“If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs … there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue,” writes Farhad Manjoo in a recent column, “Call Me ‘They.’” They make the case for adopting gender-neutral pronouns for reasons both cultural and linguistic, but ultimately in the name of inclusivity.
Some readers — who contributed to the more than 2,000 comments on the column — objected. Grammarians called for a return to order, feminists refused to relinquish the potential power of “she” and others felt that it just wasn’t worth the trouble.
Farhad responded to several of these readers in the comments. Selections from those exchanges are below. They have been edited for length and clarity.
‘My gender really isn’t your business’
I am cisgender and, yes, when someone is telling me about visiting a friend and then uses “they” to refer to that person it can take me half a beat to remind myself that I’m hearing about an individual, not a group. But that’s nothing when dealing with a person of unclear gender and I feel I have no reason to intrude upon them by asking their preferred pronouns.
I recently attended a seminar at which people’s introductions of themselves were to include their preferred pronouns, and I wanted to answer “they” as a way of saying “my gender really isn’t your business” and as a step in the direction Manjoo recommends. I lost my nerve. — Leslie, New Haven
Farhad Manjoo: Leslie, I do think it’s difficult to broach the subject in person, and as a person with some level of social anxiety, I often chicken out too. But I do think stepping up in these situations is good for everyone.
Phred, Maryland: Leslie, I’m one of the grammarians Farhad referenced in the column. I’m trying to use “they” as a singular pronoun, but it’s awkward and grammatically icky. I asked a colleague how long it took him to get used to it. He said about a year. It’s probably going to take me longer. But languages change, society changes, and we have to change with it. If I can get used to “his husband” and “her wife,” I can get used to “they.”
‘You’d be better off just using a new word’
The problem with changing the meaning of “they” is that millions of people in this country have been using a different meaning for decades. It’s as if a New York Times columnist suddenly declared that the word “eight” is the number of legs a dog has. You can ask for that change if you want, but you’ll confuse those of us who were taught to use the word “four” in that situation. You’d be better off just using a new word. — Upstate Albert, Rochester, N.Y.
Farhad Manjoo: Albert, I’d be happy with a new word — a third-person pronoun that is universally recognized as singular and gender neutral. I’d welcome that; it might work much better than “they.” But I think achieving consensus on what the word should be, and then pushing for widespread adoption, would be difficult or impossible. I prefer singular “they” because it’s already widely used and has been used for centuries. This is not a case of a Times columnist suddenly introducing a new word. This is a columnist arguing that we should go with the word being widely used already. I’m not staring the party. I’m late to the party.
‘It’s not language that is defining gender roles’
I appreciate the need to be sensitive to some, but come on. I don’t want to be referred to as “they” unless it makes sense grammatically. Let’s drop this idea that we’re stifling the vast majority of us. It’s not language that is defining gender roles, it’s how people behave and their willingness to be exposed to different ideas and individuals.
This issue doesn’t have real meaning to something like 99 percent of us. As a Gen Xer, I much prefer to adopt the attitude of “I don’t care what you do, go make yourself happy” than the attitude that we must all conform to make everyone else feel special and perfect all the time. — Martin, Hillsborough, N.C.
Farhad Manjoo: Martin, “I appreciate the need to be sensitive to some, but come on” is a thing Joe Biden would say. It telegraphs an uncaring, unsympathetic attitude to the rest of the world. Nobody is forcing you to call anyone anything. You’re still in charge and you’re either making the choice to use language that is inclusive, or you’re not, on the grounds that making people feel included is giving them special treatment.
As for your 99 percent claim, even if your numbers are correct, what’s wrong with including the other one percent? This was the same argument used against the Americans With Disabilities Act: The overwhelming majority is fine! Why spend all this money to make this small number feel “special and perfect all the time?”
AH, Chicago: Farhad, one of the problems in your logic is that you equate uniformity with inclusivity. Those concepts are not interchangeable or necessarily synonymous. In addition, I find your appeal for uniformity by all of society using “they” misguided at best and at worst, arrogant in the assumption that everyone will readily renounce his or her preferred gender pronoun.
Arbie, Virginia: As a nonbinary person, I wish people would stop for a moment before labeling this issue ‘silly’ and ‘trivial’ and engage their empathetic side. I wish they would ask themselves why it’s so important for many people to have their preferred pronouns respected while risking rejection and ridicule in response. I’d like to tell most people that this isn’t about them — but that would likely make them dig their heels in ever more firmly.
Erica, Pennsylvania: As a millennial, if that’s relevant, I much prefer to adopt the attitude that I don’t care what you do, but I’ll start with kindness. Such a small change, with minimal effort, could open so many people up to different ideas about gender. Look, we’re already having a conversation.
‘I will not accede to my linguistic erasure’
I am a transgender man — legally, socially, physically — and addressed unequivocally by those around me as “he/him.” This, for me, is a hugely important part of my social recognition given how much all of nature and society conspired against it and what a battle it was to get to this place. Being spontaneously addressed with the right pronouns remains a very important transition milestone for trans people. Its affirmative potential is just beyond words for us.
I will use “they/them” with anyone who asks me to, but I will not accede to my linguistic erasure solely because someone who is clearly overflowing with cisgender privilege suddenly gets it into their head that this might be a cool thing to do. — Stephen, Ireland
Farhad Manjoo: Stephen, I appreciate your perspective, and I did speak with many trans and nonbinary people for this piece about just this question. That’s why I tried to be clear that “they” should not replace gendered pronouns, but should be an option.
