Maybe it’s because it’s a four-letter word. All I know is that, for a pronoun, the word “they” can sure tick a lot of people off.
It has been downright fascinating to watch people from both ends of the political spectrum break down and start foaming at the mouth over the prospect of using “they” as a replacement for “he” or “she” for people who consider themselves to be gender non-binary.
What else are we going to call someone who doesn’t identify as a woman or man? Apparently not a plural pronoun.
Just consider the uproar over the case out of Berkeley, in which a University of California student, Pablo Gomez Jr., was accused of brutally stabbing an elementary school teacher to death. When Berkeleyside.com reported that Gomez preferred to be called “they” rather than “he,” an incensed mob descended on the tiny news site, overwhelming its servers. And that was before Breitbart got ahold of the story.
Then there was the backlash from multiple quarters over an announcement from the grammar gurus at the Associated Press. It’s now OK, they’ve decided, for journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun for people who identify as neither male nor female.
The reaction from some of my more seasoned colleagues ranged from a slightly hysterical “oh my god” to a calm, but firm, “No, we have to find another way.”
I get it. About six months ago, when my partner told me that a friend preferred to be called “they” instead of “she,” I shook my head and immediately climbed on my high horse. “Journalists,” I told her, “are never going to use the word ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. It’s too confusing.”
She smiled knowingly. “Yes, they will. It’s already mainstream.”
“No,” I shouted, “it’s not!”
Yeah, well, maybe it is. Apparently, The Washington Post has been using “they” as a gender neutral pronoun since 2015. Then there’s that gender non-binary character on the Showtime series “Billions” who prefers “they.”
It’s no wonder then that “they” has become a thing. But seriously, why all the sustained anger? It’s just a word, right?
I talked to my friend Jae Antonio, who prefers “they,” but usually goes by “she” in professional settings. “It’s easier and people just don’t get it,” Jae said. Jae gets regular pedicures and arched eyebrows, but only wears men’s clothing and sometimes feels more masculine. Why a pronoun is so hard for some people, they have no idea.
“People think I’m wishy-washy, but some days I’m like no. I just don’t like to be labeled. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s just one more sign that times are changing. That gender, once so certain, with blue clothes for boys and pink clothes for girls, not to mention gendered bathrooms, is no longer so simple.
To a lot of people gender means male and female. To others it includes sexual orientation and gender identity. To many younger people those social constructs are no longer adequate. A recent poll conducted for GLAAD’s annual “Accelerating Acceptance 2017” report bears that out.
When asked, 2 percent of millennials identified as pansexual — meaning not limited in sexual choice to biological sex, gender or gender identity — and 1 percent as unsure or questioning. That means that at least 3 percent of people ages 18 to 34 probably would prefer to be identified as “they,” not “he” or “she.”
About 6 percent said they identified as bisexual, 4 percent as asexual, 3 percent as strictly gay or lesbian, and 4 percent identified as both transgender and strictly heterosexual.
What’s more, the percentage of millennials who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer is much higher than other generations. A full 20 percent claim it. Compare that to 12 percent of 35- to 51-year-olds, 7 percent for 52- to 71-year-olds and 5 percent of those 72 and older.
But don’t clutch your pearls just yet. This doesn’t mean people are getting gayer, per se.
It just means that people are getting more comfortable with not putting themselves into society’s staid, old boxes, even as, conversely, more boxes are being created to put oneself into. Ahem, GLBTQIAA — gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual and allies.
But I digress.
These are mind-bending, gender-bending times and people are bound to be uncomfortable about it. But, like it or not, this is the future.
The Trump administration can’t stop it by refusing to measure sexual orientation and gender identity in the annual American Community Survey, a precursor to being part of the U.S. Census. And his administration can’t stop it by refusing to uphold the rights of transgender students in court, as evidenced by a federal court ruling out of Chicago last week that found LGBT employees are indeed protected from workplace discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
They are coming. As Jae put it: “You don’t have to understand it to be respectful of it.”
Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.