2015 was a banner year for trans visibility and along with this came a window to concept unknown to many Americans—the spectrum of gender which doesn’t start or end at a male or female pole but drifts between them or moves beyond them altogether. Many people on this spectrum should not be addressed with a male or female pronoun and ask others to use the word “they.” For too many years, it seemed that pundits and would-be linguists would eschew the terminology and deny the validity of this singular usage (and, by extension, these people). The verdict is in now, though—the singular ‘they’ is the word of the year, according to the American Dialect Society (and they write the book on this sort of thing).
The opposition to this plucky pronoun’s versatility has always baffled me. I recall with indignation being handed back a story in elementary school with bright red slashes through ‘they’, picked intentionally by me. My teacher insisted that I needed to use his, her, or the infinitely cumbersome ‘his or her’ when referring to one person. I changed it to avoid her ire, too young to have the same swagger in my grammatical comprehension as I claim today. She was the teacher after all. The confusing part, however, was hearing her say it too. She never asked who left “his or her” book on the floor—it was “their”, quite plainly. Even though there was only one book and that book could only have one owner, they remained unknown. Their gender was anonymous until such time as they were identified.
English, by nature, is not a language with strict gender rules. We have the same articles (a, an, the) for everything, whether they refer to a person, place, or a thing. We don’t use different endings on adjectives to agree with the gender of the noun (such as in Spanish—Puerto Rico and Costa Rica are both “rich” but spelled differently, depending). One of my instructors alleged that “debonair” was the only adjective which was limited to men but I’ve met my share of dapper, dashing women smoother than James Bond who would line up to disagree. The only thing we truly define is whether pronouns refer to a person (I, you, they) or any other noun (it). Otherwise, this stiff objection isn’t based on anything but our cultural refusal to accept an unknown. The rejection of a singular “they” is derived from fear of something that some people aren’t willing to understand.
We need to divorce ourselves entirely from the notion that gender is something we can fundamentally and easily identify for all humans. Biology is varied, with intersex bodies and chromosomal signatures differing from the prescribed “XX” and “XY”. Women born without a uterus or men born with a micropenis are not assigned a sex any differently than those born independent of such conditions. Our study of science and biology has grown too nuanced and accurate for us to continue to try and stuff one another in boxes of identity. We have a responsibility to trust who people say they are, regardless of how they may look. Singular and plural, we have the luxury of gender neutrality in one simple word. Long may “they” reign.