But I totally reject the insinuation that this is a fad or an attempt to be cool. It’s important for cisgender people to recognize people’s pronouns; it’s important, and will make a real difference in people’s lives, if cisgender people ask and respect them. How you get that to happen is through the mainstreaming of this conversation, and getting to a place where cisgender people specify their own pronouns, too, as a way to make it easier for everyone. I think that’s an important dynamic.
Charlie, San Francisco: I too am a transgender man and I respectfully disagree with Stephen. Manjoo is making an argument about how language shapes our culture and expectations, a conversation we all get to be a part of. He is advocating for the singular “they” to be acceptable and widely practiced, not for the eradication of “he/she.” It is an argument about language, not gender. Languages with no gendered pronouns exist, and those cultures still have male and female gender norms.
I do feel affirmed when referred to as “he,” but I know that comes after years of being misgendered, painfully, as “she.” I believe an English language with wide use of the singular “they” would be a gift to those who are misgendered regularly, especially trans youth.
‘In practice, it’s pretty silly’
I have close friends who are gender fluid and want to be called they, not he or she. I love them but honestly, in practice, it’s pretty silly as well as confusing. Everyone around them frequently forgets and they don’t push it, they tell you it’s fine. But it creates a situation where they get to tell you it’s fine. To me, this is about imposing your will on others, and not seeing the forest for the trees.
The majority of humans on this planet are, and want to be, “pronouned” as “he” or “she.” Languages evolve naturally. And this issue is a gift to the queer-haters out there. The more public this issue gets, the more it (rightly) gets ridiculed, and the less we talk about the forest: rights. Not ideology or nomenclature, but being free. Queers are oppressed and this issue is hurting us. — Nile Curtis, Kaneohe, Hawaii
Farhad Manjoo: Nile, I’m not sure you have any data to support the claim that “the majority of humans on this planet are, and want to be “pronouned” as he or she.” For one thing, there are lots of very widely-spoken languages that have no gender pronouns. So how do you determine what those people want?
R. Green, Akron, Ohio: Farhad, in a recent study, more than 80,000 teenagers in the United States were asked how they identify themselves, with regard to gender. The findings, published in Pediatrics, showed a combined 2.7 percent of these young people identifying themselves as transgender or gender nonconforming. Given the physical and emotional volatility of the teenage years, this percentage is likely to be lower among adults.
Nile is right; when there are lots of bigger fish to fry, and the opponents of progress have repeatedly shown a skill for sniffing out wedge issues they can use to scare millions of people to vote against their most basic interests, this article showed a profound tone-deafness with regard to the current American political moment.
Gowan McAvity, White Plains, N.Y.: There is another way to look at it. Rather than seeing a change in common linguistic syntax as a minority trying to impose its will on the majority, try to see it as the majority being more compassionate toward a traditionally oppressed minority.
To evolve toward a truly inclusive society will require some change that may occasionally make the majority discombobulated. Seems a small price to pay to redress historical oppression that has been reinforced by gender labeling. Being asked to use “they” instead of “he” or “she” is not forced conversion therapy. The language police who are offended by this are joining the defenders of heterosexual oppression, whether they realize it or not.
Marilou, Montreal: The use of gender neutral pronouns would not only be beneficial to the minority of people who are transgender or gender fluid. As Mr. Manjoo wrote, cisgender people also have gender-related norms imposed on them through language that may constrain the way they act or think about themselves.
As for the issue being a minor one, language is fundamental to our perception of ourselves and others. True equality will only be reached when it is also reflected in our speech. I agree with you that changes in language must arise from its speakers and can hardly be imposed, but that fact makes it even more important to discuss the place of gender in language, collectively.
‘The feminine pronoun can have great power’
Women are finally breaking through the walls, ceilings and barriers we have faced for generations and you think that’s the perfect time to eliminate pronouns based on sex, thus disappearing women? We know what will happen, even before the poor grammarians decide to leap off tall buildings in despair: “They is a doctor, but they is a female doctor.”
As with any other sex-neutral term, if the word has a positive connotation, it will come to mean male; if negative, female. The problem is not sex-based pronouns, but the gendered hierarchy of behaviors that define some behaviors as superior and masculine, and others as inferior and feminine. Feminism is not about men and women being equal. Feminism is a movement committed to the end of patriarchy. Radical feminists understand the difference between sex, which is biology, and gender, which is behavior. — Deborah Peifer, San Rafael, Calif.
Farhad Manjoo: Deborah, nobody is proposing eliminating any pronouns. I’m proposing adding one that is neutral on gender.
Tallulah Garnett, Oregon: Deborah, the problem isn’t the gendered hierarchy. It’s that some people don’t want to be defined by their gender or don’t fit into a male or female gender category. The English language doesn’t have a way to address them. We need to give the word “they” a new meaning to accommodate for this very real population. On a different note, you conjugated the verb “be” wrong; you should have said, “they ‘are’ a female doctor.”
Lars, France: Deborah conjugated her phrase correctly, according to nonbinary usage, which just goes to show that our current understanding of “they” as plural will pose a problem until the use becomes more common. I’m all for finding another, specific word; maybe “thee” and “thine” could come back into vogue?
Gnowxela, New York: Whatever its faults, the slogan “I’m with Her” had much more weight and significance than “I’m with Them” would have. The feminine pronoun can have great power. We just have to make it so. It’s harder work than just papering over things with ambiguous pronouns.
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