As the New York Times points out, “We are witnessing a great explosion in the way that human beings are allowed to express their gender identities. We are also hearing a lot of awkward conversations.”
It’s an increasingly common question: How to talk about trans and queer people in 2016? What’s the appropriate way to talk about people who don’t subscribe to gender binaries of male or female? Referring to a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, the Times notes:
On one side are people like Ray, who come off as clueless and offensive for failing to recalibrate their language to accommodate people who don’t identify as “he” or “she.” On the other side are “theys” like the barista, who can sound unreasonable and absurd when they try to police new rules of language that are still in flux.
This registers as a modern problem, but gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed for centuries. In 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested repurposing “it” and “which” “in order to avoid particularizing man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently.” But only recently has mainstream pop culture entertained the idea of a neutral pronoun for referring to trans, genderqueer and even some feminist folks who either don’t identify as “he” or “she” or are interested in demolishing that binary in speech. A flurry of totally new constructions has emerged to bridge the gap. On Tumblr, it’s now typical for young people to pin their preferred pronouns to their pages: The writer behind a blog called “The Gayest Seabass” identifies as “Danny, xe/xim/xir or he/him/his or they/them/their, taken-ish, 20.”
Along comes “they” and I readily admit my initial resistance to it. I pride myself on my facility with the King’s English, so using “they” as a singular personal pronoun sounds completely wrong. But the usage of “they” is gaining ground and recognition:
These gender-neutral constructions, which not so long ago may have sounded odd or even unthinkable to traditionalists, are becoming accepted as standard English. The Washington Post is one of the first to have taken up the cause, welcoming the singular “they” into the paper’s stylebook late last year. And in January, the American Dialect Society voted the singular “they” its 2015 Word of the Year, noting its “emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”
But central to the appeal of the singular “they” is that it’s often deployed unconsciously. It’s regularly repurposed as a linguistic crutch when an individual’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. You might use it to refer to a hypothetical person who, say, goes to the store and forgets “their” wallet.
The article closes like this:
In a very real way, accepting the fluidity of gender requires rejecting standards in general. It means opening our “closed class” of pronouns. In “The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson’s memoir of gender and language, she acknowledges “the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories,” but embraces another need “to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live.”
As I noted earlier, using “they” does sound wrong. Then again, so does new music genres when we first hear them. I’d venture, for example, that most Western ears don’t immediately gravitate towards the Inuit throat singing of an artist like Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq. Now, having seen her perform, it’s an incredible experience. Bottom line: Our ears and our sensibilities adjust.
I expect the same will be true with “they”.
Read the full New York Times Magazine article here.