I have an Op-Ed today in the Globe and Mail (one of Canada’s national newspapers), where I offer a perspective on gender-neutral pronouns which, in my view, has been missing from recent Canadian conversations about this issue. Namely. that using someone’s gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t (have to) have the high stakes that it has been given.
Heyhey! I’m trying to write an intro for a genderqueer person in English (not my native language) and I was wondering – when I use their name in a sentence like “Kim is a professional wrestler and has a cat.” and then “They have a dog, too.” Do you switch between has/have depending on using their name or “they” as pronoun or do you always use “have”? I read about a discussion on using “they” simply as a singular pronoun, too and now I’m confused! Hope you get what I mean and can help me out! 🙂
Hi there frostwetter!
I’m excited to have a growing number of posts from writers! This must mean that people are exploring singular they in greater number, and I hope we’ll see more stories featuring non-binary, etc. characters.
I’m working on a writing guide, but in the mean time I’m going to offer this post on singular they and verb conjugation. As you can see, you always use ‘have’ with they (‘they have a dog’) but ‘has’ with a name (’Lee has a dog’). The trick is in how you construct your sentences. If you begin using ‘they have’ in a sentence, try not to switch to ‘Lee has’ in the same sentence. Also, be careful of referring to multiple people with ‘they’ – if you do this in one paragraph, try only referring to your character with name/has.
Writing with singular they, in my view, is its own art form. I hope that as more examples emerge it will become easier to do!
Hope that helps,
“I love my friends who use they/them pronouns. However I have noticed that they are all white. Sometimes I think claiming these pronouns is a white privilege. Or just only a thing in white culture. Are there any resources out there that talk about race and nb [non-binary] pronouns? I want to understand better how different cultures deal with non binary folks, and how they deal with pronouns. Thank you”
Thank you very much for this question, which gels with something I’ve also wondered. However, I know many people of colour who use singular they – including singular they superhero Elisha Lim – and a quick informal survey of my community (admittedly on Facebook) yielded similar observations: that no, singular they is not just a white people thing but in wide circulation among people of colour.
That being said, however, it’s true that singular they is an overwhelmingly Anglo-friendly if not Anglocentric way to recognize non-binary or genderqueer folks in everyday language, as this verb structure simply does not exist in many other languages. White/Anglo are so frequently tied together that this could be relevant to any conversation about the potential whiteness of singular they.
Another thought is that, as in all things, people stating and asking for their needs to be met will likely experience more success if they have privilege: if others perceive their needs as important, at all, to varying degrees. I’m a middle-class white person with a PhD who teaches in a university (on precarious contracts which means I have less job security than people without my education level, but still) so I have a high degree of privilege that I fall back on when asking for my preferred gender pronoun to be used. Other people automatically presume I’m an authority on my needs and know best about what works for me. This, to me, is primarily an effect of my whiteness and certainly affects how I experience others’ perception and use of my pronoun.
I’m still wondering whether there is something specific about whiteness/white privilege and gender-neutral pronouns, or if this is just another ‘fairly straightforward’ instance of white privilege. Food for thought!
In my informal survey I didn’t come up with any specific resources on gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns for people of colour, however, so please pass them along if you find some!
Heya Lee! Love your stuff! My partner and I recently had a kid and we’re using they/them as pronouns until our kid wants to be known by a different pronoun (if they ever do). Lots of our friends are totally on board and make a great effort to use they/them, however family is completely different. They chose to constantly use gendered pronouns and gendered stereotypes. I’ve tried explaining it to them, but they just shout, get angry and transphobic. What can I do?
Thank you so much for your message and question. Many folks are choosing this route and, I think, encountering similar obstacles. It takes an incredible amount of work and persistence to parent in this way and I have a tremendous respect for you and others who are doing this.
I’m afraid so say that the simple answer is the hardest one: boundaries and consequences. Because you are in a position of parental authority and can advocate for your parenting choices and child’s right, as long as you are not beholden to family members for resources or child care you can enforce boundaries and consequences. People are welcome to ask questions and ask for resources, but if they persist in this behaviour they will not be spending time with your child. It is harsh and heart-breaking, but if you need it to be a (temporary) deal-breaker, perhaps it needs to be. This choice deserves as much respect as the choice to, say, raise your child without eating meat or processed foods. Family members can gripe all they want, but this is not their choice.
Other options are similar to those for GNP users ourselves: engage a go-between or same-age/status ally to field questions and concerns from family members on your behalf to share the load and perhaps be present when you can’t be (e.g., at family gatherings).
I’m looking into the possibility of a guest post with a parent – stay tuned!
