I’ve been writing novels, stories, and plays about gay teens for over ten years, now. The reaction I get from people meeting me for the first time is usually something like, “Um… really? Why?” Part of my response goes to the injustices, the blind ignorance, and the naked hatred aimed at people who simply want to be who they are. My motto is the only thing wrong with being gay is how some people treat you when they find out.
I’d like to say that my work has helped society move forward toward acceptance, and many people tell me it has. But as this progress continues, I’m beginning to feel a little left behind. I’d just about wrapped my mind around the concept of transgender and was getting really good at using “she” and “her” for trans women, and “he” and him” for trans men, when I started to see articles about the movement—largely on college campuses at first—for a whole host of other pronouns being insisted upon by people who don’t identify with the binary categories.
In principle, I think this movement is wonderful. Reading Ashley Truong’s article, 6 Reasons Your Discomfort with They/Them Pronouns Reveals Unchecked Cis Privilege, I’m happy (and proud) to say that these reasons don’t apply to me. Well… except maybe the second; I can take my pronouns and gender identity for granted. And, as a matter of fact, I have no problem with “they” and “them” instead of the binary gender-based pronouns, if I know that someone wants me to use them in reference to them. I mean, to that person. My challenge is to remember to do it, and to remember that it’s that person, and not someone else, who wants me to do it.
Facebook has recently added “they” and “them” to the traditional binary pronouns that users can assign to themselves. That seems reasonable. But then we have a whole host of other pronouns that some people who see themselves as liberated from binary sexuality and gender want used in reference to them. The list of pronouns recognized at MIT for its students, for example, doesn’t approach being a full list of the options.
Another Facebook upgrade offers a list of 50 different gender options for users to select from. While I think this number is rather extreme, gender identity is not something I’m expected to accommodate in casual speech. Pronouns, I’m expected to discover and then remember.
So I might meet one person who identifies as genderqueer. So far, so good. But they don’t want to be referred to as her, him, or even they. This person, whose name we’ll say is Lindsay, expects any reference to be phrased like this: “Lindsay and I decided to invite eir friend Toni to join us when ey gets the restaurant gift certificate eir father gave em.” I’m going to have trouble remembering how to do this. And, worse, Toni wants the pronouns “e” and “es” used in reference to es. And I'm going to have trouble remembering which set of pronouns Lindsay wants and which set Toni wants and which other set Mackenzie wants...
Referring to points 5 of Truong’s article (actively working to keep the status quo) and 6 (considering my discomfort to be greater than trans and non-binary people’s comfort), I deny outright that they apply to me. Neither do I disrespect these individuals’ humanity (point 4), nor do I think I can dictate someone else’s gender (point 3), nor would I ever deny that someone else knows who they are better than I do (point 1). But—jumpin’ Jehosaphat—there has to be a better way.
History shows us that language changes when enough people adopt new usages and/or spellings. The key here is “enough people.” And why do large numbers of people effect these changes? It’s because the changes are easier: easier to remember, easier to apply, easier to spell, etc. And the key word here is “easier.”
There is nothing easy about the laundry list of new pronouns. There is also nothing easy about living in a binary society as a non-binary or trans individual. So I’m thinking we need to arrive at a happy medium. It would be great if we adopted a new set of pronouns that could apply to everyone as easily as we used to think the binary set did, but the chances of that happening are slim to none. I suggest the pronouns “they,” “them,” “their,” and “theirs” for anyone who doesn’t see the standard binary pronouns as applying to them. These words are already at the tips our tongues, and usage of them for individuals whose gender wasn’t known has been in the lexicon since Chaucer. I suggest we start simply and move into more complex usage if further change is needed to allow everyone their own identity.
I love that the force of this movement is so strong that straight, cisgender folks are the ones getting defensive. I really do. But I also want to avoid offending individuals like Rocko Gieselman who’ve been disadvantaged in very real and personal ways. And I’m not going to be able to do that if I can’t even remember what would offend them.
So... "they," anyone?