Some background on pronouns
In case it's been a while since you last studied grammar, a pronoun is a word used to replace a noun in a sentence. We use them every day, often without much thought. Some pronouns are not gendered, such as they, it, we, or you. English does use gendered pronouns however, with he/him implying a masculine identity and she/her implying a feminine one. Take a look at the following sentences:
Joe is a great singer, he won a national title last year.
Alicia is talented, her book is fantastic.
In both cases the pronoun (he in the first sentence, her in the second) implies the gender of the person the sentence is about (Joe or Alicia). If you'd like a great reference on pronouns in general, check out What is a Pronoun?, from the University of Ottawa.
Gender and pronouns
Some people prefer gendered pronouns for themselves. It can be an affirming experience to be acknowledged as the correct gender. However, not everyone identifies strongly (or at all) as masculine or feminine, or their gender identify or expression may fluctuate. What is the appropriate pronoun to use for these individuals? Using someone's name every time can be awkward (although that is how some individuals circumvent pronouns). Using the pronoun 'it' for a person is most often considered inappropriate, as it is usually used to refer to inanimate objects, not persons, and it therefore considered dehumanizing.
This situation is where gender neutral pronouns come in! These are words that can be used in the same way as other pronouns, but do not imply a gender as he or she might.
Some gender neutral pronouns
There are several different gender neutral pronouns used in our communities. This is not an all inclusive list, but rather a few of the more commonly used ones. Please, feel free to add more in the comments section!
They/Them - Some people prefer to use they or them as a personal pronoun. Although this is more often used as a plural pronoun (for a group, rather than an individual) some people do like to use it as a singular. This is something you may of already used without knowing it. An example is:
Bobbi left a message, but what time did they call?
Ze/Hir- Sometimes spelled zie or sie, ze can be used instead of he or she, and hir can be used instead of him or her. Ze and hir are singular pronouns that do not imply a gender of the person being discussed. An example is:
Ze plays the accordion, hir band is actually really fun!
Yo - Yo can be used in place of he/she and him/her. Yo is gaining popularity outside the trans & queer communities as a gender neutral pronoun.
Yo went to the store. We're waiting for yo to get back.
E/Em (Spivak) - Developed in 1991 as part of an online game, LambdaMOO, Spivak was introduced as an alternate gender setting. Originally part of the game to test the pronoun code, it was left in and caught on among users. The usage of this set of pronouns is declining.
E bumped the table and my drink spilled on em.
Who uses gender neutral pronous?
Anyone can! That's the beauty of them - they are gender neutral. This means that even if you identify as male or female, they can still be useful words.
Want to learn more? Check out the following references:
- Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ
- The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail (includes newspaper clippings and other references from as far back as 1852 discussing the issue)
- The Need for a Gender Neutral Pronoun
- The Freedom to Choose Your Pronoun - New York Times
- Wikipedia's entry on Gender Neutral Pronouns