'My pronouns are he/she/they,' is something more and more young people say. Here's why.
First there were the traditional pronouns: “she/her” and “he/him.”
Then, in recent years, as our understanding and interpretation of gender identity has continued to stretch and evolve, especially among young people, a new option emerged: “they/them,” typically signaling that the person identified as nonbinary — otherwise known as genderqueer or genderfluid — meaning outside of the male-female gender binary.
Now comes a recently rising embracing of "all pronouns," by one individual, with more and more young people saying they go by “she/he/they."
“There are days where I feel like a woman and a man at the same time, while other times I’m a human roaming this Earth, and gender has nothing to do with it," says Kathryn (Kat) Ksiazek, 22, an Ithaca College senior who identifies as gender-nonconforming and has been using all pronouns for about a year. "It’s very complicated."
But it hasn't stopped Ksiazek and many others from giving it a try. “I’m definitely seeing a huge uptick — I mean, dramatic — in the classroom, with members of Gen Z,” reports Phil Hammack, a professor of psychology and researcher in the field of sexual and gender identity at the University of California Santa Cruz. “I can track it every year — now we get pronouns as part of the class roster, which we didn’t used to — but I also see it through my fieldwork in high schools.”
Mentions of using all pronouns have even begun to make their way into pop culture, most recently with beauty influencer Bretman Rock, who said, “I go by all the pronouns” in a recent interview with Zach Sang, who apologized for calling the nonbinary social media star “he” instead of “they” but was quickly reassured. “I don’t go strictly by they/them,” Rock said, “I go by all of them."
But why would someone opt for using all pronouns? And what does it mean?
‘Why not use all the pronouns?’
There are maybe as many reasons for using all pronouns as there are people doing so, but the phenomenon is rooted, at least, in the ever-expanding and highly personal view of gender identity: A 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that 3% of U.S. adults between 18 and 30 identify as nonbinary, while 2% identify as transgender — which translates to around 10 to 15 million people.
“A person might use all pronouns for a number of reasons, and all are perfectly valid,” executive director at the LGBTQ student support organization GLSEN, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers (who uses she/they pronouns), tells Yahoo Life.
“One may not identify as having a single, unchanging gender and might feel comfortable and connected to any pronouns," they say. "Pronouns can, at times, be a signifier for someone’s gender identity — but not always. It’s important to never assume one’s gender identity for any reason, including the pronouns they use.”
From what Hammack has observed, “In many cases, they might be kind of exploring the possibility of nonbinary gender … testing the waters. And they may actually wind up identifying as nonbinary, and then [with all pronouns] they are saying, ‘I don’t care which you use.’” But sometimes with others, he adds, it’s more of a signal “that they are sort of rejecting of binary gender in general … so it’s more of a mix of allyship and a rejection of binary gender as a concept, regardless of whether they feel like a boy or girl or man or woman.” He adds, “I think we’re only going to see an uptick in all-pronoun usage.”
Ksiazek, who for about a year before switching to all pronouns used she/they pronouns, has seen various pronoun iterations among friends: “I think there sometimes tends to be this sort of pattern where you start off with the pronouns everyone has been using, based on what sex you were assigned at birth, and then you use ‘they’ and somehow you go to ‘she/they’ and then, I thought, why not add ‘he’ in there as well?”
They add, “So much of gender is constructed through modern language, and we’re trying to create almost a new language to fit gender and pronouns into a language, into English. … Some other cultures are more — or less — complicated,” such as in the Philippines, where the language Tagalog, Rock explained about his own easy rejection of gendered pronouns, has no “he” or “she” but a general “sha.”
Says Ksiazek, “I don’t think there is a perfect explanation for it,” but ultimately I just felt like, “Why not use all the pronouns?”
Virginia-based musician, personal trainer and self-defense instructor Sally Rose (their first name, which they go by) also recently started using all pronouns, following a period of using “she/they” after coming out over two years ago as “genderqueer” and now identifying as trans.
It all started when, Sally Rose, 32, recalls, “With my very closest friends and my partner I had expressed I felt like I had not just girl parts but boy parts, and other parts that felt genderless entirely. So initially, I just came out using the pronouns she/they because it felt safer, especially since I’m in my early 30s and I live in a very small rural area, and I didn’t grow up with that kind of exposure like folks closer to the Gen Z age or in bigger cities with more diversity and more support and representation.”
The musician, whose sexual identity is queer and pansexual, has been playing out for about 18 years and says, "I was always an LGBTQ ally … and then came out as queer. ... And then I was an ally for the trans community for years, and then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”
The artist relates strongly to being a feminist, and has “no plans to transition” in any way. “I dress a million different types of ways. … And what has been really liberating is realizing that gender doesn’t look like anything, and gender doesn’t sound like anything,” and that using all pronouns “just feels like you are being completely honest with yourself and those you can trust fully.”
Willingham-Jaggers notes that switching genders, pronouns or other identities over time, as Sally Rose has, makes organic sense to many. “As we grow, learn and become aware of different people and experiences, it’s common to feel that our identity may be different than what we previously thought it was. GLSEN research shows that when we allow — and more importantly, encourage — our youth [or anyone] to express themselves in a way that feels authentic, they thrive. If someone wants to explain their change in pronouns, we should absolutely give them that space, but we should also openly accept these changes without explanation.”
Adds Penelope French, a Trevor Project public training manager who uses all pronouns, “It is important that we allow young people to define who they are for themselves. We also cannot assume that the understanding of gender that a young person arrives to necessarily means they are transgender or nonbinary. Some people who are nonbinary or genderqueer are also trans. Like most things, people are not a monolith, so society has to continue to create space for people to show up differently than the harmful heteronormative social standards that our country is used to — but actively moving away from."
French adds, “Young people have a more evolved perspective or understanding of gender — they understand that gender is a social construct and not binary, and are able to use that awareness to be more accepting of themselves and those around them.”
When it comes to older people not getting it, Sally Rose aims to be understanding but says people just resorting to “she” rather than trying out all pronouns in conversation elicits mixed emotions.
“When folks just stick to ‘she/her’ does it bother me? The answer is yes,” they say. “It’s not that I feel that I’m being misgendered, it’s just that I feel they’re only acknowledging a small part of me. Switching genders is best.” They add, “My dad is 76, he’s a baby boomer, so I have both compassion and patience for people who are like, ‘This is new language to me, and I’ve known you as a woman for your entire life.’”
Similarly, says Ksiazek, “I’m not upset when people use ‘she/her,’ though it “really tells a lot about that person, I think — that they’re saying, ‘I’m not going to fight you on using all pronouns, but I’m not fully going to accept it, either.” The college senior has a bit more understanding when it comes to family members, especially their parents.
“Both of my parents were born in Poland … and it’s very difficult for me talking to my family in Poland, because I know they will never fully understand pronouns. So many words are gendered in that language, so it’s a lot more complicated for them,” they say.
“When I hear older people not use it, I just kind of let it go. … You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and sometimes it’s not worth the fight. But for young people, I’m a little bit more hopeful.”
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