ON OCTOBER 5, 2021, writer Joyce Carol Oates tweeted:
“they” will not become a part of general usage, not for political reasons but because there would be no pronoun to distinguish between a singular subject (“they”) & a plural subject (“they”). language seeks to communicate w/ clarity, not to obfuscate; that is its purpose.
After receiving criticism, she issued several rather thoughtful apologies and acknowledged the impact her words could have on the nonbinary and trans community. Her initial tweet, she explained, had not been a statement on the validity of singular they as a pronoun, but rather an expression of her belief that most people will not understand its meaning. Despite her clarification, many of the site’s users rallied around her original statement, amplifying it as a simple truth of grammar. “You’re not wrong, Joyce,” one user commented. “Cancel culture can’t cancel the English language. You haven’t harmed anyone.”
My first instinct was to write a refutation based on my linguistic study, but it occurred to me that countless scholars already have. Mere minutes of Google searches turned up dozens of scholarly articles about the historic use of singular they, including the fact that it predates common use of singular you. You came to replace the more casual second-person forms of thou, thee, and thy in the seventeenth century, a shift decried by many, including Quakerism’s founder, George Fox, who called it “improper, untrue language.” The problem is not a lack of accessible information describing singular they’s grammaticality, but that some people don’t want to learn. You’ll have to pry prescriptivism from their cold, dead hands, in which case, what good is another article on grammar?
Instead, I asked four people in my life who use gender-neutral pronouns to share their perspectives. If scholarly facts are not persuasive, I thought, maybe lived experience will be. Because not all of these people are out to their families, I’ve kept all four anonymous.
One chilly evening early last summer, I spent a long while with A on the grass in Washington Square Park, people-watching and talking. After a girl passed by, offering us wildly expensive pre-rolled joints, A confessed to me that they wanted to cut all their hair off. They said they felt a certain inexplicable sickness from seeing a feminine face in their mirror, something that had less to do with womanhood itself and more to do with the way people would interpret who they were. They ended up letting their hair be. To this day, it’s long and beautifully kept, though when I text her that I’m writing an article about being nonbinary, she confesses to an internal feeling of masculinity. “Or at least more ambiguous,” she writes, “beyond man or woman,” the words themselves too tight and flimsy.
She says her perspective on gender changed in university archaeology courses. They were deeply moved by the ways in which gender roles have changed throughout history, the discovery that humans have always agonized over distinctions between mind and body. A briefly mentions an interest in breast binding with the same hopeful tone they—sitting in the park with me last summer—used to describe a new purchase of men’s shorts: “Whenever I feel gross, I can just put them on, and it’s okay again.” A simple solution to a confounding problem, a temporary comfort.
A wishes more people understood the duality of her pronoun usage. “Just because sometimes I identify as a woman doesn’t mean that other people can choose to exclusively refer to me as she,” she says, acceding that most would believe feminine pronouns better suit her appearance. A seems to be reaching a point where physical changes for the benefit of those around them hold less importance. Temporary reprieve in the form of external validation can only support a person for so long.
Maybe she will cut her hair. Maybe she won’t. For now, as they work through their own perception of their self, A survives on outside acknowledgment. Considerate use of their pronouns, they say, brings a “sense of relief.”
Words will never fully encapsulate something as wide and flowing as personal identity, but we can work with what we have because we must.
I’ve known them since high school on Long Island. At a small Christmas party last December, we had a tipsy heart-to-heart about identity. When I contact them for input, they respond with walls of text, relieved, perhaps, for the opportunity to vent.
Their description of their gender is short and simple: “I’m nonbinary, and to me, that means fully being myself, not caring what societal norms dictate.” When I ask if there’s a generation gap in the way their identity is perceived, they say, “It really comes down to an individual’s views and how accepting they are.” Fairly recently, a boy our age—twenty-three—asked them if they really, truly believed they weren’t male. After B tried to explain, the boy concluded, “So, since you don’t see yourself as a guy, that must mean you’re gay sometimes.”
They share this anecdote jovially, though very pointedly adding quotations around their assurance that it’s “all good.” Ignorance, however, is a minute obstacle in comparison to inner struggles. They describe their journey towards self-discovery as a “slow burn,” in which they denied their own happiness and comfort in order to fit in with male peers. Only when the pandemic arrived did they begin to reflect, trapped alone with themself with nowhere to run. B paints me a scene: one day, while doing their hair in the bathroom mirror, they abruptly realized they didn’t want to look like a man. They stood in front of their reflection for ages, trying to figure out what a better, more feminine hairstyle would look like. Too scared to vocalize this realization, they turned to online quizzes that claimed to be able to determine gender identity based on questions like, “What type of music do you listen to?” and, “Tea or coffee?” (“Pathetic, I know,” B says.) When it became clear there was no way out, B opted for self-acceptance.
New to this discovery, as A is, B puts great emphasis on their appearance as a way of feeling comfortable in their identity. They tell me they’re currently growing out their hair; they’re particularly interested in the androgynous haircuts often sported by butch women, like mullets and shags, which they call “a really cool middle ground.” Recently, they’ve allowed themself to don more traditionally feminine clothing, a change they describe as “liberating.” Also like A, they consider temporary alterations to their body, like tucking, but feel uncomfortable discussing these rituals in detail. What B is more interested in describing is their struggle to find well-fitting clothing: “Good luck finding a pair of heels in a woman’s 12,” they lament. “Don’t even get me started on women’s pants.”
