What Are Pronouns?

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At Penn, sharing your pronouns/asking people’s pronouns is a valued practice showing respect for the people with whom you interact.​

We all use pronouns to refer to each other on a regular basis and pronouns imply gender.  In the U.S., people tend to assume someone’s gender identity is based on their appearance or at times, their name.  Our suppositions are not always correct, and just making one, either right or wrong, can send a powerful and damaging message: you must look a certain way to signal your gender. In the case of course rosters, we sometimes look to see a student’s sex assigned at birth and assume their pronouns based on that, which is not always correct. So please share your pronouns and ask others theirs.

Glossary of General GNBT Terminology


An identity marker for an individual who does not identify as belonging to any dichotomous, or fluid marker of gender.


An identity marker for an individual whose gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth.


The use of a trans or nonbinary person’s name they were assigned at birth (re “birthname,” “given name”), with the current knowledge of the name a trans or nonbinary person currently uses.


Acronym: gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender. Just as there is diversity in the LGBTQ+ umbrella, there exists diversity of gender; expanding the concepts and experiences outside of cisgender identities.


A collection of social and cultural behaviors and roles ascribed to how individuals are taught to act, think, and feel.

Gender Diversity

Multitudes of expression and identity that do not fall within the binary confines of feminine or masculine.

Gender Identity

The personal sense of one’s gender – which may or may not coincide with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Gender Marker

The initial “F,” “M,” or “X” that is used in legal documents to refer to the gender of the individual.

Gender Neutral

Space, language, or identity that does not denote either the feminine or the masculine.

Gender Nonconforming

An identity marker for an individual who identifies, often through critique, in opposition of normative binary gender roles.


An umbrella term which refers to individuals whose sex characteristics profile (re gonads, testes, hormone receptors, hormone transmitters, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia) differs from traditional characteristics of female or male sex characteristic profiles.


An identity marker for an individual who identifies their gender within a spectrum of gender identity that falls outside of, or is a unique combination of, the gender binary.


An individual whose gender identity is incongruent with the sex assigned to them at birth.


The process of aligning one’s gender identity with the way they would like to feel and present themselves to the world.

When a Coworker Shares Their Gender Journey with You

The coworker who invited you into their gender journey has been waiting for the right time and place to share this information with you. Inviting others into a personal experience can feel overwhelming and nerve-wracking. You, yourself, are allowed to feel overwhelmed and nervous. What is important is your coworker is not responsible for your feelings. You are the captain of your emotional experience, and it is not the responsibility of the GNBT person to make you feel better or any type of way.

  • First: Thank them for inviting you into their gender journey.
  • Second: Acknowledge this may have been overwhelming or nerve-wracking for them.
  • Third: Confirm with them the name and pronouns they are using.
  • Fourth: Talk about confidentiality (see Confidentiality Section).
  • Fifth: Go about your regularly scheduled programming.

Do not ask invasive questions about your coworker’s body. When well-intentioned people ask, “Did you/are you going to have ‘the surgery’?” or “Have you started hormones yet?” what GNBT people hear is “I want to talk about your genitals and chest.” Remember, no matter how close or comfortable you may be with each other, this is a place of work. The best rule is always to ask yourself first why you want to know the answer to any question you might have of your GNBT coworker. It is true that asking questions empowers us to know more, and who does not want that in an academic institution? However, most of the time, we are asking these invasive questions of GNBT people because of personal curiosity, not educational enlightenment. When it comes to questions rooted in curiosity, internet browsers are exceptional resources to utilize as is Penn’s LGBT Center.

Names and Pronouns Usage


Just like genders and pronouns, our names have histories attached to them. At Penn, we seek to honor the totality of our experiences, which brought us to this shared place and time. In doing so, it is essential to create space which allows people to self-identify who they are and how they would like to be addressed. This begins with our names and the names we go by in specific spaces.

