On a recent weeknight, I invited R., the person I’ve been dating, over to my parents’ house for dinner. I’ve regularly reminded my parents that R. uses they/them/theirs pronouns. However, even after more than a year, they still address R. by she/her/hers pronouns. While their misgendering of R. is frustrating, I am fully aware that their use of she/her/hers with R. is not remotely malicious. And it might not sound surprising that my parents, who were born in the 1950s, struggle to use nonbinary pronouns. I am a cisgender woman — she/her/hers are the pronouns I have always identified with — and the other members of my nuclear family are also cisgender individuals. Gender pronouns rarely came up in conversation with my family before I started to talk about them in the context of my friends, dates, and extended queer community.
It is important to note, however, that my mom and dad are extremely warm, open-minded, politically liberal people. They live and work in New York City and have a diverse group of friends and colleagues. They accept and embrace that I am queer (they were basically unfazed by me coming out to them years ago), and they love it when I invite the people in my life over to their house. I do not take their acceptance of my queerness and identity for granted. I feel immensely privileged to be able to share the nuances of my world with my parents.
But the fact that my progressive parents struggle to integrate nonbinary pronouns into their lexicon is a stark reminder of how much work we need to do in order for nonbinary individuals to be seen by their families and their partners’ families — not to mention everyone else they interact with.
On this particular evening, one of my parents asked R. if they would be willing to be addressed by a different pronoun that would be “easier to use” ― something that didn’t sound like a plural pronoun. Before R. could answer this question, I got upset and told my parent that this question was inconsiderate and that nobody should be asked for that. But my parent didn’t understand why this request would feel discourteous — that it was just about grammar. R. was polite and kind in response to the question, but once we were alone, it was clear that R. was a bit jarred by the whole conversation.
I went to sleep frustrated that my parents were not making the effort to use they/them/theirs pronouns for R. or anyone else. I wanted them to understand that gender pronouns are not a casual part of someone’s identity. What would it take for them to care?
The next morning, I decided to write a letter to my parents to communicate my thoughts:
Dear Dad and Mom,
While you probably didn’t realize that your gender pronoun request was disrespectful to R., it was.
R. and so many other people around the world have to fight their whole lives to be seen as an accepted part of society, and to not feel alienated because of their gender identity.
While it’s easy for liberally-minded people who travel in progressive circles to believe that LGBTQ individuals are fully celebrated in the urban hubs of our country now that we are in the year 2017, that’s just not the case. People whose gender presentations do not match cis-normative standards of male and female are reminded of their “otherness” every day in every possible context: in bathrooms, in restaurants, at work, during haircuts, on the subway when children stare and ask if they are a boy or a girl ― the list goes on. And the consequences of this “otherness” are not limited to discomfort or awkward interactions ― nonbinary and transgender people (and especially transgender women of color) experience high levels of harassment, violence, and sexual assault because of how they look.
So for you to casually say, as though none of us have ever thought of this before, that you don’t think it makes sense to use what you consider to be a plural pronoun for a singular person (“Can I please call you something that is singular? Just tell me what...” “I’m not willing to use ‘they’ for a singular person...”) is, regardless of your intention and your perception of your own words, a backhanded way of showing a person that their identity is a burden to you.
In our nuclear family, we each happen to feel that the sex we were assigned at birth matches our gender identity. I know that you are rarely confronted with conversations about gender pronouns in your work or personal life. But now, these conversations are a part of our lives as a family, because I am part of your life, and I am queer. People who are nonbinary and transgender are part of my life, and in the spirit of openness that you’ve instilled in me, I share my queer life with you.
We ― as the dates, partners, friends, family, family of partners, and anyone else close to nonbinary people ― owe them the ease of being seen. We owe them the acknowledgment of their identity without questioning it. We owe them that feeling of trust that we are unencumbered by accepting who they are. Without their inner circles providing that, how can we really make progress for LGBTQ people on a societal and political level? How can we claim to stand for LGBTQ rights if we can’t take all identities seriously?
So when you learn what pronouns a person uses, please use them. Please don’t question the validity of their pronouns. Please don’t ask them to make your life easier by choosing a different pronoun. If someone like R. was assigned female at birth but doesn’t use the pronouns she/her/hers, please don’t casually lump their identity with mine and refer to us together as “girls.”
Making the small mental shift to use pronouns outside of what we’ve been conditioned to use is a tiny effort on our part relative to the enormous power those words have to make a person feel accepted and affirmed. And at our cores, we need to feel accepted by the people who are closest to us before we can be our best selves and productive members of society.
My friend Jacob Tobia wrote a great piece about gender pronouns, how to use them, and how to ask about them. You can read it here.
In 2015, the American Dialect Society officially recognized the singular word “they.”