Don’t Erase ‘Them’

Or, I’m Agender and I’ve Got Some Problems with Farhad Manjoo’s Universal ‘They’

Brian Fabry Dorsam
Jul 12 · 6 min read

This essay is a response to Call Me “They”, an opinion piece written by Farhad Manjoo for The New York Times.

Farhad Manjoo is a ‘stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad’ who argued in a recent New York Times opinion column for the universal use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for the purposes of removing gender from language, where they feel it needn’t belong.

There’s a lot to talk about here.

Manjoo begins by saying that, though they are a cis man, and are typically clocked as such, we should not refer to them as ‘he’, because

If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

As it stands, there is no requirement for us to have to assume anyone’s gender just to refer to them in the common tongue; we only do so out of habit. Manjoo is right to call this out, but they don’t stop there. Manjoo goes on to ask not only that we refer to them as ‘they’, but suggests that we all refer to each other as ‘they’, ‘unless you feel strongly about your specific pronouns’. Manjoo sums up their proposal:

Be a “him” or “her” or anything else in the sheets, but consider also being a “they” and “them” in the streets.

This is where I start to squirm in my seat. Something that Manjoo’s proposal seems to miss completely is that gender is not an unimportant thing. In the article, a representative from the National Center for Transgender Equality asks, ‘What benefit does [gendering certain aspects of society] bring us?’

Manjoo answers immediately, ‘None, I say, other than confusion, anxiety, and grief.’

This is wildly untrue. I don’t have a gender, myself, but it is plain to me that, for so many people, especially within the trans community with which Manjoo claims to ally themself, gender is of massive importance. For many, many people, it is not gender itself that causes ‘anxiety, confusion, and grief’ — it is misgendering, from birth onward. What Manjoo is suggesting here is the eradication of identities that were hard won and need celebration, not erasure.

I’m not sure Manjoo has thought about this, which is, itself, very telling. Cis men are our society’s only protected gender demographic. Their gender has, for centuries, been contrived as the norm from which all others deviate. When your gender has become this deeply normalized within society, it is easy, and indeed a privilege, to feel as though it is unimportant. But for many people, particularly in the trans community, pronouns are not as incidental as they seem to be to Manjoo. While Manjoo praises the gender neutral ‘I’, happy that ‘When I refer to myself, I don’t have to announce my gender and all the baggage it carries’, there are many people for whom language is the only way to ‘announce’ their gender.

I am agender and my pronouns are ‘they/them/theirs’. To put it in Manjoo’s terms, I am a ‘they’ in the sheets, and a ‘they’ in the streets. However, in spite of this, I am gendered constantly, every day. Often, it’s by strangers (cashiers, passersby, etc.) who read me as a man and use masculine-gendered words like ‘sir’, ‘he’, ‘man’, to talk to and about me. But it’s not only strangers. I am gendered (and gendered masculine) by people to whom I’m close, as well (family, friends, coworkers). When I hear someone use ‘they’ to refer to me, I do not feel nothing. I do not feel neutral. I feel affirmed and validated in my selfhood. I feel seen and loved.

I want my pronouns to communicate something. That something happens to be neutrality. But simply because my pronouns communicate neutrality, does not mean that they are, themselves, neutral. Manjoo’s proposal strips my pronouns of their communicative power. Without that power, I am left to be gendered at the will of others. For Manjoo, a neutral pronoun would leave people to correctly infer their cis masculinity, because their gender presentation aligns roughly with stereotypes about their gender identity, but, for me, the inference of cis masculinity is incorrect, damaging, and something against which I must work every day.

Manjoo invokes David Foster Wallace to combat ‘snooty’ grammarians who don’t know that the Oxford English Dictionary dates the singular ‘they’ as far back as 1375, when it was used in Middle English. In other words, the singular ‘they’ is older than the English that any of these pseudo-snobs are using to voice their ahistorical bigotry. Manjoo is right to criticize them, but I can’t help but note the irony of Manjoo’s invocation of Wallace, when their dismissal of the importance of gender is reminiscent of the introduction to Wallace’s most famous speech:

‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”’

Manjoo, a ‘stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad’ is asked to reckon with their gender and goes, ‘What the hell is gender?’

Cis men are, functionally, society’s neutral gender. Neutrality is a privilege afforded to the dominant. Gender, for the rest of us (and for some cis men, as well, of course), is felt largely through friction. Our identities are either dictated to us in relation to the contrived ‘neutrality’ of cis men, or made, ourselves, in the face of it.

But Manjoo seems to equate their own social gender neutrality/dominance to gender neutrality within the trans community, which is carved out to remove ourselves from a binary-based gender hierarchy. The former deeply relies on the gender binary to achieve its neutrality. The latter is a deprivileged acknowledgment that the binary was created to protect and privilege the experience of men like Manjoo at the expense of all others, and an internal recognition that those prescribed social contrivances do not adequately describe us. It is important for Manjoo to understand that the neutrality they feel is a consequence of their cis identity, not an alienation from it.

Manjoo uses their societally-given neutrality of dominance (which is to say, privilege), to wield their gender as a thought experiment rather than a lived reality, and this is what leads them to the most troubling part of the exercise: Manjoo attempts to dictate to others what their pronouns ‘should’ be.

When they conclude with, ‘Call me “they,” and I’ll call you “them.” I won’t mind, and I hope you won’t, either,’ they seem to imagine their opposition to be staunch, cis grammarians, of which there will surely be plenty. (They love to show up to this fight.) What Manjoo does not seem to anticipate, at all, is that gender is not so flippant for everyone, and that dictating to others what they ‘should’ be called is precisely the oppression against which so many trans people fight every day, simply by existing.

This could have gone another way. Manjoo’s paragraph about their awakening to societal overgendering after becoming a parent could have been a story about how they have decided to raise their children without a gender. The realization that the gender they were assigned at birth no longer feels relevant could have led to the forming of a new, non-binary identity. Instead, these things led to gender oppression by another name.

Manjoo’s cause is a righteous one, at heart. Society is demonstrably overgendered, and the gender binary we’ve constructed has caused untold damage by setting expectations of behavior, appearance, emotion, physicality, ability, and psychology, based solely on the anatomy of infants. If Manjoo were to call on us to raise our children without gender, or to simply refrain from assuming anyone’s gender or pronouns before asking them, I’d give them my full support. But, as it stands, Manjoo’s genderblind rallying cry reeks of touristic privilege and unintentional erasure, and has far more in common with colorblindness than true anti-discriminatory activism.

As Manjoo suggests, we must try to distance ourselves from the habit of assuming someone’s gender before asking them politely. We must offer our own pronouns, then ask gently and warmly for theirs. If we do not know someone’s pronouns when we are speaking about them, we should use a gender-neutral term to avoid accidentally misgendering them (they/them are good go-tos). But, once we learn someone’s pronouns, we must use those pronouns. We mustn’t take Manjoo up on this misguided attempt at inclusivity. Nothing is inclusive when it is forced. True inclusivity is the recognition of each individual’s humanity on their own terms. Anything else is erasure.

Brian Fabry Dorsam

Written by

Brian is an agender writer, illustrator, podcast producer, Carly Rae Jepsen fan, and cat mom based in Chicago.

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