Gender Pronouns Explained, And Why They Matter

The pronouns that we use are as much a part of us as the rest of our identity. If your child tells you their pronouns, it's important to listen.

Banti Jaswal, 19, remembers what it felt like to be placed into a gender category they did not fit into as a child. "My doctors looked at me and chose to give me a gender: female." Jaswal is intersex, and being referred to as "she" never felt right. Today, Jaswal uses the pronouns they/them. These pronouns allow Jaswal to live as their true self.

An illustration of pronouns.
Illustration: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

"Being my free intersex self is me living my best life in my true identity. I feel everything is fluid," says Jaswal. "I'm just a person inside this idea of binary that I don't agree with when the world is fluid."

Like Jaswal, your child might use they/them pronouns. Or they might want to be called "he" even though they were assigned female at birth. If your child asks you to refer to them by different pronouns than they were assigned at birth, it may seem inconsequential—but these words matter.

Our pronouns define who we are to other people. As caregivers, how you refer to your child shows them how you respect them. If they ask you to use a specific pronoun in place of their name, it's important to listen.

What Is a Pronoun?

In linguistics and grammar, pronouns act as a substitute for an individual's given name. We use terms like "they," "she," and "he," or modern mixes like "xe" or "fae." The pronouns we use represent who a person is—and in English, it represents their gender identity.

The pronoun "you" is used regardless of gender identity because no additional attributes are needed for the context of who is being spoken about. Still, when referring to your child by something other than their name, we need a shorthand that best reflects who they are and helps identify them.

In an emergency or crisis, we need to be able to identify ourselves, our family, friends, and even strangers in an instant; at our doctors' offices or hospitals, in our school settings, our homes, and in spaces of community justice and law enforcement, as well. Pronouns help us do that efficiently.

Why Pronouns Matter

Using a child's correct gender pronouns is the easiest way to show that you respect who they are—this can shape their mental health for the rest of their lives. For a caregiver to acknowledge their identity can make the world of difference. According to The Trevor Projects' Research Brief: Gender-Affirming Care for Youth, there is a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior for youth when their chosen name is used.

"Pronouns are some of our smallest written and spoken words, but they can have the biggest impact on affirming a person's identity," says Gearah Goldstein, co-founder of The GenderCool Project. "If a child feels safe enough to disclose that they need us to use new pronouns, we've already done so many things correctly. It's what we do next that defines us."

Goldstein adds that feeling affirmed in one's identity is a major part of living a healthy and happy life. "For a child, or anyone really, feeling accepted, respected, and affirmed by the people we love the most is a major part of living a healthy and happy life."

Pronoun Representation Is Important

You might have noticed that your doctor asked for your pronouns on your recent intake form, your boss added their pronouns to their email signature, or your friend includes their pronouns on their Instagram profile. These are important steps in normalizing pronoun use and not assuming a person's pronouns based on their name or appearance.

"Many people never think about the importance of representation, mostly because they feel represented," says Goldstein. "The world around them reflects their lived experiences. There are other people, however, who do not share these experiences because the world around them does not reflect their own lived experiences. Pronouns fall into this category. We have come to learn that assuming a person's pronouns based on how they look is rightfully no longer appropriate."

Goldstein added that having the option to share our pronouns is the right thing to do. "Normalizing gender diversity is an inclusive practice that brings a better sense of belonging, as well as more loyal users, students, customers, and employees," she says.

Personal Evolution Should Be Respected

Growing up, Allie Quinn, 29, went by she/her. Quinn is white, nonbinary, and intersex and recently embraced the pronouns they/them. "I didn't think that I'd ever change [my pronouns]," Quinn says. "I couldn't imagine the work that would be necessary, but it was destroying my inner being, getting constantly called what I'm not."

Changing the words we identify with is a matter of personal perspective that must be respected. Language can be unforgiving, but we don't have to be.

"Using new pronouns can be difficult to understand, but acceptance doesn't come from understanding," says Goldstein. "We do not need to understand something in order to accept it. Acceptance comes from love or empathy, or just kindness. We don't understand so many things. We should let new pronouns be one of those things that we can accept without understanding."

Goldstein adds that an even better idea is for parents to understand that pronouns are really important. "We can understand how difficult it must be for a child to share this with others. We can understand how it would feel if people used the wrong pronouns for us."

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