What it means to say 'they'

Ari is one of our ambassadors whose gender identity is ‘nonbinary’, and who prefers to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. Read why, and what impact it has when you do that.

I’m nonbinary, which means my gender identity isn’t 100% male or 100% female. Nonbinary is an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different gender identities that fall outside the boxes of 100% male and 100% female.

Because of this, many nonbinary people (myself included) prefer neutral terminology to be used when referring to them, as gendered words are inaccurate, and often uncomfortable and even upsetting. For example, you would use “sibling” rather than “brother” or “sister”, and so on. Some people also prefer the gender neutral title “Mx” (pronounced mix or muh-x) to Miss/ Mrs/ Mr, or use no title at all. Another key way you can be inclusive in your language is by greeting a group of people in a gender neutral way, for example by saying “good morning, everyone” rather than “good morning, boys and girls”.

Using gender neutral language and pronouns can be important for many of us. For many nonbinary people, being referred to as “he/him” or “she/her” produces this same feeling of discomfort as gendered words. For me, it feels like a punch in the gut to be referred to as “she” because it feels like a disregard of my identity, and a reminder of the person I pretended to be for 17 years. When coming out to my parents, I also explained that gendered terms and pronouns felt like a scratchy, ill-fitting jumper, whereas neutral language and they/them pronouns felt more comfortable and right, like cashmere.

It’s also worth noting that not all nonbinary people prefer they/them pronouns, and some are happy with any pronouns (like our Schools and Colleges Manager Emma) or a variety of pronouns to be used to refer to them. However, if you don’t know someone’s pronouns and aren’t in a place to ask, it’s most respectful to use gender neutral language.

They/them pronouns are also simple to use! For example, if you were a teacher introducing me to talk at a Just Like Us assembly at your school, you could say something like:

“Hello everyone, I’m happy to welcome Ari from Just Like Us. They are here to speak today about their experiences growing up LGBT+, so please give them your full attention.”

A teacher introducing me in this way would instantly signal to me that the school is committed to LGBT+ equality, and make me feel extremely positive and welcomed, allowing me to conduct my talk with greater confidence.

Obviously people can slip up, especially when adjusting to pronouns that they might be unfamiliar with, but transgender and nonbinary people will always appreciate any effort you make to keep trying to get it right. When adjusting to using they/them pronouns, it’s also possible to focus on using someone’s name instead and avoiding pronouns altogether, but this can also quickly become awkward and unnatural in regular speech. An important thing to remember is just taking your time and thinking before you speak.

I’ve also encountered some people who believe that they/them pronouns to refer to a single individual is ungrammatical, but (fun fact) writers as varied as Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson have used singular they/them pronouns in their writing! Even in everyday speech, you’ve probably been using singular they/them pronouns without realising it, as “he or she” and “him or her” can sometimes feel clunky and unnatural.

They/them pronouns are also useful for when you’re not sure of someone’s gender or pronouns. Some nonbinary people (like myself) do feel most comfortable dressing in an androgynous way. However, ‘nonbinary’ encompasses everything that isn’t 100% male or female, so there are countless ways of being and “looking” nonbinary. By using neutral pronouns, you are breaking down assumptions that people who look a certain way are a certain gender, and making the world a safer and more welcoming place for nonbinary people.

So to sum everything up quickly: if you meet someone who is nonbinary, they are neither a woman or a man. For nonbinary people who use they/them pronouns, respecting the type of language they prefer to be referred to with and calling them “they” is important - it’s a simple and kind gesture that demonstrates your respect for their identity, and puts them more at ease.

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