Sometimes, names can represent a painful experience from one’s history. These experiences may have encouraged a person to adopt an abbreviation, alteration, or nickname, which is not always reflected on ID cards, email addresses, or rosters. Other times, people use pseudonyms, stage names, or pen names in professional settings. For transgender and non-conforming (GNBT) populations, having your name and gender marker changed can be a long and expensive process. Therefore, it is essential to ask what name a coworker would like to be addressed by, not relying on rosters, directories, or WorkDay; all of which may take a while to update.

When someone tells you their name, use only that name. It does not matter if they went by a different name in the meeting you had last semester or last week. The name they are introducing themselves with is the name they now use.

In supporting GNBT populations, often mistakes are made and misgendering or deadnaming — using the person’s legal name instead of their name –happens. When possible, self-correct as quickly as you can, apologize, and keep the conversation moving. Do not dwell on your mistake or make the conversation about your allyship, this only creates more discomfort for GNBT individuals. Repeated or intentional deadnaming is detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of GNBT populations.

Remember, you too, or someone you love may have changed their surname through marriage. It may have taken you a while to become used to the new name, but you did it because you respect and honor that person. Names and pronouns can be tricky, but with time, practice, and respect, it becomes easier.


At Penn, sharing your pronouns and asking people’s pronouns is a valued practice showing respect for the people with whom you interact.

We all use pronouns to refer to each other regularly, and pronouns imply gender. In the United States, people tend to assume someone’s gender identity based on their appearance or at times, their name. Our suppositions are not always correct, and just making one, either right or wrong, can send a powerful and damaging message: you must look a specific way to signal your gender. In the case of course rosters, we sometimes interpret a student’s sex assigned at birth or secondary sex characteristics from Penn Card pictures and assume their pronouns based on those, which are not always correct. Please share your pronouns and ask others theirs. Never force anyone to share their pronouns, however. Sharing yours sends the message that you are open to various identities, and a person may share later, or never. This is their choice. Also, pronouns are not static and may change over time.

Pronouns in Practice

Keep in mind pronouns are not a preference. Pronouns reflect our lived experiences and personal realities. In this, the practice of asking people to identify their “preferred pronouns” implies using someone’s pronouns is a preference and not a requirement. Think about it this way: do you prefer to be respected, or are you to be respected? GNBT populations should be respected the same as cisgender populations. When meeting people, “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?” works best. Or, if that seems awkward, introduce yourself with your pronouns first to give others the space to share theirs if they choose.

Because gender identity exists in multitudes, gender-neutral pronouns help facilitate visibility and normalize variance among the diversity of gender. Gender-neutral pronouns also do a more effective job reflecting general populations than feminine and masculine pronouns. Below is a chart detailing the most common pronouns people will encounter.

To facilitate inclusion, it is helpful to integrate pronouns during introductions. It is important to note that not every individual is in a space to share their pronouns, and the practice should be made optional. If you have a question about someone’s pronouns, it is best to ask from a place of respect, confidentiality, and privacy.

Examples of integrating pronouns into the classroom and beyond:

  • At the beginning of the semester, ask people to introduce themselves with their pronouns, maintaining it is optional to do so.
  • Add your pronouns to your email signature or wear a pronoun button (available at the LGBT Center).
  • If referring to someone who is not in the classroom or office, i.e., an author, and you do not personally know them or their pronouns, use a gender-neutral option like they.
  • Use gender-neutral salutations when addressing a group of individuals.

Examples of standard gender-neutral greetings: Everyone, Folks, Colleagues, etc.


“Transgender” as a word is used as a qualifying adjective for an individual’s gender. As transgender is an identity and not a feeling, “transgender” should not be used passively as with other past participles of a transitive verb (e.g. “transgender-ed”). Please refer generally to transgender populations as “trans” or “transgender” to honor transgender individual’s gender identity. Slang terminology for transgender populations is both offensive and derogatory. A list of offensive and derogatory words will not be listed within this guide. As a rule of thumb, if it is accepted nomenclature, the language will be used in this guide. If you know of a word for gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender populations that is not used in this guide, it is best you discontinue its use from your vocabulary unless an individual specifically identifies with a term that is considered outdated. Then, please, use that term for that person and that person alone.

