Photo of Michael Baran, Ph.D.
The context

More and more people identify as gender nonbinary and/or nonconforming using they/them/their pronouns.

The puzzle

Generally accepting, well-meaning people often resist using they/them/their pronouns. They often say it’s because of grammar. Is it?

At the end-of-the-year banquet for my kids’ swim team, the organizers buy really good fried chicken (at least it’s good for where we live in Maryland).

As we all sat there eating our fried chicken, the swim team coaches gave out special recognitions for some of the children who had excelled. There were more than a hundred kids on the team, so it was taking a while. We were on to dessert. Then the final two awards came up. These were going to be given to the swimmers who had not just excelled in their races, but who had demonstrated sportsmanship, kindness, and generosity. No one knew who it was going to be. When the two coaches got up and started describing the awardees, I was blown away! (Not because they announced my children as the winners; my children are great but don’t regularly win swimming awards). I was blown away at their use of gender pronouns.

Why was I so surprised?
To explain that, we need to back up. For the months leading up to the banquet, I had been co-writing a book with a friend and fellow diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner, Dr. Tiffany Jana. Tiffany and I hit it off right away when we met some years before, when I knew Tiffany as a Black woman using she/her pronouns. But about a year ago, Tiffany came out as gender nonbinary, using they/them pronouns. They were the first person I had a personal connection to who used they/them pronouns. And there were many occasions when it came up in my casual conversation, as people asked me about the book and how it was going and who I was writing it with.

I learned four things that I wanted to share with you.

First, I found that I just messed up a lot. I said “she” and “her” often. It just slipped out. But then I started catching myself more and more. The “she” or “her” might slip out, but I’d quickly correct my mistake. I just practiced a lot and got better and better. I trained my brain.

Second, I noticed that in addition to using they/them correctly, I would often have to clarify to other people that I was going to use they/them to refer to Tiffany so that people didn’t get confused. That brought up all sorts of conversations, many of which really surprised me. I figured most people in my circle of family and friends would be fine with gender nonbinary identity. I figured I’d say, “I’m going to use they/them to refer to Tiffany because that’s how they identify,” and people would say, “Ok, cool.” Not so.

Even well-meaning and generally accepting friends would often start to argue with me about this. Their arguments were often about grammar itself. They’d say things like, “I don’t care what people want to do or how they want to feel, but it doesn’t make any sense to use a plural pronoun for just one person.” Or they’d say, “No, that just doesn’t grammatically make sense. I can’t do it.” Things occasionally got heated.

Third, there were people who accepted the premise, but who pretty much kept using she/her pronouns anyway. They didn’t really try to correct it. I’d quietly say “they” as they spoke. And they’d ignore me. Although Tiffany wasn’t even around to be offended, I was upset that they were disrespecting the identity of my friend and colleague.

And finally, there were others who accepted the premise and used they/them in the conversation. But when they would do it, they would give a little pause before they did, or a little eye roll, or a slight inflection in their voice. It was if they were implicitly communicating to me that “this is not normal.” It was fascinating, perplexing, and disturbing.

Of all the people I talked with, it was rare that people would just use the they/them normally. It started to make me think that maybe the grammar really was too complicated for people to master. I started to worry.

That brings us back to the swim banquet and the final two awards. As one of the coaches started describing the first winner, he wanted to keep the identity of the swimmer hidden as a surprise until the very last second. He even wanted to keep the gender of the winner a surprise. So he said things like, “They beat their personal best by almost 30 seconds. They took first place in the 50-meter butterfly every race. They were a great influence around the pool, always smiling and always helping out. They helped out with the little kids even at the expense of their own practice.”

This coach had just used they/them pronouns to describe an individual completely naturally without a single hiccup, eye roll, or hesitation. It blew me away because it was so easy. “Maybe he’s just really good at it,” I thought. But then when the second coach gave the second award, she did exactly the same thing. So easily!

At that moment, it became pretty clear that even though people are comfortable saying that their issue with they/them is the grammar, there’s probably something deeper in that resistance. Our brains can handle the grammar. And with some practice, some deep conversations, some cultural shifts, and some personal work, we can do better at accepting these nonbinary, nonconforming identities too.

How we can do better

[1] If you’re going to try to use they/them pronouns, just do it naturally and normally, like you would any other pronoun. Any extra non-verbal communication is telling people something like “I don’t agree with this,” or “This is making me uncomfortable,” or “This is not normal.” Just don’t do that.

[2] If you’re worried people won’t understand you when you’re using they/them pronouns, just give them a heads-up at the start of the conversation. “Hey, when I mention Tiffany, I’m going to be using they/them pronouns because that’s how they identify.” And then continue on.

[3] If people tell you it doesn’t make sense grammatically, you can tell them that the Merriam-Webster dictionary added a definition of “they” as a nonbinary gender pronoun just this past month. And Merriam-Webster notes that the singular usage of they has been around since the 1300s.

[4] If you don’t identify with “they” pronouns, you can still speak up when someone gets it wrong. When done kindly, that’s good ally behavior.

[5] If you find yourself uncomfortable with the pronoun because of the gender worldview it represents, remember that you don’t have to change your whole belief system to call people what they want to be called. That’s just kindness. Do that first and then you can do some work on your own to figure out your discomfort.

[6] People have thought long and hard about their pronouns. It matters deeply to them. Don’t debate for fun with them. Don’t play “devil’s advocate.”

[7] You don’t have to get it right all the time. You just have to commit to trying. And when you mess up (which you will!), just try to get it right the next time. Don’t overly apologize and make the other person take care of your feelings.

We can do better at gender pronouns. Let’s try.

The We Can Do Better newsletter is written by Dr. Michael D. Baran, Senior Partner and Digital Solutions Lead at inQUEST. With this newsletter, Michael explores thorny DEI issues and provides some concrete and practical tips for how we can all do better—at work and beyond.

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