriously is an example of cis privilege!  Check out this privilege checklist for more examples.

What Is a Gender Neutral Pronoun?

Many people have expressed the need for a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun: that is, a pronoun to use when someone’s gender is unknown or when the individual neither identifies as male or female. There are pronouns for that! For some history, evaluation, and examples of gender neutral pronouns I find this FAQ really interesting.

zie/zim/zir is a gender-neutral pronoun

4. Ze/Hir and its derivatives

(ze/hir/hir/hirs/hirself) (zie/hir/hir/hirs/hirself)
(ze/zir/zir/zirs/zirself) (zie/zir/zir/zirs/zirself)

Ease of pronunciation: 3/5

Distinction from other pronouns: 2/5
Gender neutrality: 2.5/5

“Ze and hir” is the most popular form of gender-free pronoun in the online genderqueer community, derived from the earlier “sie and hir,” which were considered too feminine/female-sounding since “sie” is German for “she” (among other things), and “hir” was a feminine pronoun in Middle English. The current forms are still leaning on feminine, by using the same declensions as “she.” “Hir,” although it’s supposed to be pronounced “here,” is read as “her” by many people unfamiliar with the term, and the less-gendered alternative, “zir,” along with “ze” itself, often runs into problems when it follows a word ending in an “s” or “z” (or “th”) sound, sometimes sounding just like “her” and “he.” For example, read this sentence aloud: “As ze looked up at the stars, ze realized that this was zir favorite moment of them all.” This isn’t as much of a problem with “ze,” which doesn’t follow words ending in s/z terribly often, but the problem occurs much more often with “zir” than it did with any of the declensions of “ne” or “ve.”

“They” is gender neutral (and a singular pronoun)

However, the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” Meanwhile, R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they.


Keep learning

Once you accept that pronouns are the absolute least you can do to fight transphobia and promote trans inclusion, you might be in need of some actionable next steps.

Read this article for more on these five actions you can take.

1. Take pronoun sharing seriously.

2. “Male” and “female” are sexes, not genders/pronouns.

3. Don’t correct people if someone is misgendered.

4. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move on.

5. Cis folks- Introduce yourself and your pronouns.

Read this article about pronoun go arounds in professional settings.

Pronouns are “unprofessional”

Let’s take a moment to think about what it means to hear, “I will not discuss pronouns in a professional setting.” Hearing this reminded me that, for some people, there is no place for transgender people in professional settings. Basically, any non-cis gender identity is “unprofessional.”

“Professional” is a code for a classist, masculine, patriarchal system. A place where a strict and expensive dress code reinforces the binary where women are expected to wear makeup and have their hair done, men are expected to wear suits. Women are called “aggressive” and “bitchy” for behavior which might cause a man to be lauded as a “strong leader.” And there is no room in this binary for trans people. This is not news to me. But we can do better by making spaces safer for trans folk