What’s in a name: a beginner’s guide to gender pronouns

By Rebecca Douglas

What’s in a name: a beginner’s guide to gender pronouns
Changing your name may be filled with mixed emotions for some, but for others it can mean an entirely new identity and reimagined future.

For most of us, our name is something we simply don’t think about. It’s what we’ve always been called and what we’re comfortable with being called forever into the future.

Occasionally, someone adopts a nickname because their original moniker seemed old-fashioned or ill-suited to them, they like the nickname better, or others started calling them that name and it somehow stuck.

For other people, there can be immense distress attached to their existing name – perhaps it was screamed countless times in childhood by abusive parents, is associated with unhappy memories, or it’s unwieldy in some way and has caused difficulties in written and spoken communication.

They might then decide it’s time to update or upgrade to something more fitting and unshackle themselves from the negative energy or hassles of the old name.

The decision comes with a number of practical considerations such as notifying friends and family, updating official documents, and deciding whether to use your new name in your professional life.

If a person is changing their name due to being transgender (where their birth sex doesn’t match their gender identity) or non-binary (identifying as neither male nor female, but somewhere in between or outside of these two options), the process can bring with it anxiety that their new identity will be rejected or ridiculed.

Additionally, they might be changing pronouns (e.g.now wanting to be addressed as ‘she’and ‘her’ when previously they were‘he’ and ‘him’), which adds further potential for offence when people unwittingly mistake their identity.

Growing into yourself

The name change process can be particularly fraught with difficulty when the name change has been due to this type of gender transition. In 2016, a UCLA study found 0.6 per cent of the US adult population identified as transgender. A transgender person will likely have endured years of feeling that their name fails to reflect their true self.

Changing it can be an opportunity for the person to define themselves and experience positive personal growth, according to clinical psychologist Homer Zeitz.“They want a name that represents who they really are, as opposed to it representing the depression and suppression they had to go through,” Zeitz says.

Zeitz says it’s about exercising your freedom of choice to do something that will make you happier and reap genuine benefits. Making sure you properly understand your intent and purpose for the change is key. “If you’re not happy with your name, if you have issues around it, the important thing is to be clear what those issues are and how changing it may or may not help with that.”

Each person’s reasons for the new name they adopt are individual. They can be practical, emotional, or a mixture of both.

“There are a range of different reasons why a person may want to change their name,” says Zeitz. “You might want a name that blends in, that’s ambiguous. Or you might like a certain name or you look up baby names and think, ‘Oh, that name means ‘strength’. I like that. I want to be strong.’”

Clinical psychologist Janice Dickson says it’s a decision that requires a lot of forethought.“It’s not something you’d want to rush into quickly,” she says. “This is a name that you want to last, that you’re going to be happy with, so you may want to steer away from whatever’s popular right now, and think about what has meaning for you.”

Starting afresh

Dickson says even in cases where the person’s name could be construed as either masculine or feminine, such as ‘Alex’ or ‘Sam’, a name change offers afresh start for the person to delineate their old life from their new life where their real self is truly reflected.

“Some of them do have names that could be used for either. For them, they still like to change their name because they’re beginning life as somebody new, or it’s who they feel they are, so they want to be seen in a different way.”

Often, a new name is chosen because it closely resembles the original name, but still signifies the person is the opposite gender to their previous identity.“ In my experience, more often with the biological females changing to male, they’re thoughtful about what it’s going to be like for other people when they change names, and they change to something that’s quite similar,” says Dickson. “So it might start with the same letter – Kayla to Kaleb, for example.”

Reaching this point of self-actualisation can be a hard-fought battle, as transgender people can struggle to feel comfortable enough to switch to their new identity and use anew name until they’ve achieved a certain stage of transition.

For these people in particular, it can be hurtful when others fail to properly embrace them in their true form, especially when this is done maliciously.

‘Deadnaming’ someone is when a person deliberately or unintentionally uses a transgender person’s birth name or previous name instead of the new name they’ve chosen. Although this can be an intensely invalidating experience, Dickson says most transgender people are understanding in this situation if the mistake was unintended and swiftly corrected, especially shortly after debuting the new name.

Another aspect of language that can have a profound effect on someone’s self-esteem is the pronouns they use.

