Pronouns are linguistic instruments used to identify and address people. They are essential in individual identification and expression. Issues of acceptance and equality among transgender and nonbinary communities continue to attract the attention of mainstream media today.
While some see pronoun usage as a contemporary cultural issue, others including Dennis Baron, professor of English, emeritus at the University of Illinois take a dive deep into the history of pronouns and where it all began as the author of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She.
Writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales in 1326 and William Shakespeare have used the singular "they" in their writing to describe someone. Pronoun use and opinions on how to use them began around the 18th century, according to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Pronoun language continues to develop, and the conversation about pronouns has increased as subject usage has become more of a mainstream media topic.
"I can see that maybe some people are kind of taking it back to like, 'Oh, I haven't heard about this before,' but in my head, the reason behind it is their meaning hasn't changed throughout history. It's just a way to refer to people," said Katrina Velasquez, a second-year master's student in the Counseling Psychology program and the gender and sexuality inclusion extern for Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership (IDEAL).
"The meanings haven't changed," said Velasquez, as she expanded on her input of pronoun utilization over the years and how it can be a privilege to not worry about your pronouns.
It's a privilege not to think of your pronouns or not think about how people perceive you and what gender pronouns are putting onto you. I think people are more aware that they can choose what pronouns to use and that there are other pronouns besides she/her and he/him.
Velasquez also provided an opinion on the work done to bridge the gap in these conversations.
"Not enough. I teach the Safe Zone trainings, for example, and help with other workshops and stuff around campus," said Velasquez. "And so, I am involved in a lot of those conversations. And I'm always excited when people request workshops to introduce some of these conversations and spaces in which maybe it's not a priority."
If the conversation began well before the 21st century, why is there still so much controversy over pronoun use? The answer to that question is not so simple, but it begins with understanding what it means for the LGBTQIA+ community.
"The usage of [them] is very critical and important in my opinion, because it allows us to identify and not misgender one person," said Student Engagement Director, Nu'Rodney Prad. "So, it is a very important thing when identifying individuals."
Pronouns are used in everyday conversation to replace an individual's name, often without much thought.
Additionally, not everyone grew up with inclusive language or is aware of how to demonstrate care and respect for the LGBTQIA+ community.
"I'm always like, okay, let's have the conversation, and then we'll all know. I always preach that we should assume good intent first and then try to educate or share information, and then, you know, we'll see how we can go from there," said Velasquez.
However, when speaking with or about someone in the third person, these pronouns are gender implied. Using the correct gender pronouns is essential for respect, acceptance, belonging, and inclusivity. Mistaking an individual's pronouns could be offensive, disrespectful and harmful.
"I encourage people to always use folks' names and not make it a requirement that a person needs to introduce themselves with their pronouns," said Prad. "Because some people could be, you know, very protective of that information, and they may not necessarily be out when it comes to gender identity."
Everyone makes mistakes, because it is a natural part of the learning process. If you mistakenly use the wrong pronoun; you should apologize.
"Move on and not bring all this attention to the person and about misgendering. If it's someone that is misgendering when the person is not around, just be able to assist in correcting that individual and reminding them of the pronouns that a person might identify with," Prad suggests.
If you are unsure of an individual's pronoun or how to use it, simply ask if they're open to sharing their pronouns. It ensures an individual feels comfortable and respected and provides an option if they are not ready to share their pronouns.
As gender pronouns become more widely known, it is challenging to supply an exclusive list of the total amount used and how to use them, said The LGBTQ Nation. To assist with navigating among the different pronouns, the LGBTQ Nation provided this chart consisting of ten gender pronouns and how to use them as an object, in the possessive form, possessive pronoun, and reflexive pronoun. The infographic before the chart also provides helpful tips when using gender pronouns.
IDEAL strongly encourages employees to take the Safe Zone Training to understand pronouns and gain insight into what it means to be a person within the LGBTQIA+ community and how to advocate for one another.
The office also weighs in on meaningful conversations with university task forces, which aid in examining preferred name policies and pronoun usage within the university systems.
If you are unsure where to start regarding pronoun usage, check out IDEAL's Gender Identity & Expression section of its website, where there are multiple resources, including Preferred Name Use, Pronoun Use, and Gender Identity. These resources are available whether you're a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or just eager to learn more.
"We encourage all of our team members to utilize the pronouns that they choose to do so in their email signatures, and the signatures, you know, really symbolize to individuals that they have an understanding or necessary identification of what pronoun uses is," said Prad.