How to be an ally to friends who’ve changed their pronouns

We all like to be referred to in a way that makes us feel accepted.

This can include the use of our name, gender and pronouns.

The LGBT Foundation explains that "Language can be really powerful in helping to affirm your identity, feel confident and sharing your authentic self with others." Non-binary celebrities such as Jonathan Van Ness, Sam Smith and Lachlan Watson have done a lot to raise awareness and encourage conversations about being non-binary. On the back of this, you might have seen some discussions about pronouns online. But what are pronouns, how are they related to non-binary people, and why do you need to know?

Using information from Stonewall we've put together a quick guide to pronouns. Here are some tips and questions that can help you understand non-binary identities, and what you can do!

What are pronouns?

Pronouns take the place of a noun in a sentence to refer to someone without using their name, such as he/him/his or she/her/hers. Some languages have more pronouns than others as they change depending on case, gender, or even the relationship between speakers.

How does this relate to non-binary people?

Non-binary is an umbrella term for people who don’t fit comfortably into ‘male’ or ‘female’ categories. Not everyone uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns to express their identity.

A common non-binary pronoun is using the pronoun ‘they’ (they/them/theirs). You might be used to hearing this be used as a plural pronoun, for example ‘When are we seeing them?’

But it has been used as a singular pronoun since 1375, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So ‘they’ is nothing new - but there are other examples of pronouns which are more modern, known as neo-pronouns - 'Neo' means 'new'. These can include:

  • Ne (Ne/nem/nir)
  • Ve (Ve/vis/vir)
  • Ze (Ze/zem/zir)
  • And a set of pronouns known as ‘spivak’ (ey, em, eir).

These are not the only examples of neo-pronouns, so it’s important to listen to what your friends use. Someone can also be non-binary and still use 'he' or 'she' - pronouns are not always indicative of someone's gender identity.

Pronouns aren't always indicative of someone's gender identity

How to make everyone feel comfortable

So what does it mean to be an ally and why is it important? Being an ally in this case means accepting people for who they are and being inclusive of everyone, regardless of their gender identity. This can make your non-binary classmates feel safe and respected in and outside of school.

Normalising inclusive language and discussing pronouns is one way to be an ally. But you don’t have to be an encyclopaedia; remember that making an effort to learn is a great thing. Listening to people when they talk about their identity is really important too.

If your classmate has come out to you as non-binary or put it on their social media bios, you could check if they're happy to provide an example of their pronouns so you can understand how to use them. You might want to ask something like: "I’ve seen you’ve added your pronouns on your social media profile as ’they/them’, would you like me to start using those from now on?", or, “I noticed you have “x-e” on your profile and I want to make sure I am pronouncing that right. Can you tell me how you pronounce it?”. If you're not sure about grammar, you could ask: “I heard you say you're now using “ze/zir” pronouns and I want to make sure I’m using them correctly. Can you give me an example in a sentence?”

Perhaps you’d like to share your own pronouns as well when making a new friend, or normalise putting your pronouns on your own social media profiles. This way your friends who use neo-pronouns will know you’re a safe space to share with.

Something you shouldn’t do is panic if you make a mistake - it’s okay! Say sorry, move on and remember for next time. If someone else uses the wrong pronouns when referring to your friend, you might want to gently correct the person who made the mistake. You could say something like, “Actually, my friend uses ‘they’ for themselves.”

What else can I do to make people feel included?

Another good thing to do to make people feel included is to normalise using non-gendered language in your everyday conversations. For example, until you have a chance to learn their gender and preferred pronouns, try not to use gendered language.

Remember that just because a person uses certain pronouns at one point doesn’t mean they can’t change their mind. Our identities can be fluid and whatever they are using now is good for now. Everyone deserves to feel included, and normalising conversations around gender and how people would like to be addressed is a good way to show your friends you respect who they are.

If you have any questions as a result of this article, you can find more information through these two charities’ websites: Stonewall and Just Like Us

Normalising the discussion of pronouns will help your friends feel safe and respected
Dear Younger Me: Kit
Dear Younger Me: Tegan
This is me by Harnaam Kaur