“They” As a Nonbinary Pronoun
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance visited me, and as my visitor exited the parked car, I saw that it was still occupied. My visitor, standing before me, made a reference to “they,” but only one person sat in the vehicle, and I was momentarily puzzled.
I have written here before about my support for acceptance of they as a gender-inclusive singular pronoun; I agree with many people that he is no longer acceptable to refer to all people, and that alternatives, while often reasonable and effective, do not preclude the need to fill a curious gap in English vocabulary.
However, this incident points out a new wrinkle in the issue. When the person sitting in the passenger seat got out of the car, it was obvious to me that this was someone who most observers would identify as a woman. However, two factors explained my acquaintance’s use of they to refer to the passenger: First, the person had an androgynous appearance. More significantly, my acquaintance is transgender, and a gender activist.
I have been comfortable in the company of a number of people who do not conform to binary gender roles. However, this was the first time, to my knowledge, that I had been introduced to someone who rejects binary gender assignment and prefers to be identified by the fluid alternative they.
This is not a sociopolitical forum, so discussion about the merit of this philosophy is irrelevant. The purpose of this post is to point out that many people do not consider themselves male or female, whether they align with physical and social characteristics associated with one gender or the other or not—and that regardless of your opinion about this issue, it exists, and it is one that writers likely will have to address at some point, if they have not already done so.
Unfortunately, shifting attitudes about gender in our culture complicate expression—and, most pertinently here, composition. People are increasingly asserting a right to self-identify with a neutral use of the pronoun they. To them, gender is not relevant or significant—and that is often true. But when I met the person who prompted this post, I wondered whether my acquaintance, who was born “male” but identifies as female, also prefers the ambiguous pronoun. I didn’t ask, however, and when I used she to refer to my acquaintance, I was not corrected.
Ultimately, when someone chooses to assert an identity, it is that person’s responsibility to call attention to that identification if it is relevant. For example, if I am going to speak or write of someone whose presentation is ambiguous in terms of gender, it is not my obligation to guess how that person self-identifies. But I am obliged to honor the person’s stated choice of self-identification, and that is a consideration that professional and lay writers alike will need to make as our society slowly but inexorably evolves to embrace a more fluid approach to gender identity.
If it is relevant to mention a person’s gender in writing, a reporter can make one of three choices when the subject asserts gender self-identity that may not conform to the reporter’s perception: Accept, reject, or circumvent. I strongly recommend the first option, oppose the second one with equally vehemence, and acknowledge that the third choice is valid but indefensible if the subject insists on acknowledgment of his, her, or their self-identification and/or if the context requires it.
In summary, they as a nonbinary gender indicator is going mainstream, and therefore is entering the lexicon as such. I’ll let the Associated Press Style Book have the last word: “In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”
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