If (or when) gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender (GNBT) individuals elect to affirm their gender through medical procedures, this is known as “transitioning.” In total, there are approximately seven different medical procedures to affirm GNBT experiences, if GNBT individuals want them. As there is no single surgery, language such as “pre-op/post-op” or “the surgery” are considered not only offensive, but medically incorrect. Additionally, by Pennsylvania law, GNBT individuals can update their sex markers on all legal documents (e.g. birth certificate, license, and social security) independent of a medical operation. Therefore, to speak of medical transition as a singular event (e.g. “the surgery”) is offensive while also being medically and legally incorrect.

Intersex populations are often confused with GNBT populations, and vice versa. As gender is a social identity, individuals who are intersex are no more or less likely to identity as GNBT. As GNBT individuals have been mistakenly confused as being intersex, derogatory slang has been used for both populations. “Hermaphrodite” which refers to ambiguous external genitalia does not encompass the full sex character profile of an intersex individual and is therefore both offensive and medically incorrect.


Everyone has the right to keep their personal information private. A person’s gender identity, perceived or known, is private information that is legally protected by University of Pennsylvania Policies on Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, and Non-Discrimination, as well as federal laws like HIPPA and Title VII.

You may come to know people who are GNBT and are very open about their gender identity, experiences, and journeys. You may also come to know some people who choose to keep their gender journeys private. Others may choose to share their experiences in some places and protect themselves in other spaces. What all three of these different experiences have in common, is each person is captaining their own gender experience; they can share or not share on their timetable with whom they choose. Disavow yourself from the notion it is your right, responsibility, or prerogative to share a GNBT person’s gender identity, behavior, or orientation.


When GNBT — and more broadly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer — people share their identities with you, they are inviting you into a conversation they have been engaged in with themselves for a very long time. Now they have decided to invite you into that conversation. When outing someone you violate the bonds of trust, respect, and the dignity and worth of that person. You also violate multiple policies and laws.

The most effective way to avoid outing a GNBT or LGB coworker, student, or colleague is to clarify with the person who invited you into their conversation how much information they feel ready, safe, and comfortable with you sharing their information with others. Some of these questions might be:

In the office, you’ve asked me/us to use your chosen name, [insert chosen name] and use the pronouns [add pronouns here
]. When I refer to you outside of our office, or with others, would you feel [ready/safe/comfortable] if I use your chosen name and pronouns?

If we’re in a group conversation and people misgender you, would you feel [ready/safe/comfortable] if I corrected them, so you won’t have to?

If we’re in a group conversation and people deadname you, or use the name that was assigned to you at birth, would you feel [ready/safe/comfortable] if I correct them, so you don’t have to?

I am going to do a lot of research on my own so that I can be more supportive of you. One of the things that helps me retain information is when I confidentially talk things out with my [boyfriend/girlfriend/theyfriend, spouse/partner, close friend, mentor, roommate]. Would you feel [ready/safe/comfortable] if I process my work around your transition with them?

I’m going to do my best at supporting you and sometimes that will look like me supporting other people in their work to use the correct name and pronouns for you. Would you feel [ready/safe/comfortable] if I ask you some questions?

Please keep in mind that when you out someone else, you out yourself. Outing others shows people the ways you as an individual do not respect, trust, or believe people have the right to self-determination, dignity, and situated agency.

Support in the Long-term

As you have had some time to educate yourself, look around your office for the ways your space may un/intentionally harm your GNBT coworker. Here are some things to be on the lookout for:

  1. Are there pictures (group photos, professional headshots) anywhere that could out someone?
  2. Is there a gender-inclusive bathroom in your office or building? If not, do you know who to talk to about that or where the closest one is located? (FYI: Reach out to the LGBT Center)
  3. Make sure to change your coworker’s name in your contact lists on your phone and in your email contacts.
  4. Interrupt office chatter and destructive language happening at the expense of your GNBT coworker.

Gender and the language around gender’s fluidity are always in flux. As GNBT identities become more socially acceptable, more GNBT people are opening up about their gender experiences and are updating language, modalities, and identifications. At Penn, knowledge and knowledge production are rarely stagnant, so make sure to re-invest in being a life-long learner.