Why gender-neutral pronouns matter

For many whose lives have been determined by a singular, gender pronoun of “he” or “she”, encountering gender pronouns which cannot be determined just by looking at a person may seem like a ‘new’ phenomenon

To people who have never had to worry about which pronoun others use to refer to them, gender pronouns might not seem important.

Even for – most probably – many readers here, their singular and visible gender identity is a privilege they have never needed to question. Yet as gender identity entered even the Maltese legislative books in the last decade, so has the conversation about people’s gender pronouns grown. And for those referred to with the wrong pronoun, they can feel disrespected and invalidated.

But for many whose lives have been determined by a singular, gender pronoun of “he” or “she”, encountering gender pronouns which cannot be determined just by looking at a person may seem like a ‘new’ phenomenon.

Gender-neutral English-language pronouns today make space not just for two genders, but for many more, serving as a way for people who fall outside the binary of “man” and “woman” to describe themselves. They provide an identity for a singular person who does not identify as he/him or she/her. “They” is used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun – even though some critics argue that “they” should really only be used to refer to plural nouns. In recent years especially, they’ve become a staple of dating apps, college campuses, and email signatures.

On Twitter, personalities and politicians as well as ordinary users are listing their pronounces on their social media bio – he/him, she/her or they/them – a basic set of pronouns that is not even the exclusive expression of the LGBT+ community. This is part of a new language of identity that lets people know that you are not going to assume their gender, avoiding getting someone’s gender wrong, as well as benefiting the LBGT+ community.

“It might have started off as a trend, but nowadays it seems to have caught on enough to be used as a way to normalise the use of non-binary pronouns while also helping trans people not be accidentally misgendered,” Amanda Cossai (she/her), a transgender woman, tells MaltaToday.

“The only people who were doing it were trans and non-binary people, and by doing that, they painted a target on their back. So, for example, even if I didn’t know that a person was trans, if you saw pronouns on their bio a few years back, you could make a confident guess that they were transgender,” Cossai said.

Nowadays, Cossai says even allies from outside the LBGT+ community, are stating their pronouns, making its usage more effective. “Even people who think it is unnecessary should start doing this as a show of support and respect towards the community. A cis- person (someone who is not trans-gender) who feels threatened when asked to state their pronouns is someone who does not understand the importance of referring to people by their desired name and pronouns.”

But it has been a double-edged sword. Online misgendering, the use of incorrect pronouns, has become a way of attacking others based on their gender identity. “Adopting a system like this that is normalising the use of a person’s correct pronouns will help in making such verbal attacks less accepted,” Cossai says.

Activist Mina Jack Tolu (they/them), a former Green Party candidate for Europe in Malta, uses non-gendered pronouns, and points out that media companies have also embraced putting pronouns in social media bios. “Instagram has introduced a setting to add your pronouns so as not to be included in the character limit of social media bios – so the idea of putting pronouns in social media is also being introduced from the top down,” Tolu explains.

Mina Jack Tolu, former Alternattiva Demokratika candidate for Europe
Mina Jack Tolu, former Alternattiva Demokratika candidate for Europe

But putting pronouns in social media bios has been something LBGT+ activists have been doing for years, and it’s not something new. But now even companies like Zoom have introduced inclusive tools for individuals to post their pronouns on their profiles, which eliminates confusion during meetings or the discomfort of being misgendered.

Tolu described their own struggle of being misgendered, due to their outward appearance, a  frustrating experience considering they haven’t used feminine pronouns since 2015. “I think cis allies putting their pronouns in their social media bios does help – for the longest time, it was done by transgender people, and it was a clear identifier and made them targets. Really for many cis people, there is no discomfort doing it,” they said.     

Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer (he/him), currently the only Maltese MEP to have his pronouns listed in his social media bios, says his decision was a deliberate, clear message of inclusion and that he would not assume anyone’s gender. “This creates a safe space for all and not just those who never had to worry about which pronouns others use to refer to them. As a cis-gender male, I’ve been privileged in society having a singular and visible gender identity. However, not everyone owns that privilege,” Engerer said.

Engerer said that by doing so, he is hoping to make minorities more comfortable doing so – while at the same time creating awareness to those who might not know the struggle that people are going through.      

Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer
Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer

“A few on my social media have sometimes ridiculed pronoun listings. If one spoke with those affected, they would immediately realise how much important this is to a very vulnerable minority in our community,” he said.

This is perhaps also related to the use of other gender-neutral pronouns like ‘ze’ pronounced zee, and its variations, ‘zir’, ‘zem’, and ‘zeir’, which have not caught on in everyday language. The attempts to make new non-binary pronouns have not been as successful because they are not already embedded in grammar, unlike “they” and “them”. (The Sacramento Bee used the gender-neutral ‘hir’ from the 1920s to the 1940s. Mx. – the gender-neutral equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. – was first recorded in an April 1977 edition of the magazine The Single Parent.)

Engerer said that while he disagreed with imposing pronouns, it was clear that one should lead by example.

Nationalist Party candidate Emma Portelli Bonnici (she/her), is also one of the few PN politicians who has her pronouns in her social media bio. She says that if by doing so she helped one person feel at ease and less marginalised, then it was worth the mockery she had received. “I have found that some people have a tendency to mock or belittle that which they do not understand, or perhaps, that which does not affect them personally – it did not come naturally to me to understand why it is important to include pronouns anywhere, but once I listened to the stories and lived experiences of the people whom these issues directly affect, it became much easier,” she says.

Former MZPN secretary-general Emma Portelli Bonnici
Former MZPN secretary-general Emma Portelli Bonnici

Portelli Bonnici believes the role of a politician was to work for the people – whether they voted for them or not. “It is paramount to ensure that the best practices are implemented at the highest levels of government to set an example and allow that example to trickle down - this applies to something as seemingly small as the inclusion of one’s pronouns on their social media accounts.”

“Some may think of some of these things as small, they can be life-changing in making others feel seen, heard, and safe.”

How do I ask someone what their gender pronoun is?

As part of an introduction or icebreaker at work, you can say, “Tell us your name, your role, and if you’re comfortable, your gender pronoun.” You might hear gender-neutral pronouns like “they, them, theirs.” In other cases, people may prefer that you simply use their name. In a one-on-one conversation, the best way to ask is with a straightforward: “What are your gender pronouns?” or “Can you remind me of which pronouns you like for yourself?”

What happens if I use the wrong gender pronoun for someone?

If you realise it at the moment, correct yourself. Apologize and restate the correct pronoun, as in, “Sorry, I meant she.” If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologise in private. Don’t dwell on your mistake - it’s not productive. Steven explains, “It is inappropriate to make the person feel awkward and responsible for comforting you.” In other words, it’s your job to remember and respect someone’s gender pronouns. The best apology is to be better in the future.

How organisations can promote inclusion through gender pronouns

An easy way for companies to introduce gender pronouns into the conversation is to include them in email signatures. This action serves not only as a reminder internally but also builds awareness externally.

Most people have not been questioned about their gender identity. This is a simple way to show they care about and respect the people in that minority who are questioned about their gender identity: an acknowledgment of one’s privilege.