Pronouns at work: Coming out as a ‘singular they’ user

One of the reasons I started this blog about practical gender-neutral pronoun usage is because in about eighteen months (if all goes well) I’m going to find myself on the market for a tenure-track academic job. I have had mixed success with people using my pronouns professionally, whether in queer networks or no.

What I am most worried about is the blank look I will receive when I request my pronoun from people who do not know me or who are not in my milieu, or when I feel compelled to correct someone in a position of power in my job search. I wonder whether I will be able to hold on long enough to get a job and then begin the project of changing my pronouns at work. Once people begin using one pronoun, the transition can be slow and painful.

I am worried about being perceived as strange or as having needs that no one understands as needs. But I am constantly reminded that people do.

One of my students used my pronoun when referring to me in my presence (like, telling me howI had come up in conversation with another student) and I kind of died. I pointed it out to her and she said that she had a friend who used ‘they’ who reminded her of me. I had not requested my pronouns of my students, something which I will do this year (probably by referring them to this blog, in fact). But her use was conscious, intentional and seamless (except that it jumped out at me for its sheer loveliness).

This made me wonder whether people who use he or she actually notice when ‘they’ is used for them instead: when it functions as a default. I doubt it. I do know that users like me notice, and that it makes a big difference.

So why do we imagine that ‘they’ always sticks out like a sore thumb? The ordinariness of singular they – it is everywhere – is forgotten, when in fact it might be less noticeable than you think.

Perhaps we could do an experiment. Practice using ‘they’ for he-or-she-using people in your personal or professional or other lives. See if anyone notices. If no one does, maybe let people know you have been using a gender-neutral pronoun for them/others all day long, and point out that no one noticed.

If this happens a great deal, worries like mine – about the future, about leaving the nest or the bubble where people use the language I need – could be a little more unfounded.

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