They/them/their: The rise of gender-neutral pronouns

As transgender rights and issues finally became part of the national conversation in 2015, those in and outside of the LGBT community began to process new ways not only of thinking, but also speaking. One of the major topics to emerge from that conversation is gender-neutral pronouns.

People who use gender-neutral pronouns don’t identify specifically with either “he” or “she” pronouns. The most common gender-neutral pronoun usage is they/them/their, although there are others, including ze and hir.

Atlanta resident Taylor Alxndr, 22, identifies as agender, i.e. they don’t have a binary male or female gender identity.

“It’s different for every individual person, but for me, being agender, I don’t have a gender identity and I want to stay as neutral as possible. So they/them/their feels comfortable for me,” Alxndr told Georgia Voice. “I wouldn’t want to go to somebody who prefers ‘she’ and ‘her’ and call her ‘he.’ It’s just generally about respect and respecting peoples’ boundaries and how they feel comfortable.”

The slow rise of gender-neutral pronouns recalls the similar rise of the use of "Ms." which was boosted by the founding of Ms. Magazine in 1971.
The slow rise of gender-neutral pronouns recalls the similar rise of the use of “Ms.” which was boosted by the founding of Ms. Magazine in 1971.

The feminist fight for ‘Ms.’

The rise of gender-neutral pronouns in common everyday conversation isn’t the only language shift to occur that centered around equal rights in the United States.

In 1961, 22-year-old civil rights worker Sheila Michaels spotted the noun “Ms.” on a piece of mail her roommate received. Hating to have her identity defined by marriage, Michaels began a mission to add the title to the lexicon as an alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.”

Her work didn’t pay off until she appeared on a progressive New York radio station with other feminists nearly a decade later. Her plea for the honorific came as preparations were underway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem gave her stamp of approval, and later in 1971 co-founded Ms. Magazine, which remains in publication to this day. It took some longer than others to embrace the title, with the New York Times waiting until 1986 to employ it, but it stuck.

The grammar police and mainstream media reaction

Gender-neutral pronouns are part of the next conversation about language and equal rights, nearly 50 years after the fight for “Ms.” began. A common complaint from those new to gender-neutral pronouns relates to grammar—how can someone use “they” to refer to a single person, they ask.

“That whole ideology is kind of incorrect in itself,” Alxndr says of people who objected to the usage on grammatical grounds. “It was a lot of anger about not understanding why they had to use they/them/their. A lot of people didn’t understand that they couldn’t just decide what they wanted to call me. I was like, well you can learn all these different words and terminologies with social media and stuff, why can’t you just learn they/them/their?”

But the grammar police have slowly backed off. The Washington Post has taken the lead on the issue among major media publications, announcing in a December memo to staffers that it would begin allowing employees to use they/them/their as a singular pronoun in their coverage.

“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,” wrote Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh in the memo. “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.”

The New York Times even used the pronoun “Mx.” to refer to a gender-neutral source in a Nov. 2015 profile of a New York City bookshop and activist center. That’s the pronoun the source used and the Times respected their wishes.

‘Use’ or ‘prefer’?

A subconversation about people who use they/them/their pronouns is another language issue—do they “use” or “prefer” they/them/their pronouns?

“I think there’s been a gradual shift from people that use ‘prefer’ instead of ‘use,'” Alxndr says. “I know a good few years ago everybody was using ‘prefer’ but now I feel like the majority of people are using ‘use’ because when people say I ‘prefer’ these pronouns, it has this implication that people have a choice in not using those pronouns.”

Alxndr’s sentiments echo those of most people we spoke to about the topic, which recalls the debate in recent years over whether to use the term “sexual preference” or “sexual orientation.” To say lesbian, gay or bisexual people “prefer” to be that way indicates it’s a choice, therefore “sexual orientation” is the more widely accepted term.

Gender-neutral pronouns will continue to be a topic of discussion when it comes to transgender rights as more people come out all along the gender spectrum.

“I even have trans friends who still slip up and call me ‘he,’ but they recognize that it’s just something they have to work on,” Alxndr says. “You don’t expect people to automatically use every single terminology correctly but we do expect people to just generally respect us and if you do slip up, say ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to do that’ and carry on with the right pronoun.”