If you follow my work on social media or you listen to my podcast The Language of Love, you know that I recently sat down for an interview with Jeffrey Marsh. Jeffery Marsh is an LGBTQ+ activist, advocate, and author who was recently described by CBS as an “anti-bully,” which is probably the best description for Marsh possible. They exude such love and radical self-acceptance that to be in their presence is to instantly feel seen, cherished, and to feel at home.
Marsh is genderqueer and genderfluid, which means they challenge stereotypical gender roles and view gender in a playful yet sacred way. Marsh doesn’t approach gender as a rigid binary but rather as an opportunity for expression and an invitation to be more wholly and wholeheartedly present. This means Marsh may wear full makeup one day or a ballcap and a bare face the next. In each presentation, they are expressing their identity and following their truth, although the images may appear as stark opposites to a casual observer. And yes, if you hadn’t noticed yet, Marsh prefers ‘they’ pronouns.
This caused some confusion in my Instagram post about my interview with Marsh. A few commenters were confused and some were downright angry by Marsh’s preferred pronouns.
So I wanted to take this blog as an opportunity to help demystify pronouns and explain why it is so important to use the correct pronouns for everyone in our lives, be they cis, trans, genderqueer, etc.
First, I think it’s really important to clarify that gender and sex are NOT the same things. And neither is gender identity and sexual orientation. So, a person can be transgender but still be heterosexual, or a person can be cisgender but still be homosexual or bisexual or asexual or whatever else.
Here’s a good way to explain the difference: Gender is between your ears, and sex is between your legs, but even that is a simplification. Because many people can view their genitals as aligning with their gender rather than with their sex—many transgender women, for example, view their penis as female. But this is a good starting point if you’re new to gender ideology: Gender is how you feel and how you experience the world, whereas sex refers to your literal body parts such as your breasts or genitals.
However, it doesn’t mean anything about your sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and gender are totally separate. A cisgender person may be straight, bi, gay, or somewhere in between, as can a transgender person. And the same is true for someone who is genderqueer and/or genderfluid, like Marsh. Their gender identity is separate from their sexual orientation.
Now, let’s talk about pronouns. Marsh uses they/them pronouns, as these best exemplify and express their gender identity and the ways in which they interact with the world. Other people use he/him or she/her, or some people might use he/him/they or she/her/they.
It’s always best to ask first before assuming someone else’s pronouns, and the best way to do this is by telling them YOUR pronouns. This opens the conversation in a welcoming, thoughtful way and allows people the space to freely tell their own pronouns without fear of reprisal. That is why you often see people’s pronouns in their social media bios or on their email signatures. It helps to dismantle cisgender and heteronormative social structures and create a more welcoming and equitable environment for people who are LGBTQ+.
Why is it so important to use people’s correct pronouns? Well, why wouldn’t you? It’s a small, simple way to signify respect to the people around you, and it’s completely effortless. It’s no different than holding open the door for someone behind you or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ expect it’s actually MUCH more important, because transgender people are at great risk of harassment and violence, and you may be the ONLY person they greet all day who uses their correct pronouns. Using someone’s correct pronouns is an invitation for you, then, an invitation for you to help make their world safer and more loving, rather than darker and more frightening.
So, really, why wouldn’t you? I encourage you to ask yourself that question and answer it honestly. Why would you resist someone’s preferred pronouns? What does it trigger or challenge within you? Allow yourself to go there. Sit in that discomfort and see what it has to reveal. It’s okay that the discomfort is there. It doesn’t mean you’re an evil person or an intolerant person. But it does mean that you have some work to do. (And, we all do, so you are definitely not alone).
I would posit this: Perhaps the reason some people resist the idea of using correct pronouns or being welcoming to people who are different from the ‘norm’ is because they actually don’t feel safe or free to be themselves either. Maybe you aren’t genderqueer, but perhaps you feel there are parts of yourself which are unworthy or unlovable, so when you see someone who is boldly and radically self-accepting and self-loving, it makes you feel frightened, jealous, or even resentful. If we are able to fully love and accept ourselves, then it becomes almost effortless to accept and love those around us, no matter how different they might seem. So, if you’re struggling with pronouns, please see this as an invitation to look more deeply at how much you truly love yourself, because it could be that this is what is lacking—it’s not that ‘they’ pronouns are so baffling, but that the idea that we can be our whole, perfectly imperfect selves and still be so lovable and so deserving of respect may feel totally foreign to you.
And, remember, it’s not on the LGBTQ+ community to educate you on why pronouns are important. The emotional labor of constantly defending and explaining their pronouns and identities is exhausting beyond words and contributes to the high rate of mental illness and self-harm in the community. There are resources out there that can better educate and empower you to use the right language, and I am one of them: Email me any of your questions about pronouns, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else is on your mind at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a voice message here. I might answer it on my podcast The Language of Love.
Let me end with this: Pronouns are more than just he, she, they. Pronouns are building blocks, not just in the grammatical sense, but in a cultural and social sense. We can use pronouns to hurt, or we can use them to heal. Let’s choose healing, not just for the sake of those who might be LGBTQ+, but for all of our sakes.