The Purpose and Problems of Asking Pronouns

Ceci Davis

We use pronouns almost every day and in almost every conversation as a way to talk about ourselves and others. Trans people, gender-nonconforming people, and cis people all use them when referring to each other. Including our pronouns in introductions is a relatively new way to support the LGBTQIA+ community. It can give people a chance to share how they wish to be addressed and avoid being misgendered. Because of this, many of us have been in a room where “say your name, pronouns, and favorite ice cream flavor” was the prompted introduction. By correctly using a person’s pronouns, you are acknowledging their identity and respecting their self-expression. This applies to cis and trans people alike. However, there are instances when asking for someone’s pronouns can be harmful to the very people it is trying to help. When is it detrimental, and what improvements can be made?

I wanted to get other students’ opinions on the topic, so I visited the Queer Straight Alliance in room C408 to hear what students have to say about being asked their pronouns and how it can be done more effectively. To maintain privacy, the students that I quote will remain anonymous.

Before discussing a better approach to asking for pronouns, it is important to understand the purpose of including pronouns in introductions and who it is helping when doing so. The intent is to create a comfortable environment and prevent misgendering trans, non-binary, gender-fluid folks, and anyone else who does not fit into the gender mold they are assigned at birth. “It just helps when [someone asks] ‘What are your pronouns?’” one student said. “Once they start using them, it makes me comfortable around that person.” Another student added that “it makes me trust them more […] Asking someone shows respect and consideration.”                                                                                 

Asking a person their pronouns can be helpful, but in what circumstances is it not? When can it be harmful? In some cases, people may only be out to a select few or not out at all. They may not be comfortable sharing their pronouns, or it may not be safe for them to do so. In these instances, being asked what their pronouns are can put people in a very uncomfortable situation where they either have to actively lie and misgender themselves or are forced to come out to a group of people they have just met. “I generally feel a bit apprehensive because if I don’t know them, then I don’t know how they feel about neo-pronouns” admitted one student. Another student said that asking “can force people to do things that they don’t want to do.” Or rather, say something that isn’t true to themselves.

Asking for pronouns is helpful for many, but there is still room for improvement. First, it is important to do things in private and never put someone on the spot in front of a group of people. Be deliberate in how you ask someone for their pronouns. If you ask a person, “What are your pronouns?” it may put them in a sensitive situation. But, if you ask “What pronouns would you like me to use for you in this setting?” it allows them to say that they would prefer to be addressed in a certain way without being untrue to themselves. People may use different pronouns in different places, so asking their preference in that specific situation is one way to help others feel more comfortable. An option within the classroom is to hand out a piece of paper to each student which asks them their preferred pronouns, the pronouns that they want to be referred to in front of the class, and the pronouns they want to be called in front of their parents. In doing so, teachers are acknowledging that the list above may vary, and are respecting the students’ identities. One student I spoke with suggested that if teachers were to do this, then, “instead of giving [students] already printed options like he/him, she/her, or they/them, […] just leave it blank,” leaving space for all variations of identity to be expressed.

As you meet new people, or even when you are with friends you have known for years, it is important to remember the reason behind asking for someone’s pronouns and be conscious about how you do it. The goal is to respect others and make them feel comfortable and safe. Good luck out there!