Time To Get On Board With ‘Singular They’
It’s not new, it’s not a trend, and it shouldn’t bother, scare, or enrage you. It’s not going away, and now, you’re out of excuses.
No need to fight against the use of singular they; it already exists. And, Bonus: we all already use it, often without even realizing. Sure, it’s mostly used when we don’t know (or shouldn’t speculate on) someone else’s gender. As in, “We’re looking for a thought leader who will be very strategic in their marketing approach.” Or, when we’re talking about an indefinite group of people that may include one gender or the other, or all genders, but gender is irrelevant. Or, when the post-Victorian adoption of “he or she”/“his or her” would simply feel over the top. Like this:
“Everybody told me he or she thought I did the right thing.”
That sounds ridiculous. Instead, we’d say:
“Everybody told me they thought I did the right thing.”
There are numerous examples of how we all technically use singular they all the time, without even thinking about it.
- “Somebody left their umbrella.”
- “Has everyone turned in their homework?”
- “Nobody in their right mind would do that.”
- “They hung up on me without saying a word.”
- “Would anyone be willing to give up their seat?”
- “No one wants to think they aren’t appreciated.”
- “Everybody wanted to surprise me, and they did.”
We can all agree on the fair usage of these, I think. What most people are unfamiliar with is the idea of ‘they’ being used as a singular pronoun when it’s referring specifically to a person of known (or assumed) gender identity. In other words, folks don’t like being asked to use ‘they’ in place of ‘he’ or ‘she.’
I get it. It’s awkward at first. It takes a lot of practice. I have a trans teen who has been going by ‘they/them’ for several years, and trust me, I hear all the nitpicks people have with singular they (and gender identity in general). I normally try to let it go, knowing there are the occasional few who want to learn, but there are many more with fixed mindsets and no desire for expanding their minds.
But when a person with no knowledge of anything trans-related (or for that matter, no solid command of basic English grammar) tries to state with authority that someone else’s lived experience, inhabiting their own gender identity, with their own gender expression, using their most authentic pronoun is, for any reason, “not valid,” I have to say something.
The accusations that language — pronouns, specifically — being used in this way are “nonsense” are nothing but… well, nonsense.
Consider that we somehow managed figuring out how to do the same thing with the pronoun ‘you’ in every possible context. It didn’t start out this way; the meaning of ‘you’ evolved, over time. I mean, at least I can’t think of anyone in America who still uses “ye” or “thou” in unironic, casual conversation anymore.
The adoption and use of ‘you’ covering several different contexts is why I can say things to my child like “Did you remember to brush your teeth this morning? Brushing every day is good for you.” We can speak like this and all understand that the first ‘you’ is directed at someone specific, and the second ‘you’ is not necessarily; it’s an indefinite ‘you,’ or “you, in general.” Of course, it’s developmentally appropriate for little kids to take everything literally and not understand nuances like “you, in general,” but they do eventually learn. Fortunately, the English language is nothing if not malleable, so why do we balk at the use of singular they?
Our culture is far better at accepting opposite binary pronouns for people who have transitioned in the manner of Chaz Bono, Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, Buck Angel, Nicole Maines, or Laith Ashley, to name a few. And maybe even more so because of their “passing privilege” and Hollywood appeal. In 2019, transgender people are more or less accepted — or, at least tolerated — in mainstream society because they fit a binary narrative. Boy or girl. Man or woman. He or she.
But the fact is, not everyone is ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Contrary to popular belief, biological sex itself is not binary. Intersex people exist, and there are more of them than you might think. There are even those who aren’t aware of their intersex status, until they try to conceive a child and can’t, and there are those who will go to the grave without that knowledge. The Intersex Society of North America was founded in 1993 to advocate for patients and families who felt they’d been harmed by the health care system, namely, for genital mutilation, often done on those who were born with anatomy that doctors deemed “not standard for male or female.”
Likewise, transgender and non-binary people exist. Also contrary to popular belief, these people are not suffering from “mental illness” for being trans or non-binary. Prominent psychologists note that children form their innate sense of gender identity between the ages of 3–5 years old, even if they can’t verbalize what it is.
Position statements exist from the vast community of leading experts, including scientific researchers, pediatricians, sociologists, and psychologists, all across America (and beyond) who are united in their dedication to affirming trans and gender expansive youth, and they all agree the best approach parents can take with children who might be transgender or gender diverse/expansive is to simply support them, allow them to explore, and allow them to express (rather than teach them to suppress.)
Those statements of support can be found here, from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), here, from the American Academy of Nursing, here, from the AMA (American Medical Association), here, from the American Psychiatric Association, here, from the APA (American Psychological Association), here, from the APHA (American Public Health Association), here, from the Endocrine Society, here, from the AACAP (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry), and here, from the WMA(World Medical Association).
*Note: these are only a few of the many position statements from large professional organizations who each support affirmative environments for TGNC youth.
