When I wrote about my son’s use of “they” pronouns to refer to a single, specific person, I mentioned how there are people who want to be referred to with “they” or another set of gender-neutral pronouns because they don’t want to be identified by a gender. This change is also happening, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
A few months ago I got into a small argument on Facebook. A former student of mine had posted something about transgender issues, and two of his Facebook friends disagreed with a comment of mine.
A few days later I ran into my student on campus, and he mentioned that one of the friends was his partner. “They just came out, so they get a little excited about these issues,” he said. This often happens to people when they come out, so I was not surprised.
At the time I assumed my student was saying that both of his Facebook friends had just come out. Two people coming out at about the same time? Well, it’s college, and my student is one of the officers of the campus LGBT group.
It was only later that it occurred to me that my student might have been talking about a single person (his partner) who had come out as genderqueer, and thus used “they” pronouns.
A few weeks ago I organized a karaoke event for members of my transgender support group, which is open to all genders. I was presenting as a woman, so everyone called me Andrea and referred to me with “she” pronouns. Another member of the group was presenting as a man but had asked us to use a feminine name and “she” pronouns, so we did.
At the event there were a few people who hadn’t shown up yet. I asked about one person, and the answer was, “They said they weren’t feeling well, so I don’t know if they’re going to make it.” Now, I knew that this person identified as genderqueer, and had complained that their boyfriend was reluctant to use “they” pronouns, and still my first thought was, “Oh, was the boyfriend planning to come too?”
I tell these stories to show that, at least for me, if I hear “they” in a specific context, I expect it to be plural. But hold on! This is not going to be some reactionary rant.
I don’t think it’s impossible for me to understand “they” as referring to single, specific people. I don’t think it’s impossible for entire communities of English speakers, or even the whole population, to make that shift. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask me or anyone else to try.
I do want to point out that these are pronouns, part of our entrenched, high-frequency core grammar, so it’s not going to be as easy as shifting from “stewardess” to “flight attendant.” On the other hand, using “they” pronouns would be easier than adopting any of the pronoun sets that have been specifically invented for gender-neutral use.
It would actually be easier if we used “they” pronouns for everyone, like my son may be doing part of the time. We’d have to come up with some way to specify plurality then, like “those people.” Let me know if you hear anything like that…