Every now and then, I stumble onto a comment on social media that goes something like this:
English major here; REALLY hard for me to use plural they/them pronouns for a single
Adjusting to using they/them as a singular pronoun is not an easy task. I certainly struggled when my spouse came out as nonbinary a few years ago - they/them just felt so wrong in my mouth! So, I wanted to share my own personal journey learning about nonbinary gender, and also shed some light on the grammatical nuances and long history of the singular they/them.
The first time I was exposed to they/them pronouns was several years ago when I met my friends, Quinn and Wren. Quinn was using they/them pronouns at that time (and now). I remember a moment when a friend made a reference to Quinn and I mistakenly assumed they were referring to both Quinn and Wren.
Wait... look at that last sentence I just wrote. "... they were referring to both..." Isn't it interesting to see how easily I can use the singular they while discussing the difficulty of using the singular they? Why is that?
Let's take a look back in time at the history and dynamic nature of language. Merriam-Webster notes that the singular they has been in use in the English language since at least the late 1300s.
Notably, the rise in popularity of the singular they mirrors the development of the singular you. Indeed, the word you was historically used as a strictly plural pronoun, with thou/thine/thyself as its singular counter-part. Remember Shakespeare?
Grammar pedants don't fret over the use of the singular you because language evolved to match the current usage and needs of its time. Moreover, language as a whole has been evolving since its very inception, alongside humanity's evolution as a species.
The singular they is definitely not new, nor is it grammatically incorrect; in fact, most of us use it in our everyday conversations. In recent years, the singular they has grown in importance because we as a society decided that it was in our best interest to make our language more inclusive of all genders; or, of non-binary gender identities.
What even is gender?
Folks often get the word word gender confused with the word sex.
Sex - a biological construct defined on an anatomical, hormonal, or genetic basis. When a baby is born, the doctor gives them a sexual assignment based on the appearance of their external genitalia.
Gender - a person's internal sense of being a man, woman, or other, nonbinary gender.
A person whose experience of gender is different that what was assigned at birth is transgender. A person whose experience matches their birth certificate is cisgender.
A transgender individual whose experience of their gender is neither strictly feminine nor strictly masculine is considered to have a non-binary gender identity.
Non-binary – An umbrella term for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine.
Folks with non-binary gender identities tend to have experiences of gender in a discordant manner compared to the cultural expectations of their assigned gender at birth. Non-binary gender identity can be exceptionally challenging to understand for those who've never been exposed to it. Indeed, I embarked on a personal journey of my own to try to understand my friend's unique experience of gender.
Conversations about gender often revolve around the notion of 'feeling' like a particular gender, or, of not feeling aligned with a specific gender. I've always struggled to related to these discussions. What does it mean to feel like a woman? Do I, myself, feel like a woman? Is it important to me that I define myself as a woman?
My reflections led me to explore the concept of gender beyond societal expectations and assumptions. I learned that the culturally-prescribed gender roles, which I adamantly oppose, are distinct from peoples' internal experiences of gender. I realized that two seemingly contradictory ideas can coexist: a man's choice to wear nail polish does not diminish his masculinity, and simultaneously, someone may engage in a traditionally feminine activity like nail-painting to express their internal felt-sense of a more femme gender identity. It is important for folks of all genders to feel free to participate in activities associated with a specific gender without it carrying implications about their own gender identity. Moreover, these 'gendered' activities can serve as excellent tools for folks to authentically express their gender in a manner that aligns with their internal self-perception.
I realized that while I was assigned female at birth and I present as a tom-boyish woman, I do not experience an internal sense of gender at all. This is what made it so difficult for me to relate to my friends' experiences of gender - I do not experience gender myself. I learned later that my experience is often called gender apathy. Gender apathy is more common in the autistic community, of which I am a part.
My most important revelation was that I did not have to personally relate to the experiences of my loved-ones in order to accept them. Each individual is the ultimate authority on their own experiences, and when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them.
Especially when they're family.
My spouse came out to me as a non-binary, transgender individual a few years ago.
I'm grateful to have met Quinn and to have already done some learning and reflecting about gender at this point, because my main priority was to make sure I didn't hurt my spouse as I came to terms with their gender. And I really did have to come to terms with it - whenever a person feels safe enough to come out as transgender, it impacts the whole family. I still struggled to properly use they/them pronouns because it always felt like I was referring to multiple people. Which begs the question...
If the singular they has been in use in the English language for hundreds of years, why the heck does it still feel so strange to use it for our loved ones?
"When the delivery person gets here, can you let them know to leave the package by the garage?"
"Someone didn't pick up their dog's poo!"
"Who's leading the meeting later? Do they need a mic?"
We are accustomed to using the singular they when there is some distance between us and the person to whom we are referring. We may not know or remember what the person's gender is, and it isn't a high priority to find out.
But we do know the genders of our loved ones, so using they/them seems to create a really weird distance between us. It's not that it's grammatically incorrect, it just feels oddly impersonal.
I deeply love my spouse, however, so I understand that my use of their correct pronouns brings us closer together. It was this understanding that helped me give myself grace as I adjusted to the use of they/them for my spouse.
I learned to more fully understand and relate to my spouse's experience of gender as I adjusted to using they/them. I am grateful for the closeness between us that occurred as a result, and I hope that anyone reading this finds the flexibility to embrace gender diversity in their own lives and families as well.
And if you still find it hard to use the singular they/them...