“It’s just hard for me to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun,” he says, smiling. “I’m just a grammar nerd and it feels wrong.”
“Hard,” I say. “For you.”
It’s only been a few months since I switched from saying, “I’ll take any pronoun besides ‘it,” in social-justice meetings where people ostensibly pay attention to such things, to saying, “My pronouns are they/them.”
It took me years to ask that my gender identity be acknowledged with pronouns, and a big part of it was that I knew it wouldn’t be. I knew that once I started making an issue of it, my life would be a series of corrections and repeated requests for friends and strangers to respect my pronouns. I knew that once I made it clear that to see who I am means saying you see it, I would really notice that virtually nobody sees it.
And I was right.
The majority of the world is not tuned in to any genders that don’t fall along the binary of man or woman. Long before I made the decision that I would try to be acknowledged as who I am, others invented pronouns such as ze (pronounced zee) and hir (pronounced here) to describe themselves and people they care about.
Intersex people have always existed. Even now, infants born with ambiguous genitalia are often mutilated irreparably on the whim of doctors or parents because the grown-ups are so personally uncomfortable with the non-binary nature of a baby’s biological sex. While there are people working to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore because it is known that it’s healthier for the intersex person to decide for themselves, this sort of mutilation is still commonplace.
Sex and gender are two different things, but neither are exclusively binary.
When we look at the world in a binary way, we exclude intersex people (estimated to be about 2 percent of the population) and trans people who identify as nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer and gender nonconforming.
Changing a pronoun is a hard adjustment to make. Even for me. Forty-two years of calling yourself she and her doesn’t evaporate overnight. Even if I asserted my pronouns in every space I exist in, 98 percent of people would call me “she” every single time.
But people who want to use the argument, “It’s just not grammatically correct,” are making an argument that they only subscribe to part of the time. Everyone has used they or them as a pronoun for a single individual when they are unsure who they’re talking about. Just there. I just did it now. See how that works?
I see some people really struggling to use the right pronoun for me. Over and over, “She. Argh! They! They!”
That feels awkward for everyone. And I get it. Because it feels awkward to me, too. But at least these are people who are making a point of trying to remember, which is a start, and an acknowledgment.
The consensus among trans folks, and in literature I’ve read about these mistakes, is to simply correct yourself and move on. The explanations are tired, and every trans person I know has heard it all thousands of times before. It’s OK to just drop a quick, “Sorry,” and try to do better next time. You can work it out in your head or even on paper later. There is no need to castigate yourself or explain. We already know.
Lately, I’m seeing another pattern I should have seen coming from a mile away. I’m a comic, so on shows people more often than not, introduce me as “she.” They might say a bunch of really nice things about me, but they’ll call me “she” over and over and over again.
But then, while we pass the mic, they will say, “I’m sorry. I know it’s they.” In the time it takes to do my set, the apology has been forgotten, or proven meaningless, because they will get on stage and refer to me as “she” again. We all make mistakes, but when you apologize and don’t attempt to do better, you are making as much a statement as I am by asking to be recognized for who I am. The statement is that my pronouns are not important to you. I get it. Believe me, I do. So skip the apology.
Being trans isn’t a choice. When people tell you their pronouns, they aren’t optional. While it is an adjustment, it’s not impossible. If you care about the trans people in your life, use their pronouns.
Pronouns are either correct or incorrect. They aren’t a preference. They are correct pronouns, not preferred pronouns.
If you’re cis, correct other people who are using the wrong pronouns. Help people in your circle learn to be more conscientious, help them know that it’s not just that trans person who cares. Help them practice because it takes practice for everyone, but if you never use the right pronouns, you will never get it right.