Since changing my gender pronouns from she/her to they/them, I've encountered my fair share of questions surrounding my identity. I came out as genderqueer about a year ago, and in typical cisnormative societal fashion, I've encountered a lot of frustration so far.
And I'm certainly not alone in that. Many trans and gender-nonconforming folks deal with the stress of being misgendered on a daily basis. Since cisgender people have the privilege of inhabiting an identity that is more well-known, they really can't begin to understand this specific struggle.
However, I have tons of well-meaning cis friends who consistently do all they can to change and learn to be more accommodating to those with more fluid identities And chances are, you're also another well-meaning cisgender person who would like to put your GNC friends at ease by gaining a greater awareness of what we expect regarding pronouns.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when dealing with a friend who uses pronouns besides she/her or he/him:
1. Ask new friends what their pronouns are.
Though problematic as it is, I often catch myself assuming people's pronouns based on their presentation, depending on if they look “queer” or not. But here's the thing: Queer looks like A LOT of things. There's absolutely no way to tell what someone's sexuality or gender identity is simply by looking at them. Also, there are way more gender-neutral pronouns to choose from than just they/them. So, the best thing to do is ask.
I've heard from many of my cis friends that they feel awkward asking, and that this question could be interpreted as invasive. But, there's nothing invasive about asking a person how they want to be addressed.
Nine times out of ten, especially if they're queer or genderqueer, they'll feel super grateful you asked rather than just assigned them a pronoun and misgendered them repeatedly. As long as you're not asking them to tell you exactly what gender they identify as, or outright asking what's in their pants (please don't do this), it's better to be safe than sorry.
2. Use these pronouns always.
Gathering the information is one thing; utilizing it is a whole other beast. If you're not used to using they/them pronouns, or don't know anyone besides this particular friend that uses them, it's likely going to be a learning experience for you.
Also, pronouns can be a definitive thing and a huge part of how your friend identifies and inhabits the world. Do not use pronouns interchangeably unless otherwise specified by your friend. Use these pronouns when referring to this person always, even if they're not around (again, unless your friend asks you otherwise).
For me, I find it very affirming that many people in my life use my pronouns in every setting, despite any skepticism they might face by those who aren't in the know. Despite the confusion of some, it's very affirming to me when my loved ones use my pronouns everywhere, no matter what.
When people use she/her instead because it's easier than having to explain themselves, it makes me feel overlooked and erased. If there are certain people in your life who are very intolerant or give you a hard time about this, replace pronouns with your friend's name. Even ask your friend if it's OK that you don't use them in front of certain people.
Chances are, your friend has a few choice people they avoid the pronoun thing with altogether to avoid the unnecessary stress of coming out to secondary intolerant people.
3. Apologize when you slip up, and move on.
This is a big one. Even the most well-meaning, progressive and queer people in my life have been guilty of being the Over-Apologetic Ally. I totally understand that slipping up with your friends' pronouns might make you feel embarrassed, and you may want to explain yourself to the point of self-deprecation. But really, the best thing to do in that situation is to apologize and move on.
When my cis friends lament endlessly over their mistake, the attention is shifted to them, and I'm forced to inhabit the awkward role of comforting and even apologizing, when it was me who was misgendered.
Being misgendered can bring up a lot of yucky feelings for people. It can make them feel invisible and dissociative. It can remind them of instances of intolerance and frustrating conversations about gender with their family. And, it can make them feel out of their body, since using pronouns besides the ones they're comfortable with exemplifies how you see them, and how they rather the world didn't see them.
With this experience being so wrapped up in complex emotions as it is, please don't burden your friend with the extra task of comforting you for your misstep. Acknowledge your mistake, apologize and move on. Trust me, “sorry” is enough.
4. Refrain from saying, “Your pronouns aren't grammatically correct.”
If I hear this one more time, I'm going to scream. Family, friends, editors and trolls on the internet have all obnoxiously informed me that my pronouns are confusing (“It sounds like you're talking about a group of people!”) or grammatically incorrect.
Even if this was the case, it's not something anyone who cherishes these pronouns wants to hear. But the thing is, it's not correct. Singular, neutral pronouns like they/them have been used in literature for centuries. And if you pay attention, you'll probably notice you use them from time to time when referring to an unknown or theoretical person who — to your knowledge — doesn't have a definitive gender yet.
Sure, using gender-neutral pronouns might be a learning curve for you. But, that's not an excuse to give up or to invalidate someone's pronouns for the sake of grammar. Language is changing all the time, and being tolerant about the pronouns of others is all a part of moving forward.
5. Ask your friend if they want you to step in.
Being misgendered in public, especially in the presence of those who know and use your correct pronouns, is a tricky situation to navigate. Often, I find myself wanting so desperately to correct the person who's doing the misgendering and reaffirm my identity in the way I'm entitled to.
But still, doing this can feel scary, even if you know the person in question would probably be very open to it. When I know I'm surrounded by tolerant people and someone misgenders me, I do prefer that one of my knowledgeable friends step in on my behalf. But then, there are certain people I don't want to out myself to, and there are certain days when I just don't feel like explaining myself at all.
Every now and then, ask your friend what their preference is in these situations, and be willing to advocate for correct pronouns on behalf of your friend if they're comfortable with that. Obviously, this situation can feel uncomfortable for everyone, usually because we're afraid of being met with intolerance or judgment.
But, there's absolutely nothing wrong with simply correcting a well-meaning mutual friend's slipup.
6. No one gives a shit about how difficult it is to change your language.
Going off the grammar thing, it's extremely infuriating when people refuse to change their language in accordance with your pronouns. Please, don't be that asshole.
It is way harder to be in the position of the gender nonconforming or trans person, who deals with nothing but confusion and ignorance surrounding how they identify. Luckily, cis people don't deal with this constant confusion because their pronouns are considered “normal.” And if someone actually calls a cis person “he” instead of “she” or vice versa, it's completely acceptable for them to correct them immediately and maybe even take offense to that misgendering.
We're often told we're lucky if we have a few people who honor our pronouns, since they're so complicated to begin with. And that's not fair. We all deserve to feel equally entitled to comfort, regardless of our identity.
If you're the type of person who's dismissive of gender-neutral pronouns because they're weird or it's hard to change your language, try imagining what it's like to inhabit a genderqueer body. Imagine getting misgendered all the time and being penalized for speaking up about it.
Cis privilege is a very real thing, and you have to check it if you aim to be more understanding toward the queer community.
7. Use Google.
Then, there are those people with a million inappropriate questions. They're not only about pronouns, but also about your gender in general. It's exhausting to answer ignorant questions about things like “biological sex," and it frustrates me that I'm always placed in a position of educating these people.
It's valid for you to have questions and to want to understand what “genderqueer” really is or where they/them pronouns came from. But please, don't rely on your GNC friend to answer all these questions for you. They're not your genderqueer tour guide, after all.
Before I came out, I knew almost nothing about my identity, let alone the genders of others. So, when one of my closest friends came out to me as genderqueer, I had a lot of questions.
But, the only thing I asked was what pronouns they wanted to go by from now on, and the rest I saved for the internet. If I'm ignorant about a certain friend's identity, I didn't think it would be appropriate to grill them with my millions of questions, especially since they were still in the delicate process of coming out. So, I did my friend duty and researched it myself.
Putting your friend on the spot with questions about everything you've ever wanted to know about their gender is not exactly supportive or confiding. Instead, google gender terms, watch some videos by influential genderqueer and trans people and educate yourself.