As any grammarian will tell you the pronoun “they” is used to refer to two or more people, but more importantly, to some trans folks, it’s gender neutral — whereas he and she are singular, but gender specific.
And that creates a grammatical dilemma.
Unlike some languages English does not have gender-neutral singular pronouns so for people like Jack Qu’emi, Brent Stanfield, and Megan Rohrer they say the language doesn’t accurately represent who they are so they’ve decided to rewrite the rules and use “they” in the singular.
“I get a lot of people saying that’s not grammatically correct,” said Jack Qu’emi, a 23-year-old student at University of Central Florida. “Usually, my first response is: Ok, my gender identity is more important than your grammar preferences, and, on top of that, singular ‘they’ has been used for hundreds of years by people like Shakespeare.”
Fred Fejes, a journalism professor at Florida Atlantic University, said the word became popular in the 70s as part of a feminist movement against a male-dominated language.
Since then, it has come to be a representation of people who don’t fit as part of either gender.
“I’m female-assigned at birth, and I’m feminine presenting, and a lot of people assume I use ‘she,’ but I think that ‘they’ is a lot more inclusive,” said 26-year-old Ray. “I identify a lot more as a feminine person than as a woman. I started using gender-neutral pronouns impulsively, and it felt really good, and I’ve been using them ever since.”
Qu’emi said the word shouldn’t be an issue because it’s also used colloquially today.
Those who use the pronoun have come up with different ways to explain it.
Taylor Collins, a 19-year-old University of Southern California student, uses the example of talking about a person of an unknown gender in a mascot outfit at a basketball game. While 21-year-old Brent Stanfield uses heritage, and famous public figures, to explain the decision to go gender-neutral.
“I think it can be helpful to talk about more famous people and instances of gender bending, like using Lady Gaga to help people understand that sometimes you can mix genders or be something out of male or female,” Stanfield said. “I think for me as a Native American, I can also sort of talk about different Native American cultures. Some of them would have more than two gender roles.”
Every day those who use “they” face challenges because of the lack of representation and general awareness of the existence of people who don’t identity as either “male” or “female.”
“One of the hardest parts are identification issues,” Qu’emi said. “You’ll be addressed based on your legal name, like on the phone they don’t care what you look like because they can’t see you. They go by what is a feminine or masculine voice.”
Qu’emi also has trouble when going to restaurants, doctors, clinics or the DMV and faces a lot of microagressions.
A microaggression is an interaction between those of different races, cultures, genders or sexual orientations, which can be interpreted as small acts of mostly non-physical aggression. The term was coined in 1970 by Chester Pierce, a noted psychiatry professor.
“Misgendering me is a microaggression, like casually being cissexist or casually not including agender individuals, casually saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’” Qu’emi said. “Cissexism” is where non-trans (cisgender) people consider themselves superior to trans people. “I guess I don’t have to listen because you’re not addressing me. It usually comes exclusively from people, from individuals, and 98 percent of the time it’s done without people knowing they’re doing it.”
People like Stanfield don’t feel comfortable using “they” outside of a safe setting.
“My pronoun preference and gender identity aren’t considered to be a serious option,” Stanfield said. “Like something only someone in a liberal arts college would come up with.”
“They” still remains the only comfortable option for those who choose to identify with it.
“I’m gender fluid,” Collins said. “People can call me ‘she’ or ‘he’ and that’s fine, but I think ‘they’ is a good default for me. Most of the time I feel kind of gender neutral, and if people don’t know how I’m feeling that day, then ‘they’ is the best pronoun to go with.”
“They” offers people a chance to define themselves how they choose.
“I’m just in a place where I want to feel safe and loved and have a gender that just doesn’t feel that it’s giving anyone false information, because I really like my body, and my way in the world is in a transition place,” said Megan Rohrer, a 33-year-old transgender pastor. “’They’ accomplishes that in a way that ‘he’ or ‘she’, which tend to tip towards one side of the binary, don’t.”
Those interviewed agreed that education and public attention can bring more acceptance.
“As long as it’s controversial and media is talking about it, the more people are going to learn,” Rohrer said. “If there’s not a way to educate a lot of people across different cultures, there’s not a way for me to find true acceptance. As long as there’s controversy, people become more comfortable just through talking about it. If their first reaction was ‘I’m upset,’ their third reaction would be, ‘Oh, I heard that,’ and their third reaction would be more tolerant and accepting.”
As Stanfield puts it: “Even if it wasn’t grammatically correct, why does it matter?”