He/She/They: Why Gender Pronouns Matter and What it Means to be Non-Binary

Understanding personal preferences will help us become mindful and inclusive and find ways to show solidarity.

Thursday, November 7, 2019
He/She/They: Why pronouns matter and what it means to be non-binary. Image: Stock image.
He/She/They: Why pronouns matter and what it means to be non-binary. Image: Stock image.
“Show solidarity by greeting people with "hello everyone," "y'all," or "folks" instead of "ladies and gentlemen" or "you guys."”

We often use pronouns based on a person’s appearance or name, but such assumptions can be wrong. From childhood, we are taught there are two genders, male and female. However, human gender diversity is complex, as we can observe from the rise in use of non-binary pronouns, such as “they” as opposed to “he” or “she.” 

It has become increasingly common to see email signatures, Twitter handles, and other social media profiles include people’s identifying pronouns. This is a simple, practical solution that can help provide clarity as to how someone identifies.

The corporate world and universities are becoming more aware of the needs of non-binary people. Many universities are now asking for pronouns and listing non-binary as a gender category on university-wide documents. San Diego State University, which has consistently been listed among the top colleges for LGBTQ+ students, now enables students to list their preferred name on non-official school documents, including their RedID, and coming in January 2020, their graduating diploma.
SDSU NewsCenter sat down with the SDSU Pride Center’s Anne Guanciale, assistant director of equity and inclusion, and coordinator Wesley Palau to gain a better understanding of the different terms used in this context, how to refer to someone who is non-binary, and how to show support.

To begin with, how do you identify yourselves?
Guanciale: I use the pronouns she/her and they/them is also fine. I identify as a ciswoman or cisgender (a person whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth).
Palau: I use the pronouns they/them, and I identify as transgender, non-binary.

What does it mean to be non-binary?
Palau: Non-binary is someone who identifies outside the traditional categories of male and female. Think about it, even before birth, society feels the need to ask a pregnant person what gender their baby is. Non-binary is a gender identity that does not conform to the typically understood and assumed genders of man or woman, which is how we understand gender identity. There is also gender expression which refers to dress, mannerisms, the way someone talks, how they sit, and ultimately how they express themselves in the world.

Non-binary is a catch-all term that can refer to a variety of gender identities outside of the gender binary. 

Guanciale: In January 2019, California recognized a third gender category on legal documents such as identification cards, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates. It has become much easier for non-binary people to legally change their gender marker. People can self-certify their gender, without going through the process of medical certification. I believe there are 12 states that now recognize a third gender category. 

How should we refer to non-binary individuals?
Palau: We ask them how they want to be referred to—and it’s not offensive to ask. The easiest way to approach the subject is by sharing your own pronouns. For example, “Hi, my name is Wes and I use they/them pronouns. How about you?” It is a sign of respect to share your pronouns and ask for someone else’s, because you’re fostering space and grace for this person to share how they prefer to be referred to.

How can we show solidarity with non-binary individuals?
Guanciale: When we share our pronouns in our email signature or when meeting new folks, that’s a way to show solidarity. We can honor people's identity by asking what pronouns they use and sharing our own. Using gender-inclusive language can increase acceptance, validation, and connection. This can be as simple as greeting people with "hello everyone," "y'all," or "folks" instead of using gendered language such as "ladies and gentlemen" or "you guys."

Palau: One way would be to attend a Safe Zones training, to expand your knowledge and learn how to be an active ally to the queer community. People are kind-hearted and open-minded in general, but many times don’t do the necessary work to learn about an identity that they don’t personally hold. If you are interested in joining a training, the next one is scheduled for Nov. 14, held at the Pride Center from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. 

Also, for Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, we are hosting a flag lowering ceremony followed by a Pronouns 101 session at the Center for Intercultural Relations (Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union, 2nd floor) from 11.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.

How is SDSU supporting efforts to be inclusive and show solidarity?
Palau: The Pride Center, in collaboration with Safe Zones, has been leading efforts to train campus divisions, departments, faculty, staff and students to create awareness and visibility about LGBTQIA+ identities. SDSU currently has about 50 gender neutral restrooms. There’s also gender-inclusive housing on campus—for students that are gender non-conforming—available throughout the residence halls. LGBTQ+ Studies has been available as a major and minor for several years now—SDSU was the second university in the U.S and first in California to offer it as a major originally. 
There are many different terms in our vocabulary now—non-binary, genderqueer, gender-neutral, transgender, gender fluid etc. Please explain these.

Guanciale: We’ve created a terminology sheet that can help everyone understand what the different terms mean. Getting to know these terms and using them can be incredibly respectful and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. 

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