“My dad is refusing to use “They” as my pronoun because he says it’s derogatory in the English language and won’t change his speech patterns. What should I do? I don’t want him referring to me as ‘She.'”
Hmm. There is both a short answer and a long answer, Anonymous.
The short answer is that your dad is completely incorrect. Singular they is not remotely derogatory and is in fact a longtime feature of literary English. This writing blog even conducted a poll showing 70% reader preference for singular they (as opposed to ‘he,’ or even ‘he or she’) in cases of unknown gender. Tom Chivers of the Telegraph newspaper concurs and writes that “One rule of grammar that has, apparently, been in constant use in Standard Written English is: “when the sex of the subject is unknown, it is permissible to use ‘they’ as a genderless singular pronoun”.” He goes on to add that “if someone tells you that singular “they” is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.” Although this is probably not a useful piece of advice, particularly if the someone is your parent, the short answer is that you could present the case to your dad that he is absolutely wrong using the many sources available on the internet. I’d be happy to help you gather some convincing ones. You could also tell him that someone (me) who is almost finished their PhD and indeed several of my colleagues who are university professors use singular they. Sometimes this move works with parents. You can also send him to me with any questions he has.
The long answer is more complicated. My gut tells me that using an argument based on reason (“you are factually incorrect, and here is the proof from reliable sources”) or authority (“all of these people with PhDs use singular they”) might not work (but might be worth a try). The fact is that people use all kinds of excuses – that sound entirely reasonable and related to things like grammar or rudeness, as in the case of your dad – to avoid doing something that is really just uncomfortable for them. This discomfort is entirely emotional but it sounds smart to make a phoney statement about grammar or politeness instead of saying ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I can’t because it feels weird.’ Today when there is *generally* more acceptance and visibility for queer and trans people (who are more often they users), it’s also increasingly less okay or polite to openly talk about feeling uncomfortable with the kinds of changes needed in order to treat us respectfully. So people unfortunately say ‘it’s not grammatically correct’ or ‘it’s rude’ instead of saying ‘I just really don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘it’s wrong to feel like he or she don’t apply to you.’
The fact that your dad says singular they is derogatory might say more about his own feelings regarding the gender implications than a fear of being rude. He might feel it is derogatory because he isn’t comfortable or doesn’t agree with the kind of self-expression you are working towards with this request. For example, we think something is derogatory when we wouldn’t want it used to describe ourselves and most gender-normative (male/masculine or female/feminine) people would be deeply distressed if they thought that someone had to say ‘they went over there’ because their male- or femaleness wasn’t obvious enough to say ‘he went over there’ or ‘she went over there’. It is hard for most people to understand why we would want ‘they’ and even harder for parents sometimes. Asking for ‘they’ might make them feel like they don’t know us as well as they thought they did or that they have less of an idea what our lives are like or will be like in the future. These are all sources of discomfort and often take time and more conversations (providing these can happen safely).
I doubt that I’m saying anything you haven’t thought of, Anonymous. I just want to emphasize that your dad’s refusal might be an indirect (and unhelpful) way of saying that he needs time or support to sort through his thoughts and his feelings about your decision and what it means. My own parents are full of love and good intention, but took time to understand why I made this choice, what it meant and why it was important. They still struggle with everyday usage and have also expressed concerns about grammar, rudeness and social situations (“Do I have to tell Auntie and Uncle XYZ before we go over there for dinner?”).
Next steps for your dad might include accessing some resources or support that aren’t you in order to work through his feelings about your request and what it might mean. This could be other adults in your life who are supportive, online articles, this blog or even PFLAG meetings or similar – contact your local or regional LGBTQ community or resource centre if you can, and once again, I can help you.
Next steps for you could include talking to your dad on a practical level. You could ask him what else he might be comfortable with. Maybe he could just use your name instead of any pronoun at all. This can sound awkward, but you could let him know you’re ok with that. Do you need him to not refer to you as his daughter? How about kid instead? Work with him, if you can, to find alternatives. You could also talk with him about what is behind your request, as long as you feel safe and okay. I also encourage you to try and find spaces where your request is respected and your related needs are met. These could be in-person or online, but if your family life isn’t a place where you can be supported in this way, know that this support can be found elsewhere for as long as you need it.
Only you know whether my suggestions make sense for you and your situation, and whether any of them would make you unsafe. Trust your own judgment and listen to your gut.
I hope this helps, and feel free to write back,