What are non-gendered or nonbinary pronouns in gender identity?

Pronouns are words used in everyday language to replace a person’s name that reflects their gender identity. We use words like “they/them/their, he/him/his, she/her/her’s…” to refer to others in conversation. Nonbinary pronouns are used for gender neutrality and identity to create a more inclusive society.

A person can express their gender through their name and pronouns. But binary pronouns like “she/her, her’s” and “he/him, his” or salutations like “sir and madame” don’t always accurately represent everyone’s gender identity. Transgender and nonbinary people are not always fairly represented by male or female pronouns. 

Non-gendered pronouns like “they/them/their” used in the singular form (among others) are gender-neutral pronouns you can use safely to prevent misgendering and disrespecting others. 

Nonbinary Definition

Most societies, like ours, recognize a gender binary, meaning two parts (male and female). But that does not accurately reflect all of society. There are many instances where people’s genders don’t fall into one of two categories. They may blend elements of both, identify with neither gender or change their gender over time. Nonbinary is a term used to describe those genders. 

While the term “nonbinary” is quite common among people who don’t identify with male or female gender, they also use phrases like:

  • genderqueer
  • agender
  • transgender
  • bigender
  • genderfluid.

Although these words all mean something slightly different, they represent gender outside of a binary experience.

Avoid assuming someone's gender based on their outward appearance alone. When in doubt, ask someone what their pronouns are. Addressing someone by their preferred pronouns is a way to be respectful and avoid harassment. 

Gender Identity / Gender Expression

Gender identity is an individual’s sense of being a woman, man, both, neither, or anywhere in between the gender spectrum

Gender expression is someone’s outward representation of their gender. This includes: 

  • the clothing they wear
  • makeup and hairstyle
  • body language and expression, or voice
  • general behaviour

How should you use pronouns?

When you introduce yourself socially, in work or school situations, you can present your pronouns first and open the door for others to share. For example, you would say, “My name is Navi, and my pronouns are he/him/his. You should avoid assuming someone’s gender and pronouns based on how they look or sound. The best way to support someone respectfully and validate their gender identity is to ask questions like “How do you prefer to be addressed?” before addressing them. 

If you address someone incorrectly and use the wrong gender (misgender them), try rectifying that situation as soon as possible and be mindful to use the correct pronoun going forward. Some people misgender others on purpose to be malicious and to mock someone’s right to choose their gender. In Canada, it is punishable under human rights legislation to misgender someone; repeated attempts could constitute harassment.

Bill C-16 and the Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Code in Ontario protects the rights of individuals to be free of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression. Although gay and lesbian rights have evolved to protect from discrimination based on sexual orientation, it didn’t necessarily protect those who fell outside of a sex assigned at birth. 

Canada’s federal laws were updated in 2017 with Bill C-16 to reflect the rights of trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people. Bill C-16 amended the Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. 

Protection under the Human Rights Act now includes:

  • race 
  • national or ethnic origin
  • colour 
  • religion 
  • age 
  • sex 
  • sexual orientation 
  • gender identity or expression
  • marital status 
  • family status 
  • disability
If you or someone you know has suffered discrimination, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

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Last updated: September 1, 2023 4006581