How to refer to a non‐binary person

Monáe’s tweet came after the recent announcement of Sam Smith, who recently said they felt “just as much a woman as I am man”. Both celebrities joined the increasing number of young people who identify neither as male or female.

Non-binary people tend to prefer using they/them pronouns (although not exclusively – some use she and he interchangeably). If gender neutral pronouns intimidate you, you’re not the only one. As someone who is new to using them (a number of my friends have recently started to identify as non-binary), I confess it can be intimidating when you want to respect someone’s wishes without making any blunders.

Putting someone’s dignity before my shyness about how to use a pronoun is, of course, the bare minimum. But I admit to having made mistakes – even avoiding using pronouns in the past, for fear of getting it wrong.

It really isn’t that hard, however, to get it right.

Who uses they/them pronouns, and why?

More and more people are using gender-neutral pronouns. In 2015, of 4,000 students at Harvard who had submitted preferred pronouns, around 1% chose pronouns other than “he” or “she”. Last year, Merriam-Webster made the singular gender-neutral use of “they” its word of the year, based on the fact that it had seen a 313% increase in searches for its definition that year.

Reasons for choosing gender neutral pronouns are complex and personal. Some people do it because they don’t feel they fit into a gender. For others, it’s a form of protest: they contest rigid gender expectations and would rather live without them. Being gender non-conforming, right down to their pronouns, is how they choose to identify.

So please, if you learn someone uses they/them pronouns, don’t respond: “We get it OK – she’s gay!” – as my friend’s parents recently did.

Why they/them?

It is normal in the English language to use they/them pronouns when we don’t know the gender of the person to which we’re referring, or if we want our sentence to be applicable to all genders.

This isn’t new – the saying “Everybody loves their own mother” has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.

But what about the plural?

While it is no longer grammatically incorrect to use they/them as singular anymore, people still get confused about it. A friend’s parent recently responded to their pronouns, saying: “But if I tell Shelly you’re coming round for dinner, she’ll think you’re bringing extra people!”

Try this: if you are using the pronoun in a scenario where there is no confusion over singular versus plural, just go ahead and use it (“You are going to meet my friend Poppy today, I hope you like them”).

If you are using it in an instance where it might be misconstrued as plural, you can change the first part of the sentence to make it clear (“I may bring a friend, their name is Poppy”).

If you still feel that is confusing, you can be explicit (“I asked Poppy – who uses they/them pronouns – they might come”). This also takes the onus off your non-binary friend for having to explain it themselves later.

What to avoid

Avoid assuming every person’s gender. Feel free to ask people when you meet them what pronouns they use. Feel free to put your own pronouns in your email signature, or to introduce people using your pronouns (this can take the focus off non-binary people having to do all the work).

What to embrace

Embrace doing your own research on pronouns, without expecting non-binary people to educate you. Encourage open dialogue, which means being open about your own shortcomings or fears, when relevant. Ensure this is a means to steer conversation forward (“Hey, did I get that right just then?”) not back (“Well actually this is pretty scary for me, so you shouldn’t correct me”).

What if I get pushback?

People may use your respect for another’s pronouns as a means to argue with you about the broader political context around gender and/or LGBTQ rights. But you don’t need to be needlessly drawn into an argument unless that’s where you want to go. Briefly explain why you are doing it, and if the challenge escalates, consider shutting down the conflict (“It’s my choice to respect their wishes”; or even the more direct “I don’t want to argue about this”).

What if I make a mistake?

When you make a mistake, apologize, be gracious, and move on. Generally people aren’t out to get you. Don’t get too hung up: my experience is that people know getting it wrong is part of the process and are forgiving if they feel you are trying your best.

Sometimes you can check that you said the right thing first, rather than getting caught up in your head (“Hey, when I said that, was it offensive?’). Above all, recognize mistakes happen and apologies are OK, but don’t mistake them for real work. Saying sorry a handful of times might be fine, but if you’re misgendering someone over and over again you might want to think about why, and do better.

You’ll be OK

Exposure is key. Keep using they/them, and soon it will feel normal. That’s the aim.

January 07, 2021

My name’s Arlo, and I’m transgender. That means I don’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. I’m not a girl, and the thing is, I’m not a boy either. So the word I use to describe my gender is non-binary.

Here are some things you need to know to understand who I am.

What is the gender binary?

The gender binary is the Western concept that there are only two gender options: male or female. The most important thing to know about the gender binary is that it’s kind of a load of crap. Gender identity is one’s own internal experience and perception of self. And you know what? It’s completely separate to one’s sex.

What does non-binary mean?

In really simple terms, a non-binary person is someone who does not identify as exclusively a man or a woman. Someone who is non-binary might feel like a mix of genders, or like they have no gender at all.

