Gender these days weighs heavy on most people’s minds—or at least, those of us with any kind of cultural sensitivity and human decency.
By and large, we are coming to terms with non-binary and gender non-conforming identities. In 2019, ‘They’ was even declared the Word Of The Year by Merriam-Webster. The fact that a nearly 200 year old dictionary, guarder of the American English language, updated their books to include a definition for the singular, nonbinary is pretty radical. But it just goes to show: language adapts with the times. Always has. Always will.
For many though, even as the heart is willing, the tongue remains tied. Turns out, humans aren’t the best at overriding years of elementary English education that drilled a plural ‘they’ into our brains. Take it from this Wired author, Virginia Heffernan, who wrote about her struggles to adapt to the singular ‘they’.
Cognition is fundamentally conservative. Our better angels may want us to charge into the future.... to respond to newness with alacrity. But old brains balk at new tricks.
Change takes time, be kind
Of course, change takes time. But there is a pressing, palpating fear for the majority of us in misgendering another—that we may be perceived as being disrespectful or unaware.
As Heffernan writes, "For me, I’d become ashamed by my inability to adapt to new grammar. If I didn’t learn it, my failure would soon exact social costs, registering as unintended disrespect—or worse, bigotry."
Her alarm is not a far cry. Indeed, misgendering—that is, addressing someone by the incorrect pronoun—is considered a form of microaggression. That is to say, a subtle form of discrimination. As these self-identifying queer, nonwhite, non-American, bicultural, trans people explain in a Scientific American op-ed,
The act of misgendering denies the gendered and human legitimacy of trans people, and causes significant negative psychological effects, including reduced sense of self-worth, anxiety, depression and a feeling of hypervigilance and surveillance.
So, the pressure to adapt is real. No one wants to be the micro-aggressor who has failed to evolve with the times. No one.
How to evolve and adapt
Now the good news is that if you’re still tongue-tied with ye olde English of a bygone era that inadvertently taught us identity was singular, instead of containing multitudes, consider this: you are more than welcome to come up with your own term for the non-gendered singular.
Seriously. Turns out humans make up words all the time. And we’ve done it in the past exactly in search of a gender-neutral term. For instance, in 1930, A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, came up with their own term heesh as a gender-neutral word meaning both ‘he’ and ‘she’.
Recently, you might have also come across ze/zir pronouns, which are used much like they/them. There’s a whole bunch of other gender-neutral pronouns springing up in our lexicon, so find the one that suits you, make up your own if not, or do something radical and simply ask others, respectfully, how they would like to be referred to.
In the end, even while it may feel like you are failing to keep up with ever-evolving identity politics, there is something undeniably exhilarating in also being able to bear witness to this evolution. In their TED Talk, sociolinguist Archie Crowley put it perfectly. And it is with these words we shall leave you with… for now.
Pronouns have changed. Our grammar rules do change. … And we’re living through one of these shifts right now.
Oh, to be on the cusp of history in flux!
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