Thanks for your work. My partner started using they pronouns a few months ago. I feel okay about using it around family and friends, but telling new people is hard. Does it get easier? We’re getting pretty serious (sometimes talking about marriage and kids) and I’m worried that I will forever be stressed about using their pronouns around new people (especially since my job involves a lot of travel and conversations with clients usually come to asking about partners/personal things.)
Hello Anonymous! This is a brave and important question to ask.
It is true that dating ‘a they’ has challenges that don’t pop up when dating ‘a he’ or ‘a she.’ Today people are always listening for gender markers in how we describe our partners (in some ways, the outmoded presumption of heterosexuality allowed a kind of invisibility – but I digress). What I can tell you is that decisions about this are as individual as people themselves. Your own employment context, your partner’s needs and feelings, and your energy level are all factors that need to be considered as you move forward together.
Because you are thinking future, I think we can take solace in the fact that using singular they/them is becoming more understood in many (North American) contexts and encountering ‘a they’ is less and less of an out-of-body experience. Yesterday I was at a car dealership in the Toronto outskirts with my partner, and when I gently asked the salesman not to call us ‘ladies,’ he responded by telling me about the TV show Billions (which I haven’t even watched yet) and its ‘gender-neutral’ character who uses they/them. Basically, he was letting me know that he’s aware of my deal in an awkward but kindly way, and he moved on quickly and well. (He had studiously avoided using any pronoun for me the entire time.) I see and believe that dating (or being) ‘a they’ will only become less and less of a thing in the coming years. And yes, we were potential customers aka people who were not to be alienated due to our privilege. I don’t know what would have happened if we met on equal footing in his private life. However, I choose to believe that people usually don’t suck, even if only because refusal takes more energy than just going with it.
That said, I have long accepted that being me requires my close people in my life to do some extra work. And many of my close people have particular needs that require extra work from me as well. However, the kind of extra work that I need takes on a bit more visibility and attention sometimes. At moments when you are already tired, or already nervous, they-ing your partner to a stranger or mere acquaintance can be a coming out that you might just have no energy for. Or, it might actually put you at a disadvantage in some workplaces.
I strongly believe that owning up to this humanness and walking beside your partner as a co-conspirator and comrade is your best strategy. Long term, you are far more likely to break up because you keep a lofty standard that burns you out and makes you resent your partner, than if you are real about the ways in which the world does and does not facilitate well-being for people who use gender-neutral pronouns (and our loved ones). Don’t let real societal barriers manifest in your relationship as a refusal of those barriers. Be real with each other, talk about when/where you need to do the work and when/where your partner really just doesn’t have to know or care (like far away from anyone they would ever know), and ensure that you always have external, non-judgmental supports who are not each other.
And lastly, I asked my partner if it does get easier: yes!
My very best to you both, and write back some time,