“They” Everybody

It’s not just about the non-binary. Gender pronouns have always been awkward and oppressive. It’s time for our language to evolve.

by Fuzzy Shostak

Imagine for a moment—and I know this might be a stretch, bear with me—imagine there are only two genders. Sounds unbelievably boring, I know, but hear me out. In this bizarre alternate universe, every human fits neatly into one of two boxes and stays in that box their entire life. Everything else is the same. Men have oppressed women for millennia, often treating them as property. Women have fought bravely for their rights, and in the past century or so, they’ve made some pretty amazing progress. But sexism is still a big problem. Women get substantially less money—and respect—for the same work. They’re vastly underrepresented in positions of power (to the immense detriment of everyone). Gender is still a major axis of oppression at all levels of society.

Now let’s change one more thing about this world. Imagine we have to use different pronouns for people along every axis of oppression. Different pronouns for black people and white people. Rich and poor. Gay and straight. Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. People from other countries. People with different mental and physical abilities and illnesses. And so on. 

What would it be like to interact in this world? Before you could even talk about a person, you would have to find out (or assume) a lot about their identity—characteristics that may or may not have any relevance to what you’re talking about, but carry a heavy weight of politics and stereotype. Whether or not you wanted to make assumptions about a person, just hearing them referred to would elicit all kinds of conscious and unconscious assumptions about them, their history, and their place in society. You would not be able to choose to keep any of these characteristics about yourself private or unspecified, because others would need to know them (in order to tell their friends how awesome you are). The first time you met someone in person, you would have to size them up, guessing based on their appearance which box to fit them into, or if it wasn’t obvious, awkwardly ask and risk offending them.

If this description makes you uncomfortable, consider that it’s exactly what we’ve done with gender. For some reason, we have elevated this one characteristic of a person to a status above all others—built into our very language, the one and only thing you need to know about a person before you can even talk about them. And once you know it, you can’t help making assumptions based on it. Even if you live in a fantasy world where there’s no gender spectrum, you have to admit this is weird. 

I don’t intend to minimize the importance of gender. For some people, I gather, it’s very important—particularly those who have worked hard to change the way theirs is perceived. And it’s important to me to acknowledge whenever it’s relevant that I have always benefited from male privilege, and I can pass as a man anytime I want. But is gender always the most important thing to know about a person? What if you don’t want that to be the very first thing everyone learns about you? Aren’t there situations—like applying for jobs or housing, or running for office—where it might actually be better not to know right away? 

I know “they” is awkward too. It loses the distinction between singular and plural. It means you have to say people’s names more often. To some people, it just sounds wrong. And of course, for this change to be effective, we also have to make some other awkward changes to our language. Words like “person,” “sibling,” “server,” and “firefighter” are pretty easy to integrate, but we don’t have such readily available gender-neutral alternatives for everything. “Adult child” sounds like an oxymoron, but “child” alone implies youth in a way daughter and son do not. “Nibling” is starting to catch on as a replacement for niece and nephew, but the best thing I’ve found for the reverse relationship, “pibling” (a contraction of “parent’s sibling”), sounds weird and means nothing to almost everyone. Change is awkward. We might have to invent new words and adjust to new names. It will take time. But it’s either the awkwardness of clumsy-sounding language or the awkwardness of insulting people by guessing their identity wrong while perpetuating what may be the oldest form of societal oppression. Some things are worth sounding awkward for. 

I don’t particularly identify with my gender assigned at birth. I especially dislike the cultural expectations and assumptions that go with it. I don’t particularly identify with any other gender either. I like wearing colorful dresses with a beard, dangly earrings, suspenders and a fedora. Personally, I think the whole concept of gender is kind of dumb. But my preference for “they” pronouns has almost nothing to do with any of that. Whatever you think about gender, it’s clear that gender pronouns do far more harm than good. 

So please, use “they” for me. Regardless of your gender identity, offer it as an option for others to use for you. And consider trying it out as the default for everyone, until and unless they ask otherwise. Let it be awkward. The sooner we get over the awkward hump, the sooner we can stop fighting about words and forcing people into boxes, and just accept people for who they are.

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One thought on ““They” Everybody

  1. I agree. Gender is dumb.

    I wholeheartedly disagree that “gender pronouns do far more harm than good.”

    A pronoun is a necessary part of language. We use them to refer to a noun. I don’t find it appropriate to blame the language itself when the entire system at fault. Pronouns aren’t harming us. The privileged individuals in positions of power creating laws against our body autonomy is what’s harming us.

    The “alternate universe” reference is sadly the reality for many individuals. A lot of people are not even aware that there are other options besides “man” and “woman.” Despite the concept of additional genders dating to 2000 BC, many people lack the access and knowledge to fully experience their authenticity in their own body. Nonbinary people are not a new concept. Like many other oppressed groups in this country, they have been erased from our history.

    While I agree that these conversations may feel “awkward” at first, embracing that discomfort is a required step towards advocacy. Consistently referring to these conversations as “awkward” may only further reinforce the stigma. It’s “awkward” because growth is awkward. Utilizing inclusive language takes effort and intention. Pronouns themselves are not awkward. The process of relearning is forever challenging and referring to adaptive language as “awkward” downplays the importance and impact of the act itself.

    As you know, gender is too often assumed based on an individual’s presentation. Masc-presenting humans get labeled with “he/him” while femme-presenting humans get the automatic “she/her.” While gender expression can be perceived, gender identity is internal and requires disclosure.

    We tend to make MANY first-glance assumptions based on our own internalized biases, though. I think it’s crucial to recognize that some forms of privilege are visible: skin color, body size, ability; some are not: gender, sexual orientation, citizenship, ability; and some are discovered pending the context of the interaction: housing, language. This is why intersectionality is so damn important. We need to continue to explore the intersection of bodies, identity, AND social justice.

    I agree that “they” is an excellent default when referring to someone whose gender is unknown, however, if we have access to that person, we should be asking them for their pronouns directly. It can be a very invalidating experience (especially to those under the trans umbrella) to hear the incorrect pronouns used. Someone whose pronouns are “he/him” may take a lot of pride in how he exhibits his masculinity. As you mentioned, people have worked very hard to present in a specific way, and that should be honored. Gender is a spectrum. We should treat it as such. That’s inclusivity.

What do YOU think?