Personally, I identify outside of the gender binary entirely. I am not a boy or girl at all. Some other non-binary people might identify partially with one or more of the binary genders – for example, a gender-fluid person (someone whose gender changes over time) who identifies as a girl sometimes and genderless other times. There are so many different ways to be non-binary, and we’re all still valid and real!

So, how different are you now?

In a lot of ways I’m same person that I’ve always been. If anything, I’m a more authentic version of myself now that I can be open with people in my life. Like everyone, I’m still figuring out exactly who I am, and as I keep finding what works best for me I’ll ask my friends and family to change some things about how they treat me.

Here are some of the changes I have made. These might last for the rest of my life, they might not even last for the rest of the year. The important thing is that this is who I am right now, and although I know that linguistic shifts can take time to get used to, it means the absolute world to me when people strive to consciously change some of these habits to respect my identity.

Pronouns

Pronouns are the words that take place of a person’s name. Pronouns don’t have a gender, but some people feel more comfortable with certain pronouns than others. I use the pronouns ‘they/them’ since they’re what fit me best. So if someone was talking about me, they’d say, “This is Arlo, they’re awesome.” or “Oh, Arlo – Yep I’ve met them before.”

Find out more about pronouns >>

They/them? Isn’t that plural?

Nope! They/them can refer to a single person as well. You’ve probably done it before usually when you don’t know someone’s gender. You might say something like “Is your friend coming to the party? Do I need to know anything about them?” Using they/them to refer to just one person has been around for a long time – even Shakespeare did it.

Gendered language

A lot of our language is gendered. Mother, brother, boyfriend, actress – the list goes on. I’m a lot more comfortable when people use gender-neutral language when referring to me, ie. person, friend, human, kid, adult, champion. I know that these can seem clunky and odd at first, but it makes me feel a lot more comfortable when you use them. Using gender-neutral language means a lot to me (and a lot of other non-binary people!), and using them will start to feel more natural as you get used to them.

Phrases like ‘ladies and gentlemen’ are also gendered, and when we use them we exclude people who aren’t ladies and who aren’t gentlemen. Instead, try phrases like ‘hey everyone’, ‘hey pals!’ or ‘distinguished guests’.

My name

Part of coming out as trans or non-binary for many people is choosing a new name (especially when an old name is a traditionally really gendered one). A lot of people know me by the name my parents called me when I was born, so it’s been a process for me to let them know about my new name: Arlo.

But there’s the thing – it’s worth the effort. Arlo is my name, and it’s important to me that I have a name that reflects who I am. Inviting people to know me as Arlo, to know me for who I really am, is a step I’m so glad I was able to take.

What next?

These are just some of the things that might change when a non-binary person publicly affirms their gender. It can be difficult to work out exactly how you want to express yourself, and it can be difficult to adjust as people you know change. But it can also be a wonderful experience to celebrate your gender, the same way friends and family celebrate their own.

I’ve been lucky enough to know some phenomenal people who have supported me, and been completely excellent in using my pronouns and name. I couldn’t have got this far without them. And that’s what it really comes down to. It means the world to non-binary people when they are supported – it did for me!

This quicktip was created in collaboration with Melinda Lee, Assistant Director, Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life.

Problem

Many people understand the existence of gender pronouns beyond the binary (she/her/hers or he/him/his). However, they may not be familiar with how to use those pronouns in sentences. As a result, even when they know the pronouns of reference for a person, they can struggle to incorporate those pronouns in their writing.

Solutions

Learn the typical forms that nonbinary gender pronouns can take.

The following chart provides examples of some nonbinary gender pronouns in a variety of forms.

Pronouns of reference

Nominative (subject)

Objective (object)

Possessive determiner

Possessive pronoun

Reflexive

They wrote a carefully-
researched article.

Their carefully-
researched article won an award.

That research is theirs.

They cited themself.

Ey wrote a carefully-
researched article.
(“ay”)

Eir carefully-
researched article won an award.
(“air”)

Ey cited emself.

Ze wrote a carefully-
researched article.
(“zee”)

Hir carefully-
researched article won an award.

Ze wrote a carefully-
researched article.
(“zee”)

Zir carefully-
researched article won an award.

Co wrote a carefully-
researched article.

Co’s carefully-
researched article won an award.

Co cited coself.

Chart adapted from Gender Pronouns, LGBT Resource Center, University of Wisconsin, 23 March 2018.

Proofread your writing.

No matter what pronouns appear in your sentences, it’s important that you are consistent in the pronouns you use to cite or refer to people. One way to check for consistency is to use Word’s Find feature (in the “Edit” menu) to search for the pronouns you’ve written in. For example, if you’re citing a writer who uses “they/them/theirs” pronouns and you’re concerned that you might have written a different one to refer to them, go to the Edit menu and select Find. Type in the author’s name in order to find all the sentences where you’ve cited them; that way, you can be sure to proofread each sentence that refers to the author. Or, you could use Edit>Find to search for any instances of, say, “she” that need to be changed to the appropriate pronoun.

