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What Is the Pronoun Game?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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The pronoun game is a type of verbal tactic that gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) people sometimes use in order to purposely conceal their sexual orientation from others whom they believe may not readily accept it. This kind of gender-neutral language deliberately avoids the use of gender-specific pronouns such as "he," "she," "him," or "her" when referring to a same-sex significant other. Many substitute the plural "they" or "them" for one of these singular pronouns. Others, particularly in the transgender community, adopt alternative gender-neutral pronouns such as "hir" or "xee," although these terms can call additional attention to the absence of gender-specific language.

The practice of beginning sentences with phrases such as "My better half and I" or "My significant other and I" is a common part of the pronoun game when making references to oneself as part of a same-sex couple. Some gay men and lesbian women substitute the opposite sex pronoun when referring to their same-sex partner, although this option is sometimes derided within the LGBT community as an endorsement of discrimination. It is also frequently viewed as a denial of the true self on the part of the speaker.

Reasons for playing the pronoun game are often centered around fear of job loss among many LGBT people, and the adoption of this sometimes convoluted language can become mentally tiring over a longer time period. A need to be vigilant about preventing a gender-specific pronoun from dropping into a revealing sentence is usually a distraction from the conversation topic. This factor can sometimes give the listener the mistaken impression that the speaker has poor communication skills. LGBT players of the pronoun game also tend to share as little as possible about their personal lives with their work colleagues, which can lead to increased feelings of alienation. It can even lead to diminished performance in work environments where camaraderie and teamwork are important parts of the job.

Fear of family alienation is another common reason for the pronoun game in speech. Avoidance of a gender-specific pronoun is a frequent practice when answering questions from curious family members about a same-sex partner who is not present at the time. Some LGBT people use this language pattern as a precursor to telling their families the truth about their orientation. The development of this pronoun usage is also interestingly a function of English and some other languages that lack a universal gender-neutral pronoun.

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Discussion Comments
By summing — On Apr 03, 2012

For years I had to refer to my boyfriend as my roommate. I know that we were not fooling anyone but that was the way it had to be. I traveled in circles where it would have been inappropriate, or lets say shocking, to have referred to him that way.

Luckily times have changed and we can now both live out and openly. It has changed both of our lives in ways we could never have expected. Now the fight becomes gaining the right to marry.

By gravois — On Apr 02, 2012

People have this mistaken notion that gender and sexuality are perfectly dualistic and completely static. As a result there are many gaps in our language which obstruct the true expression of people in the LGBT community.

Unfortunately this is something you can only really understand if you have come from that community. People who fall outside just the strictest notions of gender norms often struggle to find the words that properly, or more often appropriately, express their lives. It is surprisingly difficult and painful.

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