(Graphic by Stephen Kline/Broadside)

(Graphic by Stephen Kline/Broadside)

Andi Johnson has never liked being called “mister” or “sir” and feels out of place when people assume that Johnson identifies as male, simply because of Johnson’s outer appearance.

“When being identified by male pronouns, I feel like I’m being pushed into a masculine identity. People expect me to act and be a certain way,” Johnson said.

The wide spectrum of identities represented in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ) communities has created a new vocabulary in order to fully include all individuals. A way that sexual minorities have navigated through the limited vocabulary of the English language is by creating gender-neutral pronouns.

For example, use of “they” for “he or she,” “them” for “him or her” and “their” for “his or her.” Johnson, communication chair of Pride Alliance, noted language is constantly changing and, in Shakespearean times, there was a singular form of the word “they.”

This usage is starting to resurface in order to acknowledge people who may not fit in the gender binary. Other unique lingual adaptations are “xe or ze” for “he or she,” “hir” for “her or him” and “rs” for “hers or his.”

“Always ask how to identify a person,” Johnson said. Johnson believes people have different identity labels, but that is a personal matter; someone’s personal identity should never be imposed on someone else. In accordance to its definition, Gender is socially-constructed.

Because of this, some people feel like they don’t fit within the gender binary and choose to identify outside of it. These individuals are often referred to as gender queer.

“It’s important to use the pronouns that the person has presented to you… you wouldn’t go up to someone and ask what’s their gender identity or what pronouns they use,” Johnson said.

A consequence of using the wrong pronoun is that someone could “out” a person who does not wish to be outed in a certain social setting. In the state of Virginia, a person can get fired due to sexual orientation or gender identity, so it is important to ask how people are identified, they said.

According to Tashia Harris, program coordinator for Women and Gender Studies, gender neutral pronouns serve as a verbal clarity to renounce socially-prescribed norms of a particular gender.

As discourse becomes more honest, people are becoming more comfortable articulating who they are and are taking the initiative to define themselves instead of letting them be defined.

Tashia Harris

Gender neutral pronouns hold different meanings for different people. For some, they create a distinction between sex and gender— for others, they are a way to reject the notion of the binary gender/sex dichotomy. Genderfluid or gender- queer individuals who reject the social construction of gender feel comforted by these pronouns.

“Gender neutral pronouns are a tool that allow people the opportunity to make their gender identity visible instead of allowing it to be assumed…but most importantly gender neutral pronouns allow individuals to have a verbal tie in reference to themselves that matches how they internally identify despite their external identifiers of biologically-as- signed sex,” Harris said.

“As discourse becomes more honest, people are becoming more comfortable with articulating who they are and are taking the initiative to define themselves instead of letting them be defined,” Harris said.

Harris added that it is poor etiquette to categorize individuals without confirming or inquiring how they identify themselves.


An agendered identity is one in which an individual chooses not to identify with a specific gender. Harris explained that an intersexual identity has two meanings: one being that a person has male and female biological parts (also known as hermaphrodism) and the second being that a person may be “in-between” identities, neither male nor female or both male and female.

Two-spirit is a gender identity within the transgender umbrella. This has roots in Native American cultures that believed in a third gender. These people were often seen as spiritual leaders. Some of this culture has permeated down and is acknowledge by various individuals within LGBTQ communities.

Another term that some identify with is queer, though it does not have a stable identity. Queer is way for individuals to not define themselves.

“It is also used as a political term or an umbrella term because it’s thought to be inclusive of all people within the community. Though historically it was a derogatory term, it has been reclaimed by the community as an identity. However, not all people accept queer as being a positive thing,” Johnson said.

Some unacceptable terms and phrases are: “fag,” “faggot,” “tranny,” “homo,” “no-homo” and “that’s so gay.” The sexual identity “transsexual” is being used less frequently because it refers to someone who is changing their physiological sex, which may not always be the case. “It is also very rude to ask a person what genitalia they have or if they’re planning on going through a transition,” Johnson said.

Johnson added, overall it is important to listen to and accept people’s own truths, even if you don’t understand them. Many people dismiss ideas because they don’t understand them but being open and willing to learn is a major step.