Commentary

My sister wants to be called ‘they’ (singular)

There’s a lot more to today’s pronoun of choice than we know

My 66-year-old mother recently sent a text message to my sister’s boyfriend: “Please, ask her to call me,” she pleaded, sans any emojis, like any well-meaning parent would do when she hasn’t heard a reply from her daughter.

To which the boyfriend replied, “No, they already said they don’t feel comfortable talking.” My mother was puzzled. She continued to read the text message, but slower this time: “When they feel ready to talk with you, they will.”

Frantic, my mother flooded my Messenger. She assumed my sister had multiple personalities. Imagine my mother’s confusion—and frustration. “They” (the term) didn’t sit well with her, never mind my sister’s lack of response to her messages.

This is what happens when your mother is a boomer and you’re from Gen Y, struggling in between her and your dear sister from Gen Z. It can really be frustrating for my mother to understand, and I don’t think my sister is ready to explain in person why she prefers to be “they” any time soon. They will send a message or a GIF the day they decide—or when Mercury is no longer in retrograde, whichever comes first.

Admitting defeat, I had to Google, lest I be politically incorrect. With all these (new/old/made new) labels, I am stereotypically lost, too.

This old-school personal pronoun actually made it as Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019. Woke individuals are now using “they” as a singular pronoun, and you might have noticed this written on purpose on social media bios.

I stumbled across this word in LinkedIn, when a fast-growing start-up company posted on its recruitment page that it was hiring candidates, specifically “they/he/she.” The message was loud and clear: the company wanted to be gender inclusive.

In LinkedIn, a fast-growing start-up was hiring candidates, specifically ‘they/he/she’

“They” are no longer uniquely attached to the LGBT+ community. “They” apply to everyone and anyone who is gender-neutral, individuals who do not fit into a strictly male or female category. They say the English language was majorly lacking a gender-neutral singular pronoun to define the concept of gender inclusion. We can’t compartmentalize people in gender groups anymore. So, the common use of “they” was inevitable.

Medical News Today, in its newsletter dated February 2021, cautions us never to assume any person’s gender or gender pronoun. “Using the wrong pronoun can be offensive or even harmful,” it said.

“Ignoring a person’s pronouns can also imply that people who are under the transgender umbrella—such as those who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming—do not exist.” In truth, we all just want to be accepted for who we are.

Facebook was ahead of the curve. In 2014, it allowed its users to pick a customizable gender option on their profiles. Just this year, Instagram let its users add pronouns to the profile.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act in America in April 2019, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal revealed that her child is gender non-conforming, and uses “they.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris changed her Twitter bio on the day she was elected, which included her chosen gender pronouns. It was said to be an act of solidarity for gender non-conforming individuals.

Six states in the US allowed parents the option to label gender as “X” on birth certificates

Six states in the US— California, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington—first allowed parents the option to label gender as “X” on birth certificates. The cities of New York and Washington, D.C. followed suit.

The American Psychological Association officially recognized the need to use the singular “they” in professional writing and supports the essence of what it means, especially when referring to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers the pronoun “they.”

A growing number of celebrities and famous people have decided to change their pronouns “officially” (meaning, via social media), proudly sharing how they finally broke free of their life-long battle with the gender mold.  For instance, Demi Lovato felt “so fluid now” coming out as a pansexual. UK singer Sam Smith urged followers to use the they/them pronoun in 2019. Miley Cyrus has been advocating gender spectrum acceptance since 2015, and admitted being gender-fluid. This is not just a fad nor a drill; to most, it means liberation and acceptance.

But not everyone sees this through rose-tinted glasses. The New York Times ran a story this November: “In a Nonbinary Pronoun, France Sees a US Attack on the Republic.” For the very first time, Le Robert, a French dictionary, added “liel,” the gender-nonspecific pronoun, and it provoked serious debate in the country. Meanwhile, the French government is greatly opposed to the idea and does not support its usage in schools, as it would destroy French values.

Adopting this new pronoun usage may be quite confusing and messy at some point—what gives, right? It can make any grammar Nazis uncomfortable, or leave their knees trembling. Our friendly neighbor Tita Maritess, er, Merriam Webster offers help: “They always goes with a plural verb, even when they is referring to a single person.”

My husband and I are mindful of what we expose our child to, like activities that cross gender lines, or even choices of toys and clothing

Although my sister is decades younger than me, I have been shamefully schooled by them. This realization has influenced my parenting style with our four-year-old, teaching me how to raise a gender-neutral kid at home. It is a constant battle, still. But now that it is in our consciousness, my husband and I are mindful of what we expose our child to, like activities that cross gender lines, or even choices of toys and clothing. We let our child decide as much as possible, and just be.

As for my mother, with her heart of gold, although using the term may seem challenging, she will be very accepting of they—as always—for love, obviously, as well as for peace and neutrality on the home front.

About author

Articles

Stefanie C. Rostoll is a former magazine editor, lifestyle newspaper writer, and co-author of a series of style books; turned entrepreneur. She lives with her husband and daughter, savoring life in the sunny side of Spain.

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