When NOT to Use Singular They

When NOT to Use Singular They

Something I occasionally see is cis people using the singular “they” to avoid correctly gendering binary trans people. And that’s not okay.

Singular “they” is a valid, grammatically correct pronoun to use for non-binary individuals who want to be called that. People who use they/them pronouns are usually people who don’t identify as men or as women, and who want their gender to be noted when other people refer to them with pronouns.

What does that look like?

If I have non-binary friends who uses they/them pronouns, I might say things like, “Asher’s coming over for dinner tonight. They’re a vegetarian, so I’ll be making vegan chili again,” or “Hey, is Sam in town? I haven’t see them in forever!” or “Alisha wanted to ask if they could borrow your pink skirt tomorrow. Do you mind if they do?”

If you know anyone who uses they/them pronouns, it’s absolutely great of you to use that language when referring to them, in order to correctly and appropriately refrain from misgendering them as a man or a woman.

What I do see sometimes, though, is folks coming out as *binary* trans, and having people use they/them pronouns to avoid having to use a binary pronoun to refer to that person.

What does that look like?

A cis person calling a trans person “they” instead of he or she. So calling a trans woman “them” instead of “her” or calling a trans man “they” instead of “he”.

Why do people do this?

They do it because they don’t feel ready to make the transition FROM calling someone by the pronouns they used to call them TO the pronouns they now use, as they publicly transition to a different gender. The cis people who do this feel as if using non-binary pronouns is an acceptable middle ground, a way that they can respectfully avoid calling a trans person by their old pronouns, while still not having to make the personal leap to using a new set of gendered pronouns.

The problem with doing this is that you are still misgendering a trans person when you don’t use their correct pronouns. Avoiding midgendering someone isn’t just avoiding the pronouns they used to use, it’s also using the pronouns that they do use! Non-binary genders are still a gender (usually, agender people aside), and when you use non-binary pronouns to refer to binary trans people, you’re not using their correct pronouns.

This is similar to when people just entirely refuse to use pronouns altogether when talking about a transgender person. Only using their names, never a pronoun at all. This isn’t misgendering someone exactly, but it does avoid affirming their gender, and means that it will take longer to get used to using someone’s appropriate and correct pronouns.

I see that one a LOT, even more often than using gender neutral pronouns. “Have you seen Lila recently? Lila came over, and Lila asked if Lila could borrow some eggs for brownies.” It technically avoids misgendering someone, but it completely backs out of affirming someone’s gender, and your support of their gender.

If someone you know comes out as transgender, you have to put in the extra work, even if it’s hard. You have to make the conscious effort to use their correct and affirming pronouns until you make the mental switch and it’s not hard work anymore, just how you naturally think of that friend. Try talking about them to yourself when you’re alone. “I saw Lila today. He came over and asked for some advice. I talked to him. He talked to me. I ate lunch with him.”

You’ll get it if you try, and you do need to try.

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