In March 2019, British pop and soul singer Sam Smith, who presents as and previously identified as a man, came out as gender non-binary. In September the same year, Smith announced a new preference for pronouns, wishing to be referred to as ‘they/them’ instead of ‘he/him’.

On Twitter, Smith wrote: “Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM. After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out…”

Smith is not the first star to announce they identify as non-binary, but is arguably the most prominent person to do so. This sort tof visibility on social media and in traditional media is tremendously significant in prompting others to feel safe and supported enough to do so. It helps inspire other celebrities and high-profile people in society to follow suit, thereby normalising changing your pronouns to reflect your true self.

There’s a lot more work to do, but Dickson says governments and other organisations can also play a role in leading the way, changing their forms and documents to have tick-boxes that offer an option other than male or female. In 2015, New Zealand was the first country in the world to include anew gender identity classification of ‘gender diverse’ alongside ‘male’ and‘female’, to be implemented by Statistics NZ.

The Statistical Standard for Gender Identity was developed after consultation with groups representing people with different gender identities.

“We’re getting better and better, just like we did when we started embracing the rights of people to love somebody of the same sex,” says Dickson.

“We’re taking huge strides. There are a lot more young people who are now identifying as transgender at a much larger rate than before, and in particular, the ones born female who are identifying as male. I think it’s happening because they feel they can because there’s a lot more information out there and they can see people like them.”

New language or old?

Gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they/them’ are not new to the English language, in any case. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of ‘they’ to refer to a single person rather than a group of people dates back to 1375 when it was used in medieval romance, William and the Werewolf.

In the 18th century, grammar pedants began insisting that singular ‘they’ was an error, but by the end of the 20th century, language authorities had swung back in favour of it.

The 1998 New Oxford Dictionary of English accepted singular ‘they’ as well as using the form in its definitions.“It’s not like they’re trying to recreate the language,” Zeitz points out.

“They’re just insisting that we use the language more intelligently and more sympathetically because language conveys meaning. If you try to pretend that language is meaningless, basically you’re saying the English language doesn’t work.”

A guide to pronouns

Leaving aside the history of literature and grammar, if a family member or friend has asked you to use different pronouns to what you’re used to, it’s important for their mental health to make an effort as soon as possible to switch to their new pronouns with a minimum of fuss.

“Being completely accepting of them is really important because they’re still the person you know and love – they haven’t changed, they’re just identifying with a different gender,” says Dickson.

“That’s demonstrating to them that you accept their choices and care enough to make the effort.”


Anyone who’s ever cried over being called a mean name in the schoolyard could tell you that words have the power to hurt or heal people. It’s easy to dismiss the effect of your choice of words, calling others ‘fussy’ or ‘overly sensitive’, but why would you refuse to make such small changes to your speech to deny others happiness?

Shifting your habits can be tricky, so start with this simple guide to pronouns:

  • Don’t make assumptions and use gender-neutral terms. When speaking with others, Zeitz recommends using gender-neutral terms and not making assumptions about a person’s gender or that of their partner. You can then adjust later on in the conversation if the person uses a specific pronoun and has thereby indicated that it’s okay for you to do so as well.
  • If you make a mistake, apologise and move on. If you make a mistake and misgender someone, apologise and move quickly to referring to the person in a neutral way or how they’ve requested rather than reacting with anger or calling a large amount of attention to it.
  • Be conscious about the words you use. “If you’re talking to someone about a friend, use ‘they’. If you do slip up and you’re corrected, don’t get defensive.” The rigid one-or-the-other view of sex and gender as male or female no longer fits everyone, if it ever did, says Dickson.
  • Respect where people are coming from. There are many options in between and everyone’s different. “It’s about respecting other people, and where they’re coming from, and how they feel,” she says.“We’re all on the gender continuum, and there are many people who don’t want to be in one box or another, but somewhere along that continuum.”

The bottom line is that being polite and respectful to others is not hard to do and makes the world a more pleasant place for us all. The person hasn’t changed, they are expressing who they feel they were always meant to be.“ This is not about giving people special consideration,” says Zeitz.

“If you intend to be a good person and not hurt people, address a person the way they want to be addressed. That’s what basic respect is about – being a decent human being.

READ MORE: 7 ways to free up gender stereotypes and why it matters


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