The Fault Is in Our Grammars: Language, Gender, and Pronouns

Dictionary entry for "they"

To say that our cultural consciousness on matters of gender identity is rapidly evolving is an understatement. In a few short years, our awareness as a culture went from practically none to a kind of “how could you not know that?” state. Let me give you a quick illustration.

For many years, I had the privilege of working in a campus ministry context. The community I served was a community of students committed to sharing the radical, all-inclusive love of God with a broken world through acts of worship, devotion, service, hospitality, and especially social justice. Of the religious communities on campus, aside from the Unitarians, they were by far the most progressive.

Once, at a student leadership meeting in 2010, one of the students made an announcement about the men’s group breakfast the following weekend. “So, if you like Canadian bacon and don’t have a uterus, you’re welcome to come.” In three years’ time, in that same community—a community that would invite “all female and female-identifying persons” to attend women’s group meetings—this comment would have been viewed as terribly transphobic. But in 2010, no one even batted an eye—in the most progressive and social justice-conscious religious community on a very liberal campus.

The speed of this change means that a lot of people are still catching up to the understandings of gender and how it differs from sex and biology. But it also means that even for well-meaning older folks, there are different obstacles that are hard to eradicate in quick order.

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Singular “They” Is Not the End of the World

Dictionary entry for "they"

Pronouns have gotten a lot of attention lately, primarily because they have been brought to the forefront of efforts to create more inclusive language.

Those wishing to create welcoming spaces for transgender individuals will include their preferred pronouns when introducing themselves. “Hi, I’m Jamal, my pronouns are he/him,” someone might say. This is done to create a space where someone else might introduce themselves as “Jackie, pronouns they/them.”

I have written elsewhere that it can be hard for older English speakers to hear the word they as applying to a specific, defined individual. Nevertheless, the use of they to refer to a singular individual is nothing new—and nothing to fear.

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