For me, the issue first came to light while I was staring up the skirt of a drag queen.
Stage-side at a Pride festival with my family one summer, I pointed out a dazzling diva, gasped, and said, “Ooh! Look at her spectacular shoes!” Sheepishly, my son asked me why I referred to her as “her” when her biceps, Adam’s apple, and baritone growl indicated that she was a he. It was a fair question, but before I could craft a careful response, this tumbled out of my mouth:
“Well … I guess because she’s gone to a whole lot of trouble to be perceived as a she … and frankly, what do I care?”
Thus was my position on LGBT pronoun-ing established. Because I truly didn’t care. Why on earth shouldn’t people be called what they want to be called? I’m no us-versus-them gal. I’m a fiendishly tolerant liberal; I don’t give a flying flush who’s allowed into the ladies’ room — and you can’t make me squirm.
… Except that I’ve recently changed my mind. And I’m squirming.
As we are being introduced to more and more transgender folks, from Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox to Chaz Bono, we’re learning that some individuals prefer to be referred to not as “he” or “she” — but by the pronoun “they.”
Perhaps you heard the Terry Gross interview with Transparent series creator Jill Soloway, who said this of her real-life transgender-female father: “They’re a really private person.” Or maybe you’ve seen the They Is My Pronoun Tumblr site, whose creator Lee Airton writes, “I have been openly requiring ‘they’ as my personal pronoun since 2011.”
Requiring?? Aha. Well, I see your requirement and raise you one “Oh, yeah? Make me.”
Look, I’ll learn all the lingo that’s asked of me. I’ll call you “nonbinary,” “agender,” “bi/pan,” “genderqueer” — whatever you like. Send me a list! But I won’t call an individual human “they” any more than I’ll refer to myself by the royal “we.” It makes us both sound schizophrenic, and we’ve got enough problems already.
This isn’t gender policing, my friends. It’s grammar policing. And it’s kind of a thing with me. “They” is a plural personal pronoun that’s already frequently abused these days, paired willy-nilly with singular nouns, like this:
When someone is too lazy or ill-informed to use language properly, they just say whatever the hell they want.
To be fair, our language doesn’t currently offer any options that are both appealing and correct. If you replace “they” in the above sentence with “he,” it feels sexist. Using “she” is pushing an activist agenda. “One” is stodgy. “He/she,” “s/he,” or “he or she” are ugly and cumbersome. And they’re all distracting; they put distance between the audience and the message at hand.
My friend Alisa says I shouldn’t be such a fussbudget. “Language evolves to meet the needs of the people it serves,” she says, sounding like the progressive human I thought I was before “they” started in with this outrageous pronoun mayhem.
To her point, Sweden has just added a gender-neutral pronoun to its dictionary. But similar efforts in English have failed for over a century.
I concede that my own chafing at brazen barbarism of the King’s English is nothing compared to what it must feel like to be labeled daily, even hourly — sentence by careless, er, grammatically correct sentence — with tags that don’t fit. Have never fit. And will never fit.
I don’t believe that the purpose of language is to make people comfortable. Then again … I don’t see why it shouldn’t try to do so. After all, we’re an enterprising nation that discarded the stodgy old English customs we didn’t like, adapted, and built onto what made sense — and just legalized gay marriage nationfreakingwide! Go, SCOTUS!
So, what the hell. I suppose I can put up with a little semantic squirming if it helps us all keep working toward respect and kindness. It’s better than fostering a world of us versus them.
Or we versus they.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.