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Why Are Gender Pronouns So Controversial?

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Pronouns are small but controversial words, especially regarding gender identity. Myles explores the history of gender pronouns and asks: why do they matter?

This video was co-produced with Peer Health Exchange, a non-profit whose mission is to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions. They recently launched selfsea, a peer-to-peer platform with free resources, support, and stories from young people who’ve been there. selfsea is for young people aged 13-18 designed as a safe space to discuss and share knowledge on identity, mental health, and sexual health.

TEACHERS: Guide your students to practice civil discourse about current topics and get practice writing CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) responses. Explore lesson supports.

What are pronouns in the English language?

They are these little words we use to replace the words for people’s names, places, or things. Which are NOUNS. Gender pronouns are the terms people choose to refer to themselves that reflect their gender identity. The most commonly used these days are he/him, she/her, or gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them.

How do pronouns relate to gender identity?


When it comes to pronouns to identify a person, we get into identity and that’s where things get complex – and, often political. The big thing personal pronouns often signal is someone’s gender identity. According to scientists, gender isn’t a rigid he/she binary rooted in the sex a person was assigned at birth. Biology and culture BOTH influence our identity, which can be fluid. That means it’s not carved in stone and can change – and it can also be a spectrum. And gender’s not something anyone can ascribe to you– it’s each person’s internal sense of how they personally identify.

What is transgender?

Some people don’t always identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, or the gender pronouns others use to describe them. Often these folks identify themselves as transgender. They may have been assigned female or male but may not identify with that label.

What is the opposition to gender-neutral pronouns all about?

There is a LOT of resistance to using gender-neutral pronouns. In fact, according to Pew Research, almost half of all Americans say they feel “somewhat or very uncomfortable” using they/them pronouns. And the level of discomfort has a lot to do with age, and where you fall on the political spectrum. A common excuse you may see out there is that using “they/them” to describe individual people is “poor grammar.” This isn’t technically correct – people use they/them to describe singular people all the time. As in, “Who parked their car here? They did a terrible job.”

What is the history of gender-neutral pronouns?

There is a long history of people inventing gender-neutral pronouns. One linguist found more than 250 proposed gender-neutral pronouns going back the last few centuries. Examples include “hiser” (1850), “thon” (1858). “ze” (1888) and “hir” (1930) and “ve” (1970). And in 1850, the British Parliament passed a law that the pronoun “He” must be used to describe people of ALL genders. Most of these older language norms have fallen into disuse – but it’s important to note that language is always evolving to reflect new social norms.

Why is it important to respect which pronouns people want to use? Two words: safety and respect. Pronouns signal to the world our gender identity, and part of respecting each other’s humanity is honoring how we all identify.


 “A Guide To Identity Terms” (NPR, 2021)

Beyond He and She: 1 in 4 LGBTQ youths use nonbinary pronouns, survey finds” (NBC News, 2020)

About one-in-five U.S. adults know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun” (Pew Research Center, 2019)

The long, long history – and bright future – of the genderless ‘they’” (Boston Globe, 2018)

Pronouns have always been political” (Medium, 2016)

Taking Cues from Texas and Florida, More States Propose Bills Targeting Queer and Trans Youth” (KQED, 2022)

Pronouns and Possibilities: Transgender Language Activism and Reform” (Language and Social Justice in Practice, 2018) 


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