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A Primer on Pronouns and Gender Identity

More youth are identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community than ever before in American history. A recent study found that as many as 1 in 4 young people identify as “nonbinary”, meaning outside of male or female. Additionally, 1 in 5 young people identified as questioning their gender, or exploring their gender identity to find what best fits them. Research shows that supporting youth through affirming gender identity and pronouns has a demonstrative positive impact on quality of life and mental health. To help you in your role as the nonjudgmental, caring friend, we’ve compiled some resources for you to support your mentee should they bring it up.

As always, we strongly encourage you to follow your mentee’s lead. They may try on different identities to see what fits, and that’s okay. Exploring gender identity is a perfectly normal part of growing up and self-discovery. Your Mentor Director is also always available to help you navigate any issue with your mentee and talk through resources assisting in understanding this topic.

What are pronouns? Pronouns are used to create shorthand indicators of the person being discussed in a sentence. “Bobby likes to play games on our visits. He particularly loves playing Connect Four.” In this sentence, the pronoun “he” is substituted for Bobby to create concise phrasing. The most commonly used pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers and they/them/theirs, though there are many other pronouns in use. This NPR article has a great glossary.

Why would someone use a different pronoun? Sometimes people don’t identify with the gender they are assigned at birth. Other times, they might be trying to figure out a term that feels more true to their experience.

What is gender binary? Gender binary is a term used to describe the cultural norms that have historically viewed gender in an either/or way: male or female. By using a spectrum based framework, we recognize that sometimes people identify as neither male nor female, or somewhere in between.

What if I mess up? You’re going to mess up, and that’s ok. Don’t make a big deal out of it, simply acknowledge the error and move on. The important thing is that you do your best to affirm your mentee’s identity.

How can I support my mentee as they explore their gender identity? To put it simply, listen and affirm. If you notice your mentee going by a new name with peers, ask if they prefer you use that name. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone what pronouns they use. For example: “Hey Olivia, I noticed your friends calling you Ollie last week and I was wondering if you preferred I start calling you that? What pronouns are you using?” This demonstrates that you really care about honoring their wishes. 

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