PRIDE SUNDAY: Why pronouns matter

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a five-part series of blog posts, published every Sunday during the month of June, commemorating Pride Month in 2019.

Six days ago, I publicly came out as a polysexual man via Twitter. I wrote about my rather unusual coming out story here.

As this is the first LGBTQIA+-related blog post that I’ve written here on Apollo Corner since I came out as polysexual, I’m going to take this opportunity to explain why using the correct personal pronouns to refer to a person is extremely important, especially if a person is either a transgender person or a person of a non-binary gender.

In the English language, grammatical gender is not a feature in standard first-person and second-person pronouns. As a result, in an English-speaking society, when one asks another about their pronouns, it typically refers to third-person pronouns.

Grammatical gender is largely a linguistic fossil in the English language, although grammatical gender in English is retained in third-person singular personal and reflexive pronouns, as well as, for example, many nouns denoting familial relation, the practice of referring to ships and boats in the feminine gender, and a few verb-derived nouns denoting professions (an example of this is “actor”/”actress”). In English, there are three sets of standard third-person personal and reflexive pronouns: masculine singular, feminine singular, and plural. In the masculine singular, the standard pronouns are he (subject), him (object), his (possessive), and himself (reflexive). In the feminine singular, the standard pronouns are she (subject), her (object), hers (possessive), and herself (reflexive). In the plural, the standard pronouns are they (subject), them (object), their (dependent possessive), theirs (independent possessive), and themselves (reflexive).

However, people who are LGBTQIA+, especially, but not necessarily limited to, people who are transgender or are of a non-binary gender, may request that people refer to them in the third person by using non-traditional third-person pronouns. The website of the University of Southern California (USC) LGBT Resource Center lists three sets of gender-neutral third-person personal and reflexive pronouns, and, although USC doesn’t apply names to each of the sets of pronouns, I will refer to them, respectively, as the singularized pronouns, the S-class pronouns, and the Z-class pronouns. The singularized pronouns are essentially third-person plural pronouns used to refer to a single individual in the third person, consisting of they (subject), them (object), their (dependent possessive), theirs (independent possessive), and themself (reflexive). The S-class pronouns are sie (subject), hir (object), hirs (possessive), and hirself (reflexive), pronounced SEE, HEER, HEERS, and HEER-self, respectively. The Z-class pronouns are zie (subject), zir (object), zirs (possessive), and zirself (reflexive), pronounced ZEE, ZURR, ZURRS, and ZURR-self, respectively. These sets of pronouns are not the only non-traditional sets of pronouns in existence, and some people may prefer to be referred to using a non-traditional set of third-person pronouns that I’ve not listed here. It is absolutely important that, if you wish to refer to someone who requests usage of non-standard third-person pronouns when referring to them in the third person, please use the set of pronouns that the person prefers to be used.

In regards to personal titles, some people, especially, but not necessarily exclusively, transgender people and people of a non-binary gender may prefer to use the gender-neutral common honorific title Mx. (pronounced MIKS) instead of the standard forms Mr. (masculine), Mrs. (married feminine), Ms. (feminine), or Miss (unmarried feminine). Usage of Mx. appears to be more common in the United Kingdom than the United States, although it is not unheard of for Mx. to be used in the United States. Another gender-neutral common honorific title that may be used is M. (pronounced EM). It is important to use the honorific title that the person requests that you use.

Using the wrong pronouns or honorific title to refer to someone is a form of violence, even if you do not consider it such. Misgendering someone, or referring to someone by a gender that they do not identify as, is a very serious form of disrespect, and it will result in the other person feeling as if you’re questioning who they are or not regarding them as who they are. Except for not being believed, I can’t think of a worse feeling than having my identity being questioned or disregarded.