Since 2018, International Pronouns Day has been celebrated annually on the third Wednesday in October. The official website explains that this day “seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace”.
This is something which is close to my heart as I have recently come out at work as non-binary and started using they/them pronouns exclusively. I want to share a little bit of my story with you and I have also tried to answer a few FAQs below. Please note that my experience is only that: my experience. I cannot speak for anyone else and do not claim to do so.
I have known that I identify as non-binary (that is, neither male nor female) for almost as long as I can remember, but I didn’t have the words to express that when I was younger. I grew up in the days of “Section 28” which effectively banned teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in schools and I just didn’t realise that a) there were words to describe how I felt and b) there are other people who feel the same way as me.
I learned about “non-binary” as a concept in my mid-20s and immediately thought “that’s me!” It has taken me a few more years to become comfortable with sharing that identity with others. I worried for a long time about sharing this aspect of my identity in a professional context as I was concerned that it could have a negative impact on my career. Throughout my life, I have encountered many people who are dismissive and scornful of those who are different, and these experiences made me worry about what I might face if I were to come out. As a result, I tried to suppress this part of my identity in order to fit in.
Over the last few months, it has become increasingly clear to me that suppressing a part of my identity in order to “conform” has actually been causing me some mental damage. I realised that I didn’t have to hide this part of myself and that I could make some positive changes to my mental health by being open about who I am and how I would like people to refer to me.
When I joined Dehns at the end of 2021, I noticed that some people shared their pronouns in their email signatures. At the time, I wasn’t “out” yet and I was a bit worried about whether I would be required to share my pronouns; I wasn’t ready to claim “they/them” pronouns at work but I also didn’t want to put “she/her” as this didn’t feel quite right to me. My dilemma was solved when I noticed that a colleague had put “she/her/they/them” in their own email signature and I copied this. (This is a prime example of how sharing your pronouns can help others!)
The longer I stayed at Dehns and the more I got to know our colleagues, the more I felt that this is a safe environment in which I can be open about my identity and accepted by the people around me. As a result, I recently came out as non-binary and I have changed my name and begun using they/them pronouns exclusively.
I am very grateful to all of my colleagues at Dehns for their support and for making me feel comfortable enough to bring my whole self to work. Without such a supportive environment, I don’t believe that I would have felt brave enough to share my non-binary identity with others in a professional setting and that would have continued being detrimental to my mental wellbeing. Instead, I have been able to say “this is me!” and I am happier because of it.
There are many different kinds of pronouns, such as I and you and him and theirs. The purpose of International Pronouns Day relates specifically to third-person personal pronouns, which are used to refer to somebody when talking or writing about them.
As the Human Rights Campaign says in this article “using the correct pronouns for people, whether they are transgender, non-binary, gender-expansive, gender non-conforming or cisgender, is incredibly important. It not only shows that we recognize others for who they are, but it’s also a sign of respect and courtesy”.
Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people, but it can also affect anyone. One situation where this may occur – particularly where communication is happening in writing – is in the case of names that are traditionally used for men in one culture and for women in another, or vice versa (e.g. the name Andrea in Italian vs. in English).
By normalising respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns, we can avoid mistakes and wrong assumptions as well as help people feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work.
Some people use pronouns that have been in common usage for a long time: he/him/his/himself, she/her/hers/herself, they/their/theirs/themself.
Other people use so-called “neopronouns”, which are newer but no less valid. Examples of neopronouns include:
ze/zir/zirs/zerself (pronounced zee/zur/zurs/zurself)
ae/aer/aers/aerself (pronounced ay/air/airs/airself)
xe/hir/hirs/hirself (pronounced zee/hear/hears/hearself)
If you are unsure how someone’s pronouns are pronounced or how they would be used in a sentence, it’s ok to ask them.
No – anyone can use whatever pronouns they decide are right for them. Some people who identify within the gender binary (i.e. as either male or female) use gender-neutral pronouns or neopronouns; equally, some people who identify outside of the gender binary (e.g. as non-binary or agender) use pronouns that are traditionally considered to be gendered (e.g. she or he).
You may have noticed colleagues and connections including indications such as “Pronouns: he/him/his”, “She/Her” or “(they/them)” in their email signatures or next to their names in their LinkedIn profiles, for example. Some people may indicate that they use a number of different pronouns, for example “she/they” or “he/they/xe”. In that case, you can choose one of the indicated options and even switch between them.
In conversation with people, you can include your pronouns when you introduce yourself, for example “Hi, I’m SJ and my pronouns are they/them. Nice to meet you.” You can also ask someone else “what are your pronouns?” or “what pronouns do you use?”.
No! Sharing your pronouns is optional and should never be imposed upon people. There are various reasons why somebody may not want to share their pronouns, including that they are not sure which pronouns feel right for them yet, or that they do not feel comfortable sharing their gender identity.
Speaking from experience, it’s very difficult feeling like you are stuck between stating something that is actually untrue (e.g. in my case, it would be untrue to say my pronouns are she/her) or coming out before you are ready to do so. By ensuring pronoun-sharing is optional and never enforced or required, it removes the pressure to pick between two potentially bad outcomes.
If you do feel comfortable sharing your pronouns, however, then it helps to normalise this practice and create an environment in which more and more people will feel comfortable to do so.
First of all, don’t worry! It happens. Have you ever said one word when you meant another? Perhaps you’ve called your dog by your child’s name – or vice versa? It doesn’t mean you’re being rude. It was just a mistake.
If you get someone’s pronoun wrong, respond in the same way as you would for any other mistake – briefly apologise, correct yourself, and move on. For example, “I saw SJ on her way – sorry, I meant on their way – to lunch and they said they’d catch up with you this afternoon”. There’s no need to beat yourself up or make a big deal out of it.
If you notice someone else has made a mistake, there is likewise no need to make it a big deal. Gently correct them, for example by saying “actually, SJ uses they/them pronouns”, and carry on.