Figuring out what pronouns fit you best can be a journey — and that's before telling your parents, friends, and colleagues about them. People who use gender nonspecific neopronouns like xe/xem/xeir and ze/zir/zirs may find others in their lives asking them to explain their pronouns more often than not. (By the way, they're usually pronounced zee/zem/zeir, rhymes with hair, and zee/zer/zers — just sound it out.)
"Using pronouns other than 'he/him' or 'she/hers' can be an essential part of many trans and genderqueer folks' mental health and social well-being, says S. Bear Bergman, the publisher of LGBTQ children's book press Flamingo Rampant and co-editor of Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. Using multiple pronouns (such as both "they" and "he" pronouns) or neopronouns like hir/hirs (usually pronounced like "here/hears") can be "a way to give people some room around their own gender identity; a way to help people feel more comfortable or confident; and a clear indicator of what pronoun is never acceptable in relation to them."
What Are Neopronouns?
The binary pronouns "she/her/hers" and "he/him/his" only represent two sets of the pronoun possibilities people have when talking about others in English. "They/them/theirs" pronouns offer another way to refer to an individual without assuming their gender. They're so much cooler than I am, you might think, swooning over your quiet artist classmate.
Neopronouns express a similar idea as they/them, but neopronouns are intentionally created to make pronouns that feel like home. Neopronouns like xe/xem/xeir and ze/zir/zirs also allow people to refer to folks in the third person without placing them in a gender binary — Xe is such an incredible writer, you think while reading an awesome book by a nonbinary human. Many more neopronouns exist than binary pronouns, and you can check out a list of neopronouns here.
Nonbinary Pronouns Have A Rich History
About one in four LGBTQ young people use pronouns other than 'she' or 'he' for themselves, according to a 2020 report by The Trevor Project, with around 4% using pronouns like “xe/xim” or “fae/faer” (pronounced fay/fair). But the fact that more young people are using they/them pronouns and neopronouns draws on a rich history of nonbinary pronoun use.
Some people balk at using they/them pronouns because often, they're plural. But there's a rich history of using it and others as a singular pronouns. Gender-neutral pronouns used to be the norm in English because the two existing gendered pronouns had become all but indistinguishable from each other by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, because their pronunciations had grown so similar. According to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee's LGBTQ+ Center, the pronoun "she" was created in the 1100s in part to acknowledge women grammatically, instead of letting he/him/his pronouns be the default for everyone.
"There's a long history of various gender nonspecific pronouns including they/them in literature, including the works of Chaucer (in The Canterbury Tales), Shakespeare in Comedy of Errors, and Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice," Bergman says. Sometimes, realizing the long literary history of singular they/them pronouns helps other people recognize them as "legitimate."
"After I came out to my mom, she called me one day just to be like 'Honey do you know what I just realized? Shakespeare used 'they' for third-person singular!'" says Tal, 39. "I was amused and kind of touched, but also like 'Oh, okay, so my pronouns are valid now because Shakespeare said so." But, ze says, having history on your side can help when people try to invalidate your gender and your pronouns. "Being able to say that they've had 'neopronouns' in English since at least the 1700s at least wipes the condescension off cis people's faces pretty effectively."
Neopronouns Are Constantly Evolving
As for the rise of neopronouns, Bergman says that the history is a little more contested. "It seems like a lot of neopronouns came about because some nerdy people on the early Internet were trying to solve the singular, gender nonspecific personal pronoun problem and solved it in a bunch of different ways based on what sounded cool to them. There's also some history pointing to the ideas that ze as a pronoun was coined to go with that early modern English hir as used by Chaucer, proving that some of those nerdy early-Internet people were English majors."
Societies that underwent colonization also have evidence of using gender neutral pronouns. "Before colonization there were many, many societies that had neutral-to-positive words and social roles for people we might today describe as genderqueer or nonbinary," Bergman tells Bustle. For example, terms like alyha and hwame have been used by the Mohave people in North America to describe gender-variant folks, and many Native American, Aboriginal, and First Nation folks of various gender experiences remain prominent LGBTQ activists and artists today.
Language is about evolution, and that can happen across broad swaths of the Internet through Tumblr or in IRL communities. Queer youth of color in particular have a knack for tapping into the deep potentials of even the smallest words. Around 2004, for example, Black middle schoolers in Baltimore popularized "yo" as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to other young people whose gender was unknown or for specific people being pointed out in discussion. Like other forms of language, neopronouns rise up when there is a cultural need to get creative with concepts that current words are inadequate to describe. So really, these "new" pronouns are sometimes new, but draw on a very, very old history.
How To Use Neopronouns
Once you've learned about neopronouns, you might feel like they're a better fit for you than what you're using now. "I had already come out as using 'they/them' pronouns," says Justin, 32. "I was really scared to say, 'actually, now can you use ze/zir for me?' But at the end of the day, it's about learning more about myself and about language — I will always love 'they/them' pronouns, but ze/zir feels more like it was made for me. And after everything I've been through with my gender, I deserve something shiny and just for me and other people like me."
Sometimes, even trans and nonbinary folks struggle to keep up with each other's language innovations, and that's OK. "It's cool if you're not sure how to use neopronouns, or if it takes you a second to get it right," Tal says. Just swap them into a sentence as you'd use any other singular pronoun. "Practice, practice, practice. Write in your journal about your latest adventure with your friend who uses xir pronouns; talk about xir in the mirror to yourself; if xe's given you consent, use xir pronouns in conversation with other people. It's really not all that hard if you don't want it to be hard."
One of the things I hear most as a nonbinary guy is that they/them pronouns for an individual person are "just confusing." But people of all genders use they and them as a singular pronoun all the time, Bergman points out. "We very naturally use they/them as pronouns when we don't know the gender of the person we're referring to," Bergman points out. "It's very common to say, 'Oh, look, somebody forgot their hat!' It's much less common to hear someone say, 'Oh look, someone forgot his or her hat!'' Think about taking this attitude when your friend tells you ze'll be using ze/zir from now on.
Pronoun variety isn't about imposing on anyone, Tal says. It's about celebrating everyone. "I'm not trying to take away your amazing binary pronouns or your they/them pins. Whatever pronouns work for you are brilliant and amazing, and I'm happy that you have them. But I'm happy with ze/zir because these were the first pronouns I heard that were like, 'Aha, yes, that fits me.' My neopronouns expand my world and celebrate my own gender while shaking up violent gender assumptions, and that's really what it's all about."
S. Bear Bergman, publisher, Flamingo Rampant, co-editor of Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation