Getting To Grips With The Gender Politics Of 'They'

If someone's at the door, we ask them what they want. If we're asked where a person is, we say they went that way. We've been using 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she' in speech all our lives. So why when a person identifies as non-binary gendered, meaning that they don’t feel either male or female, and would rather go by ‘they’ than ‘he’ or ‘she’, does this cause us problems? The answer is that it shouldn't.

Tony Thorne, language consultant at King's College London, says this usage is deeply rooted in old English. Just look at Chaucer's Canterbury Tales c.1400: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up...”

"Using 'they' as a neutral pronoun is very old in the English language, Chaucer did it a lot," says Thorne. "There are a lot of grammar pedants out there saying it's wrong, but this is nonsense, we've always done this. Using 'they' as a gender neutral for a singular is standard practice."
Jo Hauge, 26 from London, started using 'they' about a year ago and has faced some resistance. "My family members don't use my pronouns, but pretty much all my friends do," they said. "A lot of friends try to get it right and mess it up. That's okay, though, it's different from parents who won't do it. They've never done it. They say 'we know you, we made you, we have a say in how we refer to you'. I think having your parents reject your pronouns isn't the worst reaction – I know people who've been kicked out and cut off entirely – but it's not ideal."

One problem is that because of the way language has evolved, remembering to say 'they' doesn't always come easy. Jenny Walsh, 29 from London, says she struggles to refer to her friend that is transitioning from female to male in this way, especially when she is not in their company. "I have to say I find it really difficult to get it right when I'm not with them. Like saying 'they went to the cinema' when you're referring to just the one person doesn't come naturally, but it's disrespectful if you forget to do it," she says.

Language changes can take time to get used to. But now more than ever, people are embracing and exploring the issue of identity and previously unheard of terms are becoming mainstream. In San Francisco, some newspapers are making it standard practice to ask people whether they want to be referred to as 'he', 'she' or 'they' in an article. Meanwhile in Sweden, the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ was recently entered into the dictionary.

In the UK, five or six years ago, gender fluidity wasn't a word that most people understood, but its use has come on really fast. Laura Marshall, who is currently working on a PhD at UCL researching gender diversity in the UK and another project on LGBTQI nightlife, says her research has found that an "increasing number of non-binary people are using them/they pronouns" when asked to define their gender identity in surveys or official documents and "people are increasingly giving wide-ranging answers including various non-binary identities."
This is progress, says Hauge, who thinks the more people that use the term, the better. "Some people think you're doing it because you think you're special, or doing it because it's cool and trendy, but that isn't the case. Non binary people have existed for a millennia, but there's no point using these terms if no one gets it."

Unlike other gender neutral words that have been touted in the past, such as 'xe', 'zhi' and 'xhi', 'they' is a word that already exists. In some ways this makes it easier to incorporate into speech but it also means it's a word that people feel they have ownership of. "It's fine for right on liberals and progressive young people to get it right, but it's going to take a while for grannies to get on top of it," says Thorne.

Marshall agrees, adding that the origins of these terms often emerge from activism and within the communities that they are intended to serve, and so they can take a while to catch on more widely.

Ultimately though, language is about respect. Words can and have changed over time. ‘You’ began its life as plural (the singular second person was ‘thou’). Then ‘you’ began serving as singular as well. Today we use ‘you’ to refer to one person – ‘Are you talkin’ to – without worrying about number.

Similarly, 'Ms' went mainstream way back in the '70s when women started to insist that they didn't want to have their title defined by their marital status. The phenomenon came from the U.S. and its use took a while to be accepted as it was something unfamiliar that didn't sound familiar.

Hague is optimistic that society will adapt. "I feel like there's more information out there and more examples of it happening and there are less challenges than when I was growing up," they said. "Above all, though, it's about understanding that gender isn't binary – 'oh, you're really a girl or you're really a boy'. I'm not really anything. It's complex."