By Karen Mulvahill | Nov. 25, 2023
My first assignment in an online graduate-level class was to provide information about my background, including my pronouns. I guess I’d had my head in the sand for a while, because I found this an odd request. Jane Doe, for example, listed she/her. John Doe listed he/him. I’m thinking, well, duh. But then I noticed someone named Pamela had listed he/his, and a student named Jonas listed they/them.
The lightbulb clicked on. You can’t just assume. My only experience with nonbinary people thus far had been the character on the TV show Billions. It had taken a while for me to get used to them being called them.
When I was a girl, expressions of one’s gender were expected to conform to one’s biological sex. Girls wore pink, played with dolls, were docile, sensitive to others’ feelings, not too smart, maybe even a little helpless. If you liked to climb trees, play baseball, pop wheelies on your bike, as I did, you were called a tomboy.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a tomboy is “a girl who acts and dresses like a boy, liking noisy, physical activities.” The equally pejorative counterpart for boys deviating from expected behavior was sissy, “a boy who is weak or who likes things that girls usually like” (Britannica Dictionary). Both terms presume significant differences in appropriate behavior according to one’s sex.
A quick definition may be in order here. Sex refers to biological makeup, while gender refers to the psychological, behavioral, and cultural traits that have typically been associated with a specific sex. A person’s gender attributes don’t always conform with the expectations of their sex.
“We used to think that people were either male or female, and that was it—that there were two endpoints, and everyone had to be at one of them. But it became clear that that didn’t fit everybody’s experience.” (Jason Lamrese, M.D., Child Psychologist, Cleveland Clinic)
I’ve noticed a lot of eye-rolling and spine stiffening when the subject of using a pronoun that doesn’t correspond with one’s birth sex comes up, especially the use of they/them. Almost half of Americans say they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person (Pew Research Center). As with anything perceived as new or different, it takes education, exposure, and practice to become comfortable with it. Over time, language adapts to reflect cultural changes.
Many people have been proclaiming for a while that they don’t fit at one or the other endpoint of the gender spectrum. They deserve to be represented by our language.
At one time, the word he was considered a generic pronoun that covered all people. It was not an accident that he was the default and not she. In fact, it was a reflection of the dominance of men in all aspects of the culture. As that began to change, and women demanded to be included, the use of he began to be replaced by he/she or s/he and they. Neopronouns are also beginning to get wider play. These are non-gendered pronouns like ze, zim, zir. (More about that in Pronouns 201.)
They has long been a convenient device for writers to punt to, when the use of he or she just seems too clumsy. Traditionalist grammarians may argue that someone is singular, therefore they, usually a plural pronoun, is incorrect. On the other hand, this usage has been around long enough to be codified in the Oxford English Dictionary, so perhaps it’s time to accept it.
In the 1970s, women began to object to the use of Miss and Mrs., asserting that their marital status was irrelevant and nobody’s business. The male counterpart, Mr., telegraphed no such information. Despite early resistance, Ms. has become much more common. Until I began researching this article, I had no idea that Mx. is also an honorific, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “title used before a person’s surname…by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female.”
What I learned in my class is that you cannot assume someone’s pronouns based upon their name, hairstyle, clothing, or behavior. That’s why someone like me, who is AFAB (assigned female at birth) and identifies as female should not object to being asked my pronouns and why it’s polite to ask someone theirs. Just as it would be rude and disrespectful to address a person by the wrong name, so it is with pronouns. In fact, research has shown that young people experience mental health difficulties when their gender preference is not affirmed.
Maybe someday we’ll move completely beyond gender expectations and embrace each other as individuals. Until then, let’s stop the eye-rolling and let people know we respect their identity.
Karen Mulvahill is a writer living in northern Michigan.