Words mean everything to 13-year-old Amelia Blackney.
At a younger age, Amelia was most definitely a “she.” The Santa Rosa, California, resident was born a girl, raised as a girl and socialized with friends as a girl.
Somewhere along the way, Amelia’s feelings about gender identity started to change. Instead of identifying as a girl, Amelia began to feel different. About six months after turning 12, Amelia was ready to lean into a new life. The young person celebrated with new pronouns: they/them.
“I didn’t feel like a girl, but I never really felt like a boy, so I had to find something that was in the middle of both,” Amelia said. “I settled on pronouns that didn’t represent a gender but instead put me between two genders. That way it’s like I’m not a part of any gender or I can be both genders at the same time. My pronouns now put me at a place where I can decide between different genders. That feels right.”
Amelia, who now identifies as nonbinary, isn’t the only young person changing pronouns these days; across the country tweens and teens are embracing nongendered iterations of these familiar words.
While it’s hard to find data on people who are changing pronouns, anecdotal evidence suggests that more are ditching gendered words for those that are less gender-specific and more flexible across the board. And some parts of society are keeping up: Many people in educational institutions and corporate life are including their chosen pronouns in their email signatures (some with links to why they matter), and Zoom has room for people to show their pronouns in their name listings.
Experts say three main factors are driving the phenomenon: More information about gender fluidity on the internet, a spike in the number of high-profile celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Nico Tortorella embracing nongendered pronouns, and pronouns showing up more frequently in communication technology.
“I’m seeing more young people pause and assess who they are separate from who people expect them to be,” said Justine Ang Fonte, a health and sex educator based in New York City. “It’s a powerful pause, a powerful reflection and exercise. It’s leading to some important realizations for everyone involved.”
What’s in these words?
At first glance, words such as he, him, she and her seem insignificant; they’re short and monosyllabic, and they’re not nearly as formal as the proper nouns they represent.
For those grappling with gender identity, however, pronouns are a lot more than a group of words that can function as nouns, Fonte said. Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using a person’s name can be a way to show that person you see and appreciate them.
What’s more, actively choosing to ignore the pronouns someone has stated they use could imply that intersex, transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people do not or should not exist. Many who change pronouns go from the binary he/him or she/her to something more expansive such as they/them. Others opt for different versions of these traditional words — pronouns such as ey/em, ze/zir, xe/xir and more.
While some call these alternate pronouns “neopronouns,” other experts say they’re not new at all.
Dennis Baron, professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent more than 40 years researching the quest for a gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun in English, and his 2020 book, “What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She,” spotlights this very subject.
Baron’s interest in pronouns has uncovered more than 200 coined pronouns over time. He noted that William Shakespeare regularly used the singular “they.”
“We tend to think of pronouns as a closed category, but throughout time they have been very open,” said Baron, who uses he/him. “They are common words. We tend to treat them as not very important. And yet they are powerful.”
Fluidity is in
A growing subset of young people is taking another approach: They are adopting identities for which any pronouns will work.
Take Sylvia Chesak, for example. The 14-year-old from Cincinnati said they use “any pronouns,” which is a conscious decision to accept any pronoun at any time — a reflection of a gender identity Sylvia said is rich, deep, complicated and beautiful.
“With my old pronouns I just struggled to imagine myself as she/her and I struggled to just hear she/her,” Sylvia wrote via text message. “When I realized that I was uncomfortable thinking of myself like that I began exploring more pronoun options. I saw someone online who used any pronouns and started imagining myself as identifying like that. It was the first time I felt comfortable imagining myself and who I was, and I decided to feel good about myself (so) I would start using any pronouns.”
Sylvia added that roughly one-third of their fellow ninth graders have changed pronouns in the last year or two.
“People my age talk about gender/sexuality identity very openly, often asking unprompted about people’s pronouns,” Sylvia wrote. “I’m glad to be in a community that understands how important pronouns are, while also willing to discuss them in any environment.”
These sorts of comments make Ignacio Rivera happy.
Rivera, who uses they/them pronouns, is founder and director of the HEAL Proect, a Somerville, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that teaches kids about healthy living.
Rivera noted nongendered pronouns apply to all people, not just those in the queer and gender-nonconforming communities. They added that it’s critical to encourage young people to explore their own identities in a variety of ways.
“Denying young people that right only speaks to the power and control adults have over young people; it doesn’t allow for them to experience life on their terms,” Rivera said.
Broadening the conversation
Pronouns certainly have become part of the zeitgeist in the modern era.
Actors, singers and celebrities who have come out as nonbinary or gender fluid in recent years include Lovato, Tortorella, Cara Delevingne, Ruby Rose and Sam Smith.
Pronouns also are popping up in books for children and for young adults.
The 2021 children’s book “What Are Your Words?” focuses squarely on the topic, presenting it in a way that is accessible and understandable for children as young as age 4.
Author Katherine Locke wrote the words to the book, hoping that it will spark conversations between kids and adults about gender and pronouns overall.
“I want kids and parents to understand that pronouns can change, just as we can change,” said Locke, who uses they/them. “Many adults don’t have the language to talk about pronouns and gender. Kids innately do. The book is a moment for kids to model behavior for their parents. It’s a chance to learn that who children are discovering themselves to be is worth celebrating.”
Maia Kobabe, a nonbinary author and illustrator who uses e/em/eir pronouns, turned eir life story into the 2019 autobiographical graphic novel, “Gender Queer.” The book contains images that prompted school boards in 11 states to ban or challenge it last year. By the end of the narrative, Kobabe has taken readers through a journey to gender independence.
“I began to think of gender less as a scale and more as a landscape,” Kobabe wrote. “Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow.”
Sparking conversations with others
It’s one thing for tweens and teens to embrace new pronouns; it’s something entirely different for the grown-ups in their lives to embrace the new words.
Fonte, the sex educator, suggests grown-ups can incorporate a simple query about pronouns into their standard greeting when meeting a young person for the first time.
“In addition to asking, ‘What’s your name?’ you can ask, ‘What are your pronouns?’ ” she said. “We can’t assume a specific pronoun or gender identity because someone is wearing a skirt, or they play football.”
For parents of kids who change pronouns, the initial response is everything.
Data from the Family Acceptance Project, an ongoing research effort at San Francisco State University, indicates that how parents and families react to kids when they come out or share information about their gender identities has lifelong impacts on children’s mental health, wellness and physical health.
Rivera, from the HEAL Project, said the best way to digest news of new pronouns is with curiosity.
“You can say, ‘Wow! Thanks for telling me. What do these new words mean to you?’ ” they said. “If you’re curious about something, that means the young person will be comfortable responding to you. If you’re interested in what they have to say, they’ll feel safe and continue sharing.”
Jessica Carroll, director of programs at Positive Images, an LGBTQ center serving kids in Sonoma County, California, said parents can admit they likely will “mess up” a child’s new pronouns many times before incorporating the words into everyday parlance. Carroll added that the burden is on parents to adapt.
“Don’t wait to be corrected. Make the effort to fix mistakes,” she said. “Showing you are committed to embracing a young person’s pronouns will go a long way to making that child feel heard and seen.”
Matt Villano, who uses he/him pronouns, is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, California.