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Emotional Health

Understanding Gender Identity

The Use of Pronouns and What They Mean


Navigating gender identity is complex, and it can be very difficult.

We often use pronouns like these without even thinking about it. For those who may not identify with their birth sex or do not identify as male or female, it is a sign of respect and consideration to use someone’s pronoun.

Friends and family can help support their loved one by using the right pronouns as a first step in their journey of gender identity. “Everyone’s journey is different, but ultimately, gender identity comes from an internal sense. It’s not determined by body parts. By recognizing a person's identity, you are acknowledging their journey,” says Sumanas W. Jordan, MD, PhD, plastic surgeon and medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Gender Pathways Program.

Led by a specialized multidisciplinary team, the Gender Pathways Program is committed to providing gender-affirming care to transgender and gender nonbinary individuals. And with more than one-third of transgender individuals reporting a negative experience with health care, this program provides a space they can go where they can receive inclusive, trans-competent care. Without this first step, there could be a potential impact on both their physical and mental health.

It all starts with a pronoun and acknowledging your journey.

Gender Identity: More Than Just Pronouns

Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, both, other or something else. It can reflect the sex a person is born with or differ from it. Part of understanding the importance of using appropriate pronouns means understanding the complex landscape that is gender identity, especially as the preference for nonbinary pronouns is on the rise.

Here are some definitions of terms associated with gender identity:

  • Gender expression: Used to describe people’s outward presentation of their gender, typically through their appearance, dress and behavior.
  • Cisgender: Describes a person whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
  • Transgender or trans: Describes a person whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Nonbinary: Describes a person who does not identify as exclusively male or female. A person who is nonbinary has a gender identity that does not fit into the male/female binary. Other terms nonbinary individuals may use include, but are not limited to, gender nonconforming, genderqueer or gender diverse.
  • Genderfluid: Describes an individual whose gender identity changes over time or changes at different times.
  • Genderqueer: Similar to genderfluid, this describes a person whose gender identity falls outside of male or female, and is beyond genders or is some combination of genders.

Jazz McGinnis, LCSW, program coordinator for the Gender Pathways Program, provides trainings on gender-affirming communications and culture, and has received feedback from participants about their shifts to using pronouns.

“It may seem small, but using someone’s correct pronoun is a huge sign of respect to the transgender and nonbinary community. This simple act meets a person where they are in their authentic life and signals to others that you are a safe person,” says McGinnis. Through the Gender Pathways Program and other trans-competent programs, you’ll find a safe space to receive your healthcare needs.

For those who do not identify as transgender or nonbinary, listing or sharing your pronouns can give others the opportunity to build trust. “By adding your pronouns, you are showing someone that you are an ally,” McGinnis says. “It shows that you have knowledge about why it’s important and helps others feel safe."

What’s more: It helps create a world that is both inclusive and supportive.

Gender-Affirming Care

Sumanas Wanant Jordan, MD, PhD
Sumanas Wanant Jordan, MD, PhD
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Assistant Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Plastic Surgery
Accepts New Patients
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