Thanks so much,
I work at Starbucks and I’m always trying to find ways to connect with the customers but it is very difficult for me because I never know which pronouns to use. What gender neutral pronouns could I use instead of ma’am and sir and things of the sort? It’s been bugging me for quite some time. Help!
Thanks for your question blucitrus!
I (and other Starbucks-frequenting GNP users) truly appreciate that this is something you are concerned about. It shows that you’re committed to making your workplace somewhere that every client will want to come back to. And believe me – this is something that is noticed and communicated among GNP users and other trans* / non-binary folk: that your place is a good place for us.
As far as pronouns are concerned, if you have to refer to a client within their hearing range (e.g., to a co-worker), I suggest using singular they or ‘this/my customer’ or ‘this/my client.’ This takes practice, but can also be a fun daily challenge to yourself and a co-worker who’d also like to get on board. There many tips on this blog to help you out.
Regarding single-person address, avoiding the use of sir or ma’am is a great place to start but, as you say, it’s hard to know what to do next. Sir/ma’am are used to convey respect and welcome, but these can be conveyed to someone without using words. Think about how people use their body language, vocal pitch and intonation to convey respect and welcome. We incline our heads, make eye contact, listen intently, nod, smile and speak clearly in order to indicate that someone has our full attention. Of course, what ‘respect’ and ‘welcome’ look/sound like differ across contexts, but they can be performed. I’d argue that sir/ma’am are frequently used as shortcuts in busy customer service environments when these other more intentional strategies could do the job even better and more authentically, all without gendering.
Regarding plural address (i.e., to refer to groups of customers), avoid ladies, gentlemen, guys, girls, etc. and instead use terms like everyone or – if you are working in a casual customer service environment or with younger clientele – friends or folks. As above, I believe you can also welcome/show respect to groups of customers without using any of these terms at all. Think of a server saying “Good evening and welcome to our restaurant” while acknowledging each member of a group with brief eye contact and a warm smile. This is likely much more effective at conveying respect/welcome than a disinterested “Hello ladies.” Consider trying these strategies for a few minutes or a few customers every hour and seeing how they affect your (and their) experience of your interactions.
Other helpful gender-neutral phrases that convey respect (when paired with attentive body language, vocal pitch and intonation) include:
Can I help the next guest?
And for you?
What will you be having today?
Will you all be having dessert (etc.)?
These are not revolutionary or terribly insightful – just a starting place. With all of this being said, however, I have a caveat to share.
In the quest for gender-neutral public space and language practices, one casualty is affirmation for people who thrive on being (correctly) gendered by others. There are many people who enjoy being ma’am-ed or sir-ed; this is of course true of some cis-gender people but also of some transgender spectrum people. At times when I am identifying as more masculine and signalling this to the world with my grooming, clothing and behaviour, it is tremendously affirming to be seen and addressed appropriately as “sir.” However, I know many people with similarly masculine gender presentations who do not like this at all. There are also many transgender spectrum people who are in the process of or have completed a medical gender transition; for some (by no means all) of these folks, casual correct gendering by strangers can be a daily affirmation. Some years ago I heard a hilarious monologue by transsexual stand-up comedian Red Durkin in which she is yelled at by an irate cashier for moving too slowly in the check-out line: “MA’AM?? EXCUSE ME, MA’AM? HURRY UP!” Instead of being offended by this rudeness, Red replies with a swoon at the sound of this (to her) beautiful word: “Ma’am…you could scoop the honey out of that word with a bucket…”
Sometimes when I meet someone making a clear effort – e.g., with grooming, clothing, behaviour, etc. – to be readable/read as belonging in a particular gender category despite some physiological dissonance, I make a conscious choice to use the gendered title and pronoun that correspond with his or her deliberate gender presentation. However, this is an imperfect strategy to be used only with considerable caution and mindfulness, as well as humility if one makes a mistake (as are all of the things that I offer on TIMP).
So, I offer what I know to be true (for me and many others) with the caveat that these strategies won’t meet the needs of all people.
I hope this helps, blucitrus!
Fabulous news for all gender-neutral pronoun users! The NYTimes just used Mx. at the request of an informant, and now the WaPo has added singular they to its style guidelines!
Music to our ears:
It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.
When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.
Also, over three years ago in August 2012 when TIMP was just one month old, I was interviewed by prescient journalist Katie Toth for J-Source (the online magazine of The Canadian Journalism Project) about how the media should interface with and refer to non-binary, genderqueer or other folks who request gender-neutrality:
Lee Airton is the founder of gender-neutral pronoun blog, They Is My Pronoun, and a doctoral student at York University. Airton prefers to use the singular pronoun ‘they’. “My gender identity is very much queer, like it’s a very much in-between kind of thing,” they explained. “It would be very easy for people if people like me…said, ‘Yes, you can go ahead and call me ‘he.’ It’s a very different choice to say, ‘No, that also doesn’t feel good, I’m going to ask for you to work at it in the way that I work at being in this society.”
