How To Respect and Affirm Folks Who Use Multiple Sets of Pronouns
Often, people who use multiple pronouns are burdened with the obligation of educating others, fielding questions like "Why do people use multiple pronouns?" and "How do you respect someone who uses multiple pronouns?" To save these folks from the emotional labor associated with explaining—and to answer these common questions about multiple pronouns—keep reading for expert intel from Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City, Rae McDaniel MEd, LCPC, a licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist based in Chicago, and folks who use multiple sets of pronouns themselves.
Why people use multiple sets of pronouns
“There’s a wide variety of reasons someone may use two or more sets of pronouns,” says Kahn, adding that for some, it’s a way to signal the expansiveness of their gender. Alex, a non-binary femme, says, “I use they/she because I don’t feel like my gender can be encapsulated in one word, so I feel best when my pronouns are mixed all around.” And Everett, who is bigender, says, “I use she/he because some days I feel like I fit into the ‘man’ box, and on other days I fit better into the ‘woman' box.”
Pronouns may indicate someone's gender, but do not always, says Kahn. That means someone can be non-binary and use he/him pronouns or be non-binary and use she/her pronouns. With this in mind, pronouns can be less related to gender identity, and more so a way to acknowledge the expansiveness or complexity of gender. Basically, don't assume someone's pronouns indicate their entire gender identity.
Some people might use multiple pronouns because their pronouns vary based on where they are or who they’re with, says Jesse Kahn, LCSW.
Some people might use multiple pronouns because their pronouns vary based on where they are or who they’re with, says Kahn. Tyler, for instance, uses he/him while with family and friends from childhood, but they/them with people they met after college. “Being referred to by he/him doesn’t give me gender dysphoria, so continuing to use he/him with people who have known me a long time saves me the stress of having to explain why I use they/them sometimes.” Leo, who uses she/xe also uses multiple sets of pronouns to ensure there's no need to constantly educate others on neopronouns, which are words created to stand in place of gendered pronouns entirely. “Using xe/xem/xyr brings me gender bliss, but I only use them in community with people who are well-versed in neopronouns," Xe says. "Otherwise I end up having to do a lot of Pronoun 101 teaching.”
Kahn lists a few other additional reasons some folks use multiple sets of pronouns: “Some people use multiple pronouns because they prefer one set of pronouns, but are okay with a another set of pronouns; some use multiple pronouns because they’re indifferent to all pronouns; and some people use multiple pronouns to try out new pronouns,” he says.
Does the order of the pronouns matter?
As with most gender, sexuality, and pronoun-related questions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer with respect to whether the ordering of multiple pronouns matters. “Sometimes the order of pronouns is important to someone, and sometimes it's not,” says McDaniel. And, adds Kahn, some individuals use the order to indicate that they would like the first set of pronouns to be used more than the second (or third) set, while for others, the order is irrelevant.
So, given how personal preferences surrounding multiple pronoun use is, how can you proceed in a way that's most respectful of the person in question? If you have a strong relationship with the person,“it’s best to ask if the person likes certain pronouns used in certain scenarios, contexts, or with different people, and if there’s anything they want you to know about how to use their pronouns in a way that is most affirming to them,” says Kahn.
And if you're not super close to the person, you can still ask for guidance in a way that is respectful of their time, space, and energy. You might ask, “I’d love to use your pronouns in a way that feels best to you. Would you be willing to share with me what that is?” Or, “Do you have the bandwidth to explain to me how you want me to use your pronouns?” Both questions suggest that you understand the tedious nature of pronouns-explaining, and that you’ll respect them if they don’t currently have the time, interest, or energy to answer your Q’s.
Other ways to affirm individuals who use multiple pronouns
First things first: If you’re cisgender and haven’t already, share your pronouns everywhere (email signature, Instagram bio, Zoom avatar, dating-app profiles, etc.). Also, introduce yourself with your pronouns when meeting someone new because sharing your pronouns helps to normalize the practice for all people, including those who use multiple pronouns.
Sharing your pronouns helps to normalize the practice for all people, including those who use multiple pronouns.
Also, if you meet someone who uses multiple pronouns, Kahn says they may want you to use multiple pronouns when you refer to them. In practice, that looks like switching up or even alternating the pronouns that you use. “If you're talking about a friend who uses he/they pronouns, for example, you might say something like, 'I ran into Tim the other day, and they said we should come over and grill. He said there will be burgers',” says McDaniel. “If you default to one—especially the one that is more commonly known to be within the dominant binary norm—you may be communicating how you see them and the type of effort you’re willing to put in to use someone’s correct pronouns.” While doing so may be easier for you, it may come at the expense of ensuring the other person feels fully seen and recognized.
Finally, remember that practice can help. Games like Minus 18 and Gender Wheel allow you to practice using pronouns in a fun way. Or, you can pen paragraphs about made-up people who use multiple sets of pronouns for practice. As the saying goes, pronoun practice makes pronoun perfect—and normalizing multiple pronoun use is a key step to ensuring destigmatization for all.
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