Practice using nonbinary gender pronouns so that they become more automatic.

If you will be citing or referring to a person who uses nonbinary gender pronouns, practice reading and writing texts with those pronouns. At the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog, each entry on a specific pronoun links to a passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland using that pronoun in place of “she/her/hers.” Reading these excerpts can familiarize you with how nonbinary pronouns appear in context. Another place to learn and practice using a variety of gender pronouns is the web-based Pronouns App, developed by the Australian youth-led LGBTI organization Minus 18.

Consider adding an explanatory footnote.

If your audience is not familiar with nonbinary pronouns, consider adding an explanatory footnote after your first use of a nonbinary pronoun. An example might be, “In this paper, I use the nonbinary gender pronouns [name them] because the people I am citing and/or to whom I am referring use these pronouns to refer to themselves. It is important to me that I respect their identities in my writing by using the appropriate gender pronouns.”

If you are using singular they, you may also wish to cite the International Writing Centers Association’s Position Statement on "Singular Use of ‘They.’"

How to refer to a non‐binary person

Recently, nonbinary (this will open in a new window) and genderqueer (this will open in a new window) voices are being heard in our media in a way they haven’t before – but what about in our fiction? With some publishers pushing for diversity, I’ve noticed more authors beginning to write characters whose gender identities lie outside the ‘male’ or ‘female’ binary. As a nonbinary writer (and reader!) I find the idea of more characters like me really exciting. As with any group of people, especially those who may be marginalised, though, it’s important to do your research and get it right before you jump in with two feet.

Examine the way you conceptualise gender

We’re raised to think of gender as just Female and Male, but the existence of genderqueer people proves it’s more complex than just one or t’other. How do you think of your own gender? Are you all male or all female? Is there a little wiggle room? Because we don’t fit with society’s concept of gender, nonbinary and genderqueer people are forced to always think about gender, so thinking about it yourself will help you get into your character’s head.

We don’t have to be aliens or faeries!

This is a pattern a lot of fantasy and sci-fi authors fall into: a nonbinary character who is nonbinary because they belong to a species/culture which has a different (or no) concept of gender. This is a perfectly legitimate way to do it; however, it’s important to remember that we’re also real people! If your only nonbinary characters are aliens and faeries, there’s an implication there that normal humans can’t identify outside the binary.

Remember that physical sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression are different things

Physical sex refers to a person’s bodily confirmation, i.e. their chromosomes, genitalia and internal sex organs. A person’s sexuality is who they’re attracted to. Your gender identity is how you think of yourself, and your expression of that is how you present yourself to the world. For many people, these characteristics all match, but for many they do not! For example a person can identify as neither male nor female but for social reasons present themself as only male or only female. A person can be born intersex (with irregular or “mismatched” physical sex characteristics) but might identify as only male or only female. These disconnects are really only possible to discuss for a POV character, in close narration, or if your story is about the character, but if you keep this in mind while writing any genderqueer character it’ll round them out nicely.

We don’t always look “androgynous”

There are about a million different ways to present as nonbinary.

This is connected to the previous point: there are about a million different ways to present as nonbinary, so when you’re describing your character, just using the word “androgynous” and moving on isn’t really going to work. What type of body shape does your character have? Do they wear “ambiguously” gendered clothes, or clothes for both men and women, or are they gender-fluid (with a changing gender identity) and present differently on different days?

Our gender is not the only thing about us

This one’s important! It’s really easy to write a gender-variant (trans, genderqueer or otherwise engaging unconventionally with gender) character and have them end up being one-dimensional, completely defined by their gender. While gender is something that most of us think about on a daily basis, remember while you’re writing that it’s not our defining characteristic. Give them other personality traits, interests and motivations and the character will be way more plausible.

Talk to a nonbinary or gender-variant person!

With all the furor lately surrounding sensitivity readers, it’s easy to forget that they’re there to help you write a better story. There are people whose job it is to flag up anything which might upset nonbinary (or any other demographic) readers and cause them to disengage or lose interest in your story. If you can’t afford a sensitivity reader but you’ve got nonbinary friends or acquaintances, try asking one of them for help with specific problems in your story. Obviously it’s not our job to educate you, and your acquaintance might be too busy or uncomfortable speaking for everyone in their group, but if you’re polite and make it clear you’re trying to educate yourself, it can’t hurt to ask!

Author Eris Young

Eris Young is a writer and bookseller who has, bafflingly, relocated from Southern California to Edinburgh. They write fiction, as well as about books and LGBT issues. Articles have appeared in The Fountain, Beyond the Binary and Diva Mag. They've been known to tweet at @young_e_h.