We lived together for a time in college, and I spent a few nights crying in their bedroom over things I couldn’t describe. They always seemed so secure in themself, which was a bit terrifying. Having moved beyond the early stages of discovery in which external perception is the absolute priority, C spent their time considering deeper, internal manifestations of gender: Must nonbinary identity negate one’s womanhood? What role do nonbinary and trans people play in feminism? Can one experience boyhood despite never having been a boy? They’re hefty questions, ones the general populous seems less interested in than more sensational topics, such as trans women who are also elite student athletes or hypothetical creeps peering into bathroom stalls.
C is unwilling to dedicate time to arguing about the issues that haunt cis people, more interested in her own personal growth and self-love. She tells me that she identifies with gender fluidity, a deep-seated feeling that has followed them since childhood. “Ever since grade school, I’ve experienced some dysphoria when trying to process my body as ‘female.’” Like B, they draw emphatic quotes around female. “I’ve been so much more comfortable in my own skin since I started letting myself move freely between the masculine and the feminine.”
Half jokingly, they mention that some take changes in pronoun usage as a sign of “societal catastrophe.” “I do think older generations cling more to this grammatical rigidity that argues a singular they is simply incorrect,” they remark. “I see much more adaptability in younger generations.” Progress, she believes, can come from “simple effort”—practiced use of the pronouns until they become second nature.
Indeed, C is much more comfortable with their identity than I am. On one of those nights I spent crying in C’s bedroom, they held my hand in theirs and rubbed circles on my palm. “Do you know how you identify?” they asked gently. I shook my head. She let out an airy hm and looked down at the bedsheets for a moment. After a beat, she said, “I think you’re very handsome,” and I broke down into sobs. Had I the wherewithal to speak, I would’ve thanked them for seeing me. I could barely even see myself.
D is a trans man who started transitioning at fourteen, ten years ago. Now, he “welcomes nonbinary pronouns,” explaining, “my connection with gender is constantly changing, and my expression of myself is even more dynamic. Sometimes I don’t want to subject myself to a pronoun, to a specific gender. They/them is the answer in those moments.”
He and C are good friends, both well-versed in queer theory and secure in themselves. Once, the three of us took a midwinter walk and talked about our bodies—what else? D stood atop a jagged rock as they told us, rather cheerfully, that they’re happy with their body. C grinned and I concentrated on breathing, staring at the ground.
For D, this sort of understanding is and isn’t generational: “I more so believe it has to do with exposure: exposure to different people, different expressions, different cultures. I’ve met people decades older than myself who understand being nonbinary. I’ve met people younger who don’t respect or acknowledge it.” Just five years ago, he didn’t understand it himself. Friendship with nonbinary individuals broadened his horizons, just as it had mine. Before I’d reached comprehension, I was resistant too. The way I thought of nonbinary people was condescending and steeped in anger; I didn’t like what I saw in them because it mirrored what I saw in myself. Why do you have to go and give yourself a separate label? I remember thinking. Can’t you just be quietly miserable in your body like the rest of us?
He describes how, for some people, gender-neutral pronouns represent people who feel in-between genders or unrepresented by male or female. For others, it may be a political statement against the way we are all socialized into patriarchy. “Why force people to choose?” As nonbinary issues edge closer and closer toward mainstream discourse, more people must grapple with this question. There’s often a hint of self-protective fear in denouncements of transgender ideology; for instance, J.K. Rowling (I dredge her name up reluctantly, to make a point) wrote in an infamous essay posted to her website, “The more of [the] accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read . . . the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition.” That sentence offers a fascinating window into the mind of one of trans and nonbinary activism’s most ardent opponents. What if Joanne Rowling had been born thirty years later? Would she see herself any differently? Would she realize she didn’t have to be like I had been—angry out of fear, quietly miserable?
On that walk, ages ago, D asked me how I identify—the dreaded question. I recall fumbling my way through partial explanations. Other people made it look so easy. D was patient, told me that growth was complicated, painful, but over time it would all become clearer.
HERE IT IS—the day in which it is clear. I’ve read and written and stared long into mirrors, trying to put words to a primordial feeling. I am not the first one to do this, and neither are my friends. As A told me, our struggle with how language shapes our understanding of ourselves appears to be as old as language itself. Movements like feminism have spent decades wrestling with these abstractions: What do women want? What does it mean to be a woman or a man? What does being a woman or a man feel like?
All I can say is that language is the vehicle through which we express our humanity. If we reject linguistic changes because they seem strange or difficult, we ignore language’s most important purpose, which is to describe the human condition. Words will never fully encapsulate something as wide and flowing as personal identity, but we can work with what we have because we must. A self cannot exist with no words to describe it. Our language shapes the way we see the world, not the other way around.
The fight for nonbinary and trans acceptance is often twisted by social media and traditional news, warped into stories about predators or unfair competition in sports or feminism or free speech, when, in reality, a great proportion of trans people can hardly squeeze verbal acknowledgment out of their friends and family. How can we hope to defend ourselves on the global stage if the language stays still, if the conversation is so consistently dominated by people who see dialectical evolution as a “cancellation” of English? I’m reminded of the curt declaration by a professor whose phonology course I took my senior year of college. On the first day, he handed us a form for our names and pronouns. “If you’re worrying about they being grammatically incorrect,” he said flatly, “don’t, because it’s not.”
Among friends and colleagues, I use they/them pronouns. It’s not something I speak on very often, but in discussions such as this, I feel it important to emphasize that I use them because they’re good and right, and because they are as close as I can come to tracing my outline. Even if I’d never gotten a degree in linguistics, never learned that language rules are as fluid as gender, I think I’d still want to use them. In my day-to-day life, I care very little about clarity and obfuscation; however, I care very much about being happy, and gender-neutral pronouns make me happy. Is that not enough?