Why ‘They’ Is No Longer Just A Plural Pronoun

Originally Published Nov. 7, 2011:

As the world which we live in changes, so does the language which we speak. Bitch, the term for a female dog, is now a degrading term for woman. Queer, which used to mean odd or unusual, is now becoming the new umbrella term for the LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Words that used to be acceptable can now be considered offensive, and vice versa. Still, even with the fluidity that takes place within the English language, strict rules remain intact. Rules that have no alternative form and cannot be broken without seeming grammatically incorrect.

However, for the good of this generation and all those that follow, these rules need to be broken, such as the rule about personal pronouns. Pronouns in the English language follow a stringent set of paradigms based upon the gender binary she, her, and hers for those of the female sex and he, him and his for those of the male sex. But what happens; to people who resist the gender binary? Transgender, gender queer, and gender variant people have always existed, but they have not always been acknowledged. Even as awareness grows of people whose sex and gender do not line up, many still struggle to find their place in society.

Consider this: a baby is born with the clear and defined genitalia of a female, which therefore means society will view her as a girl. She is given no chance to think for herself about how she feels about gender before one is forced upon her. From a young age, she is taught to care about her appearance. Her most treasured toys consist of dolls and over-the-top dresses (used for playing the princess). She does not question if these are her preferred toys but instead accepts them. As she grows older, she learns to express an interest in make-up. She is encouraged to believe that the ideal body is slender but shapely, and that is this if not her current body-type, then she must do everything in her power to acquire that appearance.

All her life, she is forced to conform to society’s idea of what a woman must look like. Any lingering doubts must be dismissed. She knows she is a woman because that is what she has been told from birth. But those lingering doubts will still persist. Maybe she finds herself looking in the mirror, and wishing for the flat chest of a man, instead of the more obvious breasts of a woman. Perhaps she finds herself pursuing the men’s section at clothing stores, not buying for a brother, or a boyfriend, but for herself.

This woman doesn’t consider herself to be transgender, and she has no desire to identify as a man or use masculine pronouns. But neither does she feel that feminine pronouns correctly identify her. With no other opinion, she will continue to call herself ‘she’. This woman may go through her entire life without understanding why she feels this way. She may believe that she is the only person who ever feels this way. She may never know that there is a name for how she feels.

Suppose by chance this woman gets involved with an LGBT support group as a teenager, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. Suppose while attending the meetings for these groups, she meets other people who feel the same way as she does. There she might find a name to describe how she identifies: gender queer, gender variant, bigender, and gender neutral are just some of the many terms used by people who do not fit into the gender binary. Within the LGBT community, this woman might find the support and acceptance that she needs.

However, outside of the LGBT community can be a whole different story. Cisgender people, or people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth, may find it difficult to imagine feeling the need to change your genitalia. Transgender people still face much prejudice and discrimination, despite the fact that they have merely been born with the wrong genitalia and are obeying the gender binary. If anything, gender queer and gender variant people face even more prejudice, because their gender expression steps outside of this ‘man’ and ‘woman’ system we have created.

Our society has no place for people who do not identify as something other than male or female. The most obvious example of this is with pronouns. ‘She, her and hers’ for females and ‘he, him and his’ for males. There is no middle ground, no wiggle room. The LGBT community has tried to battle this by coming up with pronouns for gender queer people, the most well-known of which are ‘ze, hir and hirs.’ But it is unlikely for people outside of the LGBT community to know about these new pronouns, which makes it hard when coming out (or even explaining yourself) to people outside of the LGBT community.

What’s more, ‘ze’ is awkward to say, and can be difficult to remember. ‘Hir’ and ‘hirs’ sound extremely similar to ‘her’ and ‘hers’, which leave much room for slip-ups and confusion. The latter two pronouns also do not fit with the spelling of ‘ze’,

Unfortunately, the majority of society is both cisgender and heterosexual, and while there are allies of the LGBT community out there, even they may have a hard time adjusting to a completely new pronoun. So to make life a bit easier for the majority of society, gender queer and gender variant people have also begun to use ‘they, their and theirs’. This is a pronoun which is used everyday (and therefore should be much easier to remember). But as anyone with even the most basic understanding of grammar will tell you, ‘they, their and theirs’ are plural, and should only be used when referring to more than one person. People who use plural pronouns to identify themselves are often corrected, or when they try to explain, dismissed as grammatically incorrect.

But dismissing gender queer and gender variant people as grammatically incorrect demeans them, and tells them that because they are not like the rest of the world, they are wrong, or “just going through a phase.”

These are real people with legitimate concerns and issues. They are in no way, shape or form similar to drag kings and queens, who dress in over-the-top versions of the other gender’s clothes for fun. People who call themselves gender queer or gender variant are not seeking attention. This is not their way of fighting the system, or rebelling against their parents (As the article “The Freedom to Choose Your Pronouns”, seen in the New York Times, suggests). These are merely people who do not fit into the social system we have constructed, and are merely trying to express their identity to a world that still has no place for them.

Our society needs to understand that people can be something other than just a man or a woman. The first step towards this change in understanding is making room for pronouns other than she and he. Perhaps this means that ze will become a widespread pronoun, uncomfortable as it is to say.

Or maybe the wide-spread change will be to stop correcting people who identify as ‘they’.