When it comes to pronouns, norms are changing fast. Yesterday was International Pronouns Day, a new holiday that debuted only last year. According to organizers, it has American roots, but last year, some 25 countries participated.
And the discussion around pronouns is quickly seeping into American politics. Currently, half of the 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls have added their personal pronoun preferences to their Twitter bios—Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro (who also includes él, which is “he” in Spanish), Cory Booker, and Tom Steyer.
All six use personal pronouns associated with their assigned-at-birth genders, but the declaration of one’s personal choice is more poignant for people who are transgender, gender fluid, gender-nonconforming, or nonbinary.
“Proactively asking someone’s pronouns is the first step to take,” says Gillian Branstetter, spokeswoman for the National Center for Transgender Equality, who is a trans woman. “Trans people have to educate people around us all the time. The point of putting pronouns in an email signature and proactively offering yours is to relieve some of that burden.”
She added that once instructed—or corrected—you should use the personal pronoun the person wants. Ignoring how an individual wants to be identified is a microaggression.
“It reminds me [of] anger at being asked to press one for Spanish. There are small steps that make the world easier for people,” Branstetter said.
Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that starts with using correct pronouns.
I’m Elizabeth. My pronouns are she/her/hers. And I’ll keep fighting to build an America where everyone feels seen and respected. #PronounsDay
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 16, 2019
Last month, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith, who’d come out as nonbinary in March, announced a preference for they/them pronouns. Then, Merriam-Webster added a definition for the word “they,” saying it can be used to “refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” Relatedly, shortly afterward, Mattel, maker of the iconic Barbie, introduced gender-neutral dolls.
The Associated Press press story about Smith’s pronoun preferences misgendered the performer using male pronouns and was criticized for it, most notably in an essay by Tampa Bay Times copy editor Ashley Dye, whose Twitter bio indicates they/them pronouns. The AP story was since “corrected throughout to reflect Sam Smith’s pronouns,” according to a note affixed to the bottom.
Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out… pic.twitter.com/IVoLTYbAWd
— Sam Smith (@samsmith) September 13, 2019
Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who uses they/them pronouns, says outlining their pronouns helps them with their identity. When in a new social circle, especially a non-queer one, they’ll bring up the topic matter-of-factly early on, like they did at a faculty meeting.
“I disclose mine, because it helps me to have those adopted, and if I don’t, I will be misgendered, because my name clocks me as a cis-woman and the pronouns she/her accompany that,” Grygiel says. “The identities and silos of the past are over. We need to check with each other more . . . It’s a nonevent for those who have typical pronouns.”
The pronoun sensitivity trend will only continue. According to a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this year, 35% of Gen Zers say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns; the same is true for one out of four millennials. Plus, a December 2017 UCLA study found 27% of Californians ages 12-17—an estimated 796,000 people—are gender-nonconforming.
For Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, the issue of how to address the pronoun pronouncements is not just a question he ponders professionally. His daughter is married to a transgender man.
“At some level, the binary world is always imposing itself on us. We’re kind of in a transition of language when it comes to gay, lesbian, queer, nonbinary, transgender,” he said. “The world is both inviting us to reflect the reality that’s been either, at best, underrepresented or at worst, rejected and despised.”
He remembers a time when he/him was the default used when referring to a generic person and a time when women were identified in newspapers as either Miss or Mrs., the latter sometimes without their own first names. Along came Ms. and, more recently, Mx.
And while cynics may view the Democratic candidates’ deploying of pronoun preferences as a form of pandering, like kissing babies or eating state fair corn dogs, Grygiel sees it as a societal turning point.
“It’s a signal that they understand pronouns matter and participating in this helps to set a precedent and it doesn’t reinforce a gender binary world,” they said. “It makes it easier for someone who has alternative pronouns.”
For some people, hearing “they/them” deployed as singular pronouns is grating, as in “they is a graduate of school ABC,” but Branstetter is unmoved.
“Language is not a big rulebook that we throw at people,” she says. “It’s constantly shifting and a fluid reflection of society at the moment.”