**Also: “The American College of Pediatricians,” a.k.a., the ACPeds, frequently quoted by conservative media outlets, has been confirmed as a politically-motivated hate group by the SPLC, which I wrote about here, in this separate piece. The ACPeds are a political “organization” who equates medical & mental health care affirming trans youth with “child abuse.” The ACPeds are a small community of anti-LGBTQ people who peddle junk science, and who may or may not have any experience in the medical or psychological fields.
Whereas many trans people consider themselves binary — being the expected opposite of what they were assigned at birth — many non-binary people are a combination of both, neither, or another gender altogether. This, also, is nothing new. See this interactive map of gender diverse cultures that have existed all over the world, who all recognize and celebrate the existence of three or more genders.
In modern efforts to streamline everything, using ‘they’ instead of the clunkier, more formal “he or she” (or “his or her”) just makes sense. It’s far more expedient. Instead of saying “Somebody left his or her umbrella,” most people usually auto-default to, “Somebody left their umbrella.” Anyone could say this and the rest of us would understand it’s referring to one specific person, i.e., ‘singular they.’ I mean, in this instance, it would take someone fairly obnoxious to correct the speaker with, “You mean, somebody left his or her umbrella.” I had an older teacher who used to correct this exact thing back in 1983, but I’ve yet to hear anyone since.
Even Facebook, when reminding you it’s your friend Julie’s birthday, encourages you to “wish them a happy birthday.” This is in spite of the fact that Facebook already knows Julie’s gender, because she selected female from their menu of options. Maybe it’s too much of a pain to customize bulk reminders so that genders correspond with user input, or maybe it’s a subtle push to help normalize the use of singular they.
After all, ‘they’ referring to one person is nothing new. Numerous articles have been written by people of all backgrounds, including English scholars and linguists, who trace the origins of ‘singular they’ as far back as at least 1375. It’s widely known that historic literary greats used ‘singular they,’ including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Byron, Dickens, and Shaw, to name just a few. So the argument completely falls apart that ‘singular they’ — when referring to one person — is some type of modern, attention-seeking, trendy thing to do, or “nonsense.”
When our trans child first heard of ‘singular they,’ our child personally latched onto the pronoun, owning it, with an innate, sage-like wisdom that was evident for all to see. We listened, learned, accepted, and told people in our lives. My husband and I tried (and failed, and failed again) many times throughout the course of two years. Then we realized we weren’t really trying all that hard; if we’d only slow down when speaking, always be intentional and think it through before spouting it out, it always went a lot better, and became far easier with time.
As we embraced this different pronoun, along with our child’s gender expression — which had been consistent since age two — others questioned us about the confusion that would definitely ensue:
“But… won’t that be confusing? If you’re using ‘they,’ how will you know whether someone is talking about just your child, or about a whole group of people, including your child?”
Well, I’m happy to report that over the course of almost four years of using ‘singular they’ for our assigned-male-at-birth, always-feminine-expressing, transgender, non-binary-pronoun-using teen, this hasn’t once been among the issues that confuse us — and there are plenty of things that confuse us.
A typical conversation between my husband and me, regarding our youngest of three, would go something like this:
“Did CC leave yet?”
“Yep, Victoria got here around one and they left for the mall shortly after.”
“Okay. Did they say when they’d be back?”
“Well, Victoria has to be home by five, but Vanessa has to be home by four. So they’ll arrive back here a little before four.”
“I hope they all had a good time today!”
The issue most people have is that the mere concept of non-binary terminology — as it relates to non-binary people — feels “weird,” awkward, uncomfortable, confusing. Some people are mildly annoyed over their perception of “having to learn yet another new term.” For others, non-binary language actually triggers a rage response.
Ultimately, what all this annoyance, anger, and fear really means is, it’s not about the language; it’s about folks’ unwillingness to accept non-binary people. As if accepting “them” would somehow threaten one’s own existence.
Non-binary gender identity seems the new horizon to conquer, and as such, it has some folks’ deep-rooted fears bubbling to the surface — fears about becoming less relevant, less majority, or “othered.” These people are the ones who express sentiments like, “trans people are already accepted, now even more of them want rights too? This is nonsense. Where do we draw the line? Today it’s non-binary, tomorrow, people are gonna demand being recognized as their spirit animals!”
These are the same type of people who say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people, but I have a problem with them shoving it in my face;” or “I’m not racist, but…”
Call it what you want, but these sentiments represent fear. Plain and simple. And for what reason? Why? It’s really not worth it.
The use of ‘singular they’ is nothing new. What may be more new is recognizing, respecting, and using it, especially when asked to. When it comes to making our language more inclusive of diverse people, this simple word flexibility is becoming more and more important. One thing’s for certain: language — and people — are always evolving. This is not a bad thing. It would serve everyone well if they’d get on board with ‘singular they,’ or at least try. (See what I did there?)
Martie Sirois, pronounced “sir-ROY” (she/her) is a top writer in Culture, Politics, and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center, for trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.