I am they

Today is International Pronouns day, a movement which “seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace”.

I use the pronouns they/them.

What this means is that, rather than the more common and gender-based pronouns he/him or she/her, I use gender-neutral pronouns, because I am non-binary. So, you might say “You know River? They write a blog, and they’re a Druid”.

Why does this matter?

As the website My Pronouns.org says,

Often, people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on a person’s appearance or name. Then, they apply those assumptions to the pronouns and forms of address used to refer to a person.

Whether or not these assumptions are correct, the very act of making an assumption can send a potentially harmful message — that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.

While some people claim to find using they/them pronouns difficult, we all (in English at least) do it all the time. For instance, you might say something like:

“Someone left their phone on the table, I’ll pick it up for them in case they come back”.

In cases like this, we tend to default to they/them automatically where we don’t know the gender of the person to whom we’re referring, because unlike “he” or “she”, they doesn’t assume anything about a person’s gender.

A common objection to using they/them pronouns are that they are not grammatically correct. This is just not the case.

Singular “they” has been in common use in English since at least the 14th century, and appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as in the writings of William Caxton and in an early English translation of the Bible, the 1382 Wycliffe’s Bible (Ecclesiasticus 38:35 Eche on in þer craft ys wijs – each one in their craft is wise).

Even if this were not the case, something doesn’t need to be ancient to be valid. New words come into languages all the time, and meanings shift over centuries through popular use. I used to teach a module on English language change to students, and they would always marvel over how the meanings, spelling and use of even commonplace words today is different from fifty or a hundred, or five hundred years ago.

Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive: that is, they describe how language is used and don’t prescribe how language should be used. If they were prescriptive, we may all still be using the language of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755) today.

In recent years, the Oxford English Dictionary in the UK and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary in the USA have added the singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun.

To clarify any confusion, singular they is conjugated as plural: they are non-binary, not they is non-binary. This is no different than you are reading this as opposed to you is reading this. Funnily enough, that’s because “you” was also originally the plural form, with “thou” being the singular, up until about 1700. Language change is fun!

I’d also argue that anyone who cares more about fossilised rules of grammar than the lived experience of non-binary people is someone who lacks both understanding and empathy.

The reason pronouns have become an important part of trans and non-binary people’s language and identity is because they help us affirm who we are. They give words and so give shape to our understanding of ourselves, and how we want to be understood by others.

Using the wrong pronouns hurts. Now I know, “words will never hurt me” and all that playground wisdom, but words can hurt. Every time I hear someone say something like “you know [name], he’s over there”, it stings, an ice-pick reminder in the heart that I am not seen as the person I am, that I am seen as a man instead.

It costs nothing to use the right pronouns for someone, and is the same level of basic politeness as using someone’s correct name. If someone says their name is Tom, would you call them Thomas, or Tim, or Dave? Likewise if someone tells you their pronouns, use them. It’s OK to make a mistake and slip up from time to time, but making the effort makes the other person feel welcomed, safe, accepted. And why would any of us not want that for each other?

A great sign of ally-ship if you’re not trans or non-binary is to introduce yourself with your pronouns, even if you think they’re obvious because of your appearance, or because you’ve never had to think about it. Otherwise, if only trans and non-binary folk are putting their pronouns out there, doing so outs us immediately. If everyone does it, it becomes no big deal, just another piece of information along with your name or title. Put them in your email signatures, on your social media, in conversation, and ask other people their pronouns too – even if (especially if) you think you can guess because they “look like” a man or a woman.

It’s a small thing, but trust me, it really helps.

So hi, I’m River and my pronouns are they/them. How about you?

Image credit: CoryMeadows12 on Wattpad.


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