Airton is skeptical of writers’ insistence that ‘they’ poses a challenge for their readership: “I think it’s really interesting when writers presume a deficit in their audience.” At the same time, they said, using last names or descriptions of a person is a vastly better process than using a gendered pronoun that does not correspond with the source’s identity. “It’s a bit of a cop out…because [they] has to come into common usage.”
And now, more and more, this is happening. Onwards and upwards!
Hey there! I was born a female but at the moment I’m struggling a bit with gender identity. For example, one day I’ll feel like a boy, the next I’ll feel like a girl.mI’m not sure on what my gender is yet and I was wondering if while I am still figuring things out should I use they/them pronouns or stick with the she/her pronouns?
I think that many people have an experience of being fluid – of feeling like one thing one day, and something else the next day, and something else after that. Even folks who are cis-gender are extremely diverse in their gender expressions and ways of being/living in the gender they were assigned, and eventually find some sort of consistency. People on the transgender spectrum also tend to find greater and greater consistency and eventually find their own more-or-less stable place. While you are in the process of feeling things out, I think that they/them could be very helpful and give you some freedom from others’ expectations, or at least signal that others’ expectations might be unwelcome. I’ve written about this here as follows:
“What I want is a free pass from any and all assumptions about my ideas, work, play, hobbies, habits, life trajectory, plans, partners, underpants, decor preferences, beverages…you get the idea. I want an out from being over-determined by other people. It’s like “ok, so I don’t want to do girl things…but that also means that I might not want to do boy things either!” I want to be picky and choosy and difficult. In a perfect world – and I naively try to live like it’s already here – using ‘they’ would be a wake-up call to someone that gender will not help them relate to me, understand me, or make small talk with me at an awkward party.”
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that people tend to believe that once we have changed a pronoun and asked them to do the hard work of changing, THAT IS IT – that’s who we are. We have ‘finally decided’ or ‘finally arrived’ or ‘found ourselves’ or something, which is certainly not always the case for many trans, non-binary or genderqueer people (and many cis people too). So, be ready for people to draw conclusions and want something final from your choice even if you are using they/them/their to represent being in process. I might suggest alerting those who you care about and who you want to have address you with they/them/their that this is a gesture of fluidity now, not stability!
Hope that helps, and write back,
“We have to be willing to fail and have humility to be kind and be respectful when we are corrected and then move on,” Airton told Mashable. “That’s a very hard skill.”
TIMP has been featured in the big leagues of social media journalism! On Mashable!
In February I was contacted by a journalist from Mashable in connection with this blog. The interview and fact-checking process made me think a lot about being and presenting myself as a gender-neutral pronoun user and a trans spectrum person, particularly with regard to the media. It was interesting and the journalist was very respectful, but I have delayed sharing the article on TIMP until now because I feel ambivalent about being portrayed as someone who struggles with “dread and anxiety” or who “regularly navigates” a “complicated reality.” This is not untrue, but it’s hard to feel like one is commenting from a position as a long-time blogger and a scholar (in addition to writing TIMP, I’m an academic who researches and publishes on gender and sexual diversity issues) but is eventually represented as someone who’s authority only comes from their individual (and dreadful and anxious) existence. I think this references a trend in how LGBTQ people are portrayed, and also how we portray ourselves in order to make sure that we get money, space and time in places like schools to do the work we know is important. However, at this point my academic and TIMP selves are oddly merging and I must desist!
That said, however, TIMP appreciates the publicity and the willingness of Mashable to take up this important issue!
“Hey I really want to ask just out of curiosity do people who use they have a word they get called when in a relationship eg with the biranry gernders boyfriend girlfriend. Is there something like they for people who use they?”
Hi there thy-page!
An excellent question. I think the most common word is ‘partner’ but this can be quite a heavy-duty term implying a primary if not monogamous relationship as well as a particular duration and intent (spouse is similar).
I see queer and/or trans* people around me overwhelmingly using partner language, but I also hear some straight cis-gender (non-trans) people using partner language, too. This has the nice effect of opening up the possibility that their (absent and referred-to ‘partner’) could be of any gender, and makes a little crack in the inevitability of heterosexuality. I often encourage my straight students to try referring to their partners with singular they and partner language in conversation with strangers, and to see what happens. Give it a try, interwebs!
But I digress.
