It’s time we talked about the 2019 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year, the word referring to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary: “They.”
It’s a beautiful word. People who use the pronouns they/ them/theirs in reference to their personhood don’t subscribe to our cultural construction of gender. “He/him” or “She/ her” simply doesn’t work for them. “They/them” feels more inclusive, truer to the person they are.
If you just rolled your eyes or think you might want to place this article face-up in a hamster cage, hang with me. If you care for your family, friends, and community, this is important. Perhaps it all begins with loving someone.
My son Stephen uses the pronouns they/them/their. As a manager of a retail store that sells both men’s and women’s clothing, they often find themselves in a polarizing position since they don’t identify with one gender or the other. Stephen says they find the pronoun he/ him “polarizing” and “dysphoric.” The pronoun “they” simply feels truer to who they are.
I realize some might need to reread those last sentences. I confess that the shift hasn’t been a smooth one. I make mistakes often and have to apologize and correct myself. After all, I have been hardwired to think in terms of he and she, pink or blue. But it’s a new day with new things to learn. It’s out of love and respect for Stephen that I change.
It’s important that I do. After all, I have students who are perceived as female who use “he/him/his,” others who are perceived as male who use “she/ her/hers” and still others who use “they/ them/theirs.”
In in-person classes I ask all students to write down their preferences to me on the first day of class. And while some seem a tad confused by the question (one student, for instance, wrote down all the pronouns they could think of believing it some kind of grammar test),
I will never forget how one student in particular brightened at the question, knowing someone in their incredible life cared enough to ask. It was a clue to them that perhaps they were in a safe space, and a clue to me that I was on the right path.
For those who argue that the singular use of “they” is simply grammatically incorrect, it may be helpful to learn that it’s actually been acceptable for hundreds of years. In fact, Shakespeare used it on multiple occasions. (“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”) There are other instances used by Geoffrey Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales” and Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice.”
In our present day and age, we can practice. We can recondition our minds to the shift, such as referring to our singular pets as “they/them” and referring to the consequential strangers we meet as we go about our days with gender inclusive pronouns. (“I have the best dentist. They’re fantastic!”)
Soon enough, the shift will become easier. We’ll stop stammering. We’ll start to grow. What may feel at first foreign becomes fluid. People we care about will be seen and heard and loved for who they are instead of who they are expected to be.
Language matters. Love matters. In the words of an unknown writer, “Grammar is to language what maps are to the Earth. If a river changes course, it is the map that is wrong, not the river.”
I invite you to change with me.
Eileen Button teaches at Mott Community College and serves patrons at the Genesee District Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.