My younger child, a sophomore in college, has asked me to use “they” “them” as their preferred pronouns. I live in a very liberal and gender-choice aware New England college town, and I still find this difficult to consistently comply with. Sometimes my English major brain rebels at using plurals for a single person, sometimes I just don’t want to have that conversation with a stranger, especially one who has already stated views that suggest they have no sympathy for the preferences and realities of others. Sometimes I’m just tired and it’s hard to keep it all straight. So, what do you think of gender neutral pronouns? Can you suggest something…better than they, them? Am I being disrespectful of my child by failing to consistently respect and comply with their request? And how would you, or an older, female, Southern version of you respond to the boor who immediately brings up Caitlyn Jenner and insists on calling “him” “Bruce”? And, since you love writing questions, have I used too many “””‘s in this question?
Small things first: The number of quotation marks seems fine to me, and as far as “they” “them” and “their” are concerned, not only is there a long history of their being used as singular pronouns, it’s something that’s rapidly becoming standard usage. When you feel weird about using them for singular usage, just remember a lot of commonly-accepted grammar rules were invented fairly recently as a way for the status-anxious to feel better about how they used the English language. And, you know, that’s just stupid. Good grammar is that which makes the language clear, not that which makes it clear someone else isn’t following arbitrary rules.
As for how I feel about gender-neutral pronouns: I’m for ’em, and specifically I like “they,” “them” and “their.” One, I already know the words, which means that they’re easier for me to incorporate into my daily usage than other gender-neutral pronouns which have been more recently invented or drafted into service; two, I’ve already used “they” “them” and “their” as gender-neutral singular (and plural!) pronouns for years; they’re already part of my personal style guide.
I prefer them, in fact, to “he or she,” both because it’s a less awkward construction and because I know more people now who neither identify as “he” nor “she.” Inasmuch as “he or she” is meant to be an inclusive construction, when you know people who identify as neither (or both, or either on a sliding scale contingent on factors, or whatever), then you realize it’s not actually as inclusive as it’s meant to be. In which case: Hey! “They” offers a really easy solution.
When someone asks you to refer to them by a particular set of pronouns and you’re reluctant to comply, are you being disrespectful? Yup! Self-identity is important, and refusing to accept someone else’s identity for your own reasons will be taken to mean that you dislike or disagree with their choices about who they are. And this is your right, but it means you’re saying that your choices in this regard are more important than the choices of the person who has to live with their own identity every single moment of their lives.
Which is a hell of a thing to say. Are you sure you want to say that? And how would you feel if someone made that choice about you? I identify as male (and cis-gender), and my pronouns are of the “he” set. If someone consistently and purposefully used a set I didn’t identify with, I’d want to know why. And here’s the thing: generally speaking, when someone does misgender me, they’re doing it specifically to be disrespectful. I have assholes out there who use the “she” set of pronouns when referring to me because in their minds, it’s a terrible insult to call a man a woman, and this is a sign of their contempt.
Now, as it happens, I’m not insulted by the “she” set of pronouns being used for me, because I don’t believe being a woman is an inferior state of being. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult. But my point of view on the matter doesn’t change the fact that the misgendering is intended to be disrespectful and an insult. Likewise, the boor calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce” and “him” is almost certainly being disrespectful. Bless their heart.
So, yes: Not using someone’s preferred set of pronouns is disrespectful.
With that said, let me share a personal story here. In the reasonably recent past, a friend of mine who went by one set of pronouns let it be known that from that point forward, they would like to be known by another set. When I read that, I wrote to them that I would be happy to comply, and also, because I had been using a different set of pronouns for them literally all the time I had known them before, it’s possible that from time to time, and despite my intent, I might fuck up and use the previous set. If I did, first, sorry about that and I would try better, and second, please call it out if they saw me do it, because I didn’t want them to think it was intentional, and I wanted them to know it was all right to correct me and to expect an apology. Thus I let them know I respected who they are, that I was also fallible, and that when I failed them, I wanted to do better going forward.
People aren’t perfect. We’ll all screw up from time to time and fail the people we know, the people we like, and the people we love. It’s okay to acknowledge that will happen even as we work to accommodate the people we know, like and love. I do find in my experience that if you acknowledge that you might mess up but will consciously work to improve when you do, you end up messing up less over time, and when you do, people are generally more willing to be understanding.
So: Use people’s preferred pronouns. If you unintentionally screw up, correct yourself, apologize if you feel you should, and try to do better from there on out.
Let me also note that the pronoun thing is one of the best current examples of both the culture and individuals being on a journey, and that even people who mean well, or who want to do what’s best, can still be behind the curve. I’m not where I am with pronouns — and all the aspects of gender and identity that the pronoun issue is semaphore for — because one day I woke up and decided I was going to be cheerfully progressive on the issue. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have argued about what the “real” identity of someone was, and whether it was bounded by their genetics, and whether just because you wanted to use one set of pronouns, that other people should then be obliged to accept your request, and so on.
What’s changed over time with me? Well, some of it is simply knowledge — knowing more people who are trans and genderfluid, and learning more about science and culture, which over time convinced me that a binary understanding of gender is woefully incomplete, and that maybe my own stances should reflect that.
But as much as that — and even more than that — was the question of who I was, and who I wanted to be in respect to others. Simply put, a strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, does not need to demand that other people have to shoehorn their self-identity to someone else’s expectation. A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.
Which is not to say I am a strong or good or kind or righteous person. As noted above, I’m as fallible as the next person, imperfect and otherwise still trundling on the karmic wheel of suffering. But I know who I want to be, and who I want to be is not someone who freaks out other people’s gender identity (or their sexuality, or their cultural identity and so on). So I work on not doing those things.
Am I perfect about this? Nope: See above story about me acknowledging that I would probably screw up a friend’s gender identity. And likewise, people who want to do better can just be starting on this particular path, and will screw up, and fumble and otherwise be imperfect. That’s okay, just as it’s okay for people to get exasperated and frustrated and angry when their identity is imperfectly understood or accepted, even by the people who hope to be good people. I would get exasperated and frustrated and angry too, if I were in their shoes. I wouldn’t feel at all shy about saying so, either.
In any event: Yes, when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them, won’t you? It doesn’t seem too much to ask. It requires nothing from you but practice. In return you acknowledge who they are as human beings. And with that simple recognition of their identity, you, too, acknowledge who you are as a human being. That matters, too.
(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)