‘Partner’ and ‘spouse’ certainly don’t reflect all ways in which people approach their relationships, particularly more casual, less primary or less durational ones. I’ve heard people use the following:
Of course, some of these can sound pretty cheesey, and might have a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality to them. They also may be a bit awkward to use when introducing your person to others: “This is my main squeeze!” or “Meet my crush!” However, I’m a big proponent of embracing and surviving awkwardness as best as we can; but I’m also an extrovert and someone who actively studies awkwardness as a teaching tool…
So another and perhaps more socially seamless option is to use gerunds (-ing words) in the style of ‘person-first’ language popularized by some disability rights advocates. Here are some examples:
“This is Matt, the person I’m dating.”
“This is Phoenix. We’ve been seeing each other for about a month.”
“Juniper and I have been spending a lot of time together recently.”
This is nice because you don’t need a label at all.
So, thanks again thy-page for a great question! Keep asking.
Happy new year from TIMP, everyone! Thank you for your many questions, both private and public. Thank you also for your patience with me as I caught up to my new post-Ph.D. defence life and had a big TIMP time-lag this fall.
I love writing this blog, but my only regret is that I don’t usually get to have ongoing conversations with anyone. Please feel free to comment far and wide on my posts, whether you agree or disagree with what I have offered. I would love to hear other points of view, which can only be helpful to people asking questions. I will get back to you, I promise.
My warmest wishes for a gender-inclusive (if not wholly gender-neutral) 2015,
“I identify as agender, and I’m having a hard time asking people to use they/them/their. My family is very introverted, and I always feel bad asking them to be in educator mode when they talk about me to strangers, or to switch back and forth (ex. I’m not totally out to my grandparents, so my family would have to remember to change to “she” around them.) Is it asking too much to put my family in perpetual educator mode for my sake?”
I’m really glad you asked this question – I don’t come from an introverted family of origin by any stretch, but I’m lucky to have many introverts among my choice family and friends. I also wrote a post a while ago with tips on training yourself to change pronouns (for readers who are not GNP users); I began with the observation that, because we don’t usually refer to ourselves in the third person, a pronoun change can more greatly impact our friends and loved ones where everyday language use is concerned. So, I think you are being extremely kind and understanding.
First of all, I think it’s certainly not too much to ask because it’s something you need in order to feel how you want to feel, and your family presumably wants you to feel comfortable around them. However, pronoun change is awkward, and awkward things have a way of feeling like they are too much to ask. But that’s just the awkwardness talking. So, awkwardness aside, it is absolutely not too much to ask.
Readers share so much with me, and I like to share what I can in return. My family members have an unspoken free pass on doing pronoun work with people I don’t see very often (which includes, for me, my extended family and family friends who I don’t see very often on account of living far away). This is because I’ve made a degree of peace with the fact that I can’t make people do things when I’m not around, and moreover that it’s what happens to my face that makes me feel either whole or hollow. But this is just what works for me. I’m also helped by the fact that my name change though hard at first is now almost universally accepted, and I’m hardly ever gendered female/feminine by anyone (in non-pronoun ways), even by those who I know struggle with my pronoun when I’m not around.
What you might want to do is offer your close family members a few strategies that are introvert-friendly but still honour your needs. You could help them to practice using names instead of pronouns in sentences, which eliminates the need for gendered personal pronouns. It may also be helpful to give them some ways to refer to you in conversation with others that are respectful of you but less jarring for people who are not used to hearing gender-neutral language. My dad calls me ‘my kid’ or ‘our youngest kid’ when he introduces me to people, for example, and I’ve never seen anyone bat an eyelash at this descriptor. Sometimes he calls me ‘my offspring’ but he’s an extrovert and a joker so this fits with his persona.
However, this doesn’t get at whether you want the people your family interacts with to change their language. If you do want your family to do the education, then perhaps reflect on and then talk to them about who it matters with, or, draw ‘the circle’ within which you need peoples’ language to change. Who do you need them to talk to about your pronouns (e.g., maybe their omnipresent best friend) and who can they let slide by (e.g., maybe the postal worker or a great-aunt you haven’t seen in ten years, etc.)? Sometimes having a sense of where the task ends (for the moment) can make people feel more of a sense of accomplishment, which makes them more likely to participate (teacher talking here). Also, once you have a sense of who it matters with, for you, you might even give your parents a few draft sentences to integrate into emails or other messages. Often peoples’ terror of saying ‘the wrong thing’ is more of an inhibition than the topic itself, so having ‘the right thing’ on hand and written by you could be both helpful and much-appreciated.
Overall, and speaking more broadly to the interwebs now, the degree to which we want or need our family to do pronoun education varies for each of us, but we are each entitled to ask for our particular threshold to be met by those we love. Reflecting on who is in ‘the circle’ drawn by this threshold can provide some practical tools for family members.
I hope this is helpful, and happy new year! Keep on asking.