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I’m finding myself frustrated this week about pronouns. Or rather, the complete stubbornness around using they/them pronouns. My pronouns. It really seems like no one cares enough to just try and use them. So let’s do it. Lets talk pronouns.
What Are Pronouns?
Pronouns are the words that describe the participants you refer to in a discussion. Some common pronouns we use frequently are he, him, his and she, her, hers.
Another set of pronouns that are becoming more recognized are they, them, theirs, when speaking of a singular person. These are oftentimes considered “gender neutral pronouns.” These gender neutral pronouns are what I use for myself, and what I ask that others use when speaking of me.
I’ve noticed a lot of push back around using my pronouns. There’s a bunch of common arguments people will make against using them, either to my face, or among others when I’m no longer present. I have some thoughts about these arguments.
“Okay, but what are you, like, physically?”
Its so strange to me that people would actually ask this. And y’all really do ask it! Do you realize what you’re saying? To be really frank, you’re asking if I have a penis or a vagina. Do you ask that of every person you meet?
Think about it. Your boss says they’re hiring a new employee named Jo. You immediately ask, “Cool. Can’t wait to meet Jo. Also, does Jo have a penis or a vagina?” How would your boss react to that? They’d probably think you were wildly inappropriate and wonder why it mattered to you. I encourage you to ask yourself that question: why does it matter what genitalia someone has?
Because the truth is, that is what it boils down to! You want to know what parts they have between their legs! That’s kinda weird when you think about it that way, isn’t it?
There’s really only one example that I could think of where upon meeting me you might need to know what genitals I have. If you’re trying to hook up. Want to have sex? Okay, then it might matter what I’ve got going on. If not, I really can’t seem to justify your concern with my genitals.
“But that’s just not proper English!”
This seems to be one of the most common hang ups. Here’s the thing though, it is proper English. Refer to the section above. Do you see how I spoke about your boss? I used they/them pronouns. I did that, because I don’t know what gender your boss is. That’s exactly how I want you to refer to me. Without preconceived notions, ideas, or connotations about my gender.
Still can’t accept that prime example above? That’s okay. The great thing about language is that it does actually evolve. We come up with slang words all the time. Different words are used as common speak than we had hundreds of years ago. Definitions of words even change regularly.
It’s actually pretty natural for language to evolve along with how our culture grows and changes. It has to keep up with the amazing discoveries we find when we use science to study big ole concepts like gender and sexuality. I find it amazing. Maybe I should have gone into linguistics.
“I would have to change the whole sentence…”
It does get confusing. If you are talking about Tina and Mark, and Tina uses they/them pronouns, the conversation could get difficult to distinguish.
Tina met Mark for lunch. They had tea and cookies.
Who had tea and cookies? Maybe they both did. Maybe it was just Tina. A really great way to avoid this is to just use names for everyone. It might take a bit more work, but you are so incredibly capable. You can also try this:
Tina met Mark for lunch. They both had tea and cookies. Alternatively, you could say, Tina met Mark for lunch. They had tea and cookies, Mark did not.
This is not an overnight change! I don’t expect you to figure this all out right this moment. It takes a significant amount of thinking to rework sentences you’ve been using your whole life, especially when there are new rules involved. Take your time.
“I just don’t want to.”
This says to me that you care more about your shallow discomfort than helping to create an environment where I can feel truly seen. You do not care enough about me to help me to feel safe and loved. I’m protective of my energy and my time. I value folks who value me. Therefore, I can’t care enough to have you in my life.
To those uncomfortable or unsure about using gender neutral pronouns, I’d like you to consider this: Who does it hurt by using these pronouns? Even if you do not understand them, what harm does it do to try anyway? It may feel uncomfortable at first, I get that. Shit, sometimes even I mess up my friends pronouns!
What good does it do to use them?
It makes people like me feel safe. It makes us feel valued. We feel respected and cared for. Not only that! Did you know that using our correct pronouns even helps others around you? It creates a culture that is safer and kinder to one another. In a world that consistently makes queer people feel like outsiders, you have the ability to open your arms to us. You can take a stand against trans-phobic bullshit by being a strong ally and not assuming anyone’s gender. What a beautiful opportunity.
Lets be clear on what I’m asking of you here. I am not asking that you change your entire way of using language overnight. I’m not even asking you to never make mistakes. In fact, I’m asking that you do make mistakes. By trying. Fumble over your words for a bit. Notice when you use the wrong pronoun for me, correct yourself, and move forward.
Just, please, use my pronouns.
I support everything you write. The real problems arise in languages where these pronouns are not available. Like in my language, german. The equivalent to “they/them” would be “Sie” and that is only used for female persons or a (gender neutral) majority. Nobody ever uses it in a singular context. So until a new word is created or an existing one is changed or expanded in its meaning, I would honestly not know which pronoun to use. I guess I would have to use the masculine form because that one is typically used if you do not know the gender or are talking in an abstract way (like “the lawyer”).
I agree, that is a difficult one when it comes to other languages. I think personally, I would want folks to use the masculine form if it is generally used when you don’t know the gender of a person or you’re talking about something abstractly. As that aligns most closely to what I described in this article.
Thanks for laying it all out for us. It’s definitely something to get used to, and I hope those who use they/them pronouns feel comfortable correcting me when I make a mistake.
Excellent post. I’m so sorry that people are so awful when it comes to your pronouns. I can relate, sadly. I wish people would realize how harmful they’re being.
I really hope things get better for you soon. ♥
Awesome post, thanks for sharing!
I love following you on Instagram 🙂
Hi J! Thank you for this bit of education. I’m a person who is doing my best to change the way I use pronouns. I find I mess up quite frequently with my cousin who I’ve been around since birth and who has just recently begun using they/them pronouns. I was hoping maybe you could do a future blog regarding what you wish your family/parents had known or done differently to support you growing up. I have a 17 yr old daughter who has not openly discussed her gender with me, but presents masc on most days. I am struggling with not knowing whether to address it with her or let her figure it out and come to me in her own time, if she feels the need. I just want to give her the best start possible. Thank you for being you!
This is beautiful and I appreciate you taking the time to write it out! It not only can help me be more mindful, but now I also have something to point to when I tall to some of the people be in my life that don’t quite understand they/them pronouns yet. You are wonderful and doing great things!
I’m uncertain why we’re not simply inventing pronouns that work for non-binary people. That way people can be called what they want AND language can still be grammatically correct.
They/them pronouns are grammatically correct. The singular use of “they” has been added to the dictionary. Language can evolve and thats a beautiful thing!