PART 1: How you’re already using pronouns
Check out this sentence:
“Casey called me last night, and Casey said Casey is having a tough time. Casey asked for my help.”
Oof, what a mouthful. That’s where pronouns come in.
“Casey called me last night, and she said she’s having a tough time. She asked for my help.”
Much better. Except…
“Casey” is one of the most common unisex names in the US, meaning it’s used by people of all genders.
So, in my example sentence, how do we know what kind of Casey we’re talking about?
I could replace “she” with “she/he” or “he or she,” but that’s pretty cumbersome.
Luckily, English already has a solution (we use it all the time).
Let’s say you don’t know my friend Casey.
If I told you that they lost their job recently, you might naturally ask something like:
“Oh no, how are they doing?”
Notice what I did there?
I used the pronoun “they” to refer to a single person.
Not only that. I casually used it in the bold sentence above as well to set up the quotation.
Did that strike you as odd? Or simply normal?
Some people object to “they,” saying it only refers to more than one person.
But that’s simply not true. We use it all the time when gender is ambiguous.
If you mention your cousin, I have no idea what gender they are.
Bam, I just casually used “they” again.
(By the way, According to the Oxford English Dictionary, singular “they” actually dates back to 1375.)
Now, here’s an edgy question to ponder (I’d love to hear your response too):
What do we gain or lose by ever using “he” or “she” rather than just referring to everyone as “they“?
(P.S. Notice how I haven’t even mentioned trans or gender nonconforming people yet. We’ll get there, but I hope you can already see that the discussion around pronouns applies to everyone.)
PART 2: Downsides of “he” and “she”
Properly answering the question I posed above is a big undertaking. But I’m going to go through some of my answer in the rest of this post.
Using “he” and “she” boxes us in.
When a human is born and assigned a gender (“he” or “she”), that comes with expectations, possibilities, and limitations.
Based on their assigned gender, they’ll internalize very different stories—about their identity, their place in the world, and what’s available to them.
Those stories will vary based on the culture (and time period).
At the extremes in the US, we might imagine one child in a pink bedroom playing with an Easy-Bake Oven, and another in a blue bedroom playing with G.I. Joes.
This hurts and limits the children in each of those bedrooms in different ways.
You’re in an online course cohort where everyone is anonymous (no genders listed).
Say you’ve enjoyed regularly interacting with someone, and one day someone who knows them in real life refers to them as “she” or “he.”
What changes in that moment for you? Does it feel like a contraction or an expansion?
Is it pleasant or unpleasant? In what way? (Take a moment and really notice.)
Now, how about this?
Let me tell you about my colleague at work.
“She’s been having a tough time.” (Pause, notice what you imagine.)
Oops, I meant:
“He’s been having a tough time.” (Pause, notice what you imagine.)
Is the type of tough time they’re having different in your mind?
PART 3: The upsides of “she”
Even though I just said “he” and “she” box us in, nuanced topics like this are not either/or—they’re both/and.
So, how is “she” good too?
Women have been marginalized.
Mainstream US culture has always operated under the presumption of two genders (this is what we call the “gender binary”).
This culture has favored men and marginalized women (from a century of fighting for the right to vote, to the glass ceilings & pay disparity of today).
“She” can empower women.
Yes, if we all used the pronoun “they,” we might be boxed in less (i.e., we could each live our lives without culturally-imposed expectations and limitations forced on us when our gender is assigned at birth).
But, using “she” can be a point of pride for women who have succeeded despite the odds stacked against them.
“She” can break down stereotypes. It can inspire young girls to follow their dreams.
There’s power in referring to an engineer as “she”—or any other career that’s typically been dominated by men.
(And, there’s also power in referring to an engineer as “they”—for the exact same reasons, but for people who identify as trans or nonbinary.)
PART 4: The upsides of “he”
In mainstream US culture, guys haven’t had a lot of great role models.
Most men in TV & movies have been portrayed as either:
- Powerful & overbearing (i.e., toxic masculinity), or
- Losers needing a strong woman to manage them (i.e., emasculated masculinity).
“He” can help us reclaim healthy manhood.
For those of us who want men to be (and do) better, we can choose to proudly refer to ourselves as “he.”
As a guy into social justice and feminism, it’s been tempting to want to abandon “he.” It feels gross sometimes to be associated with the many toxic men who have used their power to oppress others.
But there’s another option:
We don’t have to abandon the male gender as a lost cause.
We can redefine what’s possible for men. We can retain “he” and reclaim a less toxic version of manhood.
(By the way, I’ve happily noticed more quality “role model” men in media lately. Ted Lasso comes to mind. T’Challa—the Black Panther—is another.)
Bottom line: There are benefits to “he” and “she,” and there are benefits to the singular “they.”
That’s why we each get to choose our pronouns.
That’s why it’s important to share yours and ask someone else for theirs.
That’s why pronoun options are liberating for all of us. (And especially for people who identify as trans or non-binary.)
PART 5: Now, I’ll get more personal.
I’ve covered some of the benefits of “they,” “she,” and “he.”
How has all this affected me?
I began learning about pronouns to be a better ally to people who identify as trans & non-binary.
But along the way, I learned how important this is to all of us.
Gender is a societal construct.
What makes traits “masculine” or “feminine” is dictated by the culture and time period.
Learning about pronouns has informed my own journey around gender identity.
