What is a Preferred Gender Pronoun and why does it matter?

Ariane Caday
Contributing Writer

Try speaking a sentence without using any pronouns. Hard, isn’t it?

Pronouns are everywhere. We use them in everyday speech, as well as in writing, to take the place of people’s names. In today’s culture of dramatic progress for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities, the proper use of gender pronouns can help promote an informed society.

With the recent legalization of gay marriage in the state of Virginia on Oct. 6, the subject of using preferred gender pronouns in regards to same-sex or transgender couples is now a part of the mainstream discussion. With the awareness of gender variance being the most evident on college campuses, staying informed helps promote respect and acceptance.

A preferred gender pronoun is the pronoun, or set of pronouns, that a person would like others to use when talking to or about that person. In English, the singular pronouns most frequently used are I, you, she, he and it. Gender-neutral pronouns are pronouns that do not differentiate between the sexes, such as I, you, they and it.

Gendered pronouns may be a source of controversy for transgender and genderqueer people, because others may not use the pronouns they prefer when speaking to or about them. Those who refuse often question why a need for a new pronoun is necessary.

The answer is simply that some transgender and genderqueer people may not be comfortable being addressed with specifically masculine or feminine pronouns. For some, gender identification is clear-cut, whether assigned at birth or accepted later. For others, gender identity can be expressed ambiguously or opposite of traditional social constructs. Regardless of how you identify, based on social norms, your behavior will be judged, and considered an extension of your inherently gendered identification.

In circumstances where a person may not feel comfortable expressing gender identity, the use of gender-neutral pronouns is often preferred. It’s also often used to promote equality. Gender-neutral pronouns were recently officially adopted in Sweden. According to a Sept. 29, 2014 Newsweek article, the pronoun — “hen” — was adopted to put an end to gender inequality among children; children’s toy aisles, educational facilities and nurseries have all eschewed traditional gender stereotypes. This step toward equality for toddlers in Sweden is also a step toward equality for transgender and genderqueer adults in the U.S. As the world adopts the same sort of thinking, the use of gender-neutral pronouns won’t seem so outlandish.

In fact, American English speakers already use a gender-neutral pronoun: “they.” Colloquially, this tends to occur when the pronoun refers to a person of indeterminate gender. It’s hardly a new trend; renowned linguist Stephen Pinker wrote about the phenomenon in his 1994 book “The Language Instinct.”

There are also specifically gender-neutral pronouns. “Ze” is the subject pronoun and is pronounced /zee/. “Hir” is the object and possessive pronoun and is pronounced /heer/.  These can provide a more fluid option for gender-nonconforming people. The several different forms of the PGP model are being used more and have transformed into a movement.

The use of gender-neutral pronouns isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. Social progress is ultimately happening faster for those seeking rights like marriage, with 11 states legalizing gay marriage in the United States in 2014 alone. According to TIME Magazine, “With stunning speed, a concept dismissed even by most gay-rights leaders just 20 years ago is now embraced by half or more of all Americans, with support among young voters running as high as 4:1.”

The use of gender-neutral pronouns is more analogous to transgender and genderqueer people, and although progress is slowly gaining traction, social change is ultimately happening faster within the greater context of LGBTQ activism. But with each victory for the LGBTQ movement at large — gay marriage or non-discriminatory policies preventing the mistreatment of trans workers — the community will be better able to champion causes like pronoun usage.

The LGBTQ communities at VCU are well represented by students and faculty involved in various clubs and departments, such as the Queer-Straight Alliance club and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Lisa Griffin, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at VCU, was asked about her thoughts on the ubiquity of preferred gender pronouns at VCU and their relevance to the LGBTQ community here.

“My sense is that VCU is a relatively welcoming place for LGBTQ students,” Griffin said. “Students don’t have to look very hard to find resources, and while there’s always room for improvement, I haven’t heard many horror stories from LGBTQ students about their experiences at VCU.”

Tiny steps, such as being informed on how to correctly use preferred gender pronouns, help make a difference to those in our community who are seeking equal treatment, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I think the rapid and seismic change in attitudes about marriage equality is symbolic of how very far we’ve come, but continued hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals show us we still have a lot of work to do,” Griffin said.

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