Last year, Laci Green posted How Many Freakin Genders, and How Many Freakin Genders, Part 2. If you’ve never thought about issues surrounding sex and gender, her videos are a good introduction. However, Green makes a common mistake when she says that biological sex has basically two options (male and female). To this point, scientific research has found that the genetic switches determinative of your biological sex are not binary like an on/off switch. They're more like dimmer switches with an infinite number of settings between extremes. How many freakin’ biological sexes? Possibly infinite.
Even if there were only one gender for each biological sex, there would be an infinite number of genders. If different genders use different pronouns, how many freakin’ pronouns? He and she don’t come close to covering infinity, so people have come up with a variety of first person, singular pronouns to fill the gap. There is some resistance to the new pronouns, but remember, we learned how to say “Ms.” We learned to say “African-American.” If a friend changes their name when they get married or divorced, we adapt to the new name. If we know a judge personally, we don’t forget to call them “your honor” in court. We can definitely learn which pronouns people use.
How do you know which pronouns a person uses? They tell you. Until then, stick with gender neutral pronouns. Perhaps the easiest path is to start with the familiar: Use “they” as a singular pronoun. “They” has been both singular and plural (like “you”) since, at least, Chaucer, and we still use it that way. (See e.g. “If a friend changes their name…”). If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out the Motivated Grammar post “Singular ‘they’” or Grammar Girl’s “Gender-Neutral Pronouns” and “Singular ‘They’.”
How do you tell someone which pronouns you use? It’s easy to insert this into your introduction, “I’m Ari—they, them—nice to meet you.” Include your pronouns in your signature block. My signature block says “Pronouns: they, them, their” right below my phone number. If someone uses an incorrect pronoun for you, just give a mild, matter of fact correction as you would if someone used an incorrect pronoun for your pet. “I use they.” If the person looks confused, follow up with “not she” or “not he” as the case may be.
What if you say the wrong pronoun by accident? Don’t freak out. Correct yourself, or accept the correction, in a mild, matter-of-fact tone, and move on. For example, “…she—I mean they—…” The key is to be respectful.
To make your pronouns known, the convention is to list them in the following order: subject, object, possessive, possessive pronoun, reflexive. “I’m Ari—they, them, their, theirs, themself.” You don’t have to list all five all the time, but do include any nonstandard parts. “I’m Ari—they, them” is sufficient, but “I’m Ari—phe, phe, phes” (pronunciation: fē, fē, fēz). I would stop there because the listener will probably assume the last two correctly (phes, pheself).
An easy way to be an ally is to include pronouns in your introduction and signature block even if you’re cisgender. This will help everyone feel more comfortable asserting their pronouns, and you’ll be less likely to use an incorrect pronoun if everyone includes them in their introductions and signature blocks. Win-win.
Ari Hornick, who wrote this for San Diego Lawyers Club’s LGBTQ Committee, is an ethics attorney in downtown San Diego.