In Western culture, feminine traits tend to include empathy, humility, and slowing down.
Masculine traits tend to include assertiveness, toughness, and being stoic.
If gender is a spectrum with masculine “he” on one end and feminine “she” on the other, I identify a lot more with the traits on the feminine end.
On the other hand, I very much look like a traditional man: my clothing, my hair, my stubble. Plus, I’m not sexually attracted to other guys.
Because of this mix, “they” is appealing to me.
It more accurately describes the combination of feminine and masculine traits I feel inside myself.
And, it’s an act of rebellion—a pushing-back against the status quo that boxes us into only two possibilities.
So why do I still use “he/him” pronouns (for now, at least)?
I’ve gone back and forth on daring to use “they/them” instead, but the big reason I’ve stuck with “he/him” is this:
I want to stay in my lane.
I’m a heterosexual, white, cisgendered guy (i.e., my gender identity largely corresponds with my birth sex).
I’ve gone through life with so many unearned advantages as a man.
Anyone who saw me walk by would 100% refer to me as “he” without a second thought.
That kind of ease isn’t true for many people who identify as trans, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.
And because many of them appear more ambiguous or outside the norm, they’ve had to deal with a lot of oppression and marginalization.
So, in my view, they deserve to use “they” more than I do, and I don’t want to erase any of their life experience by claiming that pronoun for myself.
Plus, for many people who identify as trans or non-binary, “they” is a much deeper need.
In my case, I’m drawn toward “they” simply because of analytical logic: I like some parts of being feminine and some parts of being masculine.
But for many of them, it’s a far more powerful “felt-sense.” They vehemently feel neither “he” nor “she.”
For example, for some female-presenting people I know (i.e., people who look female), wearing a dress (or highly-feminine accessories) makes their skin crawl.
It’s a strong, visceral reaction, and one that I don’t have wearing a suit.
So, where does that leave people like me who are drawn to “they” but who want to be good allies?
- I can rebel against the gender binary by normalizing all this and educating others (particularly other white, heterosexual, cisgendered men in power).
- By default when referring to someone else whose pronouns I don’t know, I tend to use “they” nowadays.
- I can name my pronouns (“he/him”) when I introduce myself and ask the other person for theirs.
- I’ve also tried on stating my pronouns as “he/they” (i.e., “he/him or they/them”) sometimes.
- I can refer to myself in my writing as a “white, cis, hetero guy” instead of leaving that unsaid (and thus unintentionally acting as if it’s the assumed default).
- I can experiment with ways of embracing a little more femininity myself (or at least less “vanilla” masculinity), such as wearing scarves marketed toward women because of their less-muted colors…
- …(Plus, while I’m not personally drawn to this—as of now, at least—some men also choose to experiment with make-up, jewelry, nail-painting, and other things that have traditionally been considered feminine.)
If you notice any emotional reaction reading that list, I invite you to examine: What’s going on there? What does it mean to you if, say, a male-presenting (i.e., male looking) person wears nail polish?
Really notice. What do you decide? That this person must be… gay? trans? Or perhaps, just not strictly “he” or “she”?
I believe that dismantling white supremacy benefits both people of color as well as white people.
Similarly, educating people about pronouns and normalizing their usage most benefits people who identify as trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming.
But I believe it actually liberates all of us—even heterosexual cisgendered guys like me.
It makes all of us more free—to live as we are and as we want to be.
Thanks so much for reading this (and, if it resonated with you, please share it with other men in your life).
I’d love to hear from you:
What’s your biggest takeaway? What will you be left pondering?
(P.S. The amazing piece of art I used for the cover image on this post is by Britchida. I didn’t ask for their permission to use it, but I love their art for simply conveying complex topics like gender, and I encourage you to support them and buy it.)
Hey, this is great and all, but your sexuality has nothing to do with your gender or gender expression. Gay men don’t have to be feminine in order to be gay – just look at bears. Plus it’s somewhat weird to me that you seperate trans and non-binary when we’re all trans (though I understand some non-binary people dislike saying they’re trans because of the implied binary)
Thanks for the comment, Paton!
I agree with you completely that sexuality has nothing to do with gender or gender expression.
I apologize if that somehow came across in my post. I’m guessing perhaps it was when I wrote, “What does it mean to you if, say, a male-presenting (i.e., male looking) person wears nail polish? Really notice. What do you decide? That this person must be… gay? trans?”
Perhaps I should have been clearer there. What I meant was that I imagine a lot of people less well-versed in gender expression might incorrectly assume that a male-presenting person wearing nail polish must be gay or trans, and my intent was to ask them to challenge that assumption.
Thanks too for naming the additional dynamic around the use of the term trans. As you said, some non-binary people identify as trans. But, in my experience, not all of them do. As a cis-hetero guy, I hesitate to name what’s true here, but it seems to me like these are all ever-evolving terms that each person has to evaluate for themselves and their identity.
Here are some articles with more on this, for anyone interested:
Hi, thank you for this blog. That’s helpfull.
what if someone used to “she/they” or “he/they” that means he/him or they/them or they dont use “her and him”?
If someone says their pronouns are “he/they,” it generally means they’re ok with being referred to either as he/him or they/them. It’s simply easier and faster to say “he/they” instead of “he/him or they/them.”
Similarly, if they say “she/they,” it generally means they’re ok with either she/her or they/them.
I hope I properly understood your question!