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Is ‘They’ insane? The awkwardness of using plural pronouns to address one person

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I am about to pitch a fit, but before I do, let me tell you what kind of hissy I am. I am a transgender woman – out for about two years – and of “seasoned years.” And, you need to know, I do not “pass.” I dress modestly and appropriately, but no one will be misled into thinking I was born with a vagina.

Now…my fit:

A few weeks ago, I was having drinks in a gay bar with a couple of transgender female friends, when one of them (“Cindy”) proudly announced she was getting married! Cindy went on to explain that her future spouse (“Alex”) is “gender-fluid.” Then, Cindy ominously informed us that “Alex uses the pronoun ‘they.’”

Now, I had read of this happening, but I had never had to confront it upon so personal a level. Cindy plainly wanted to tell us all about Alex, and how happy the two of them were, and no doubt she expected us to ask questions about Alex and join in her happy excitement over her impending nuptials.

However, this is not what happened. I sat there stunned and tongue-tied. I could not open my mouth. Now, I am no stranger to shifting pronouns. Mine have changed, and I have learned to be lenient and forgiving when talking to others for whom unexpected pronouns is something new and challenging.

But I had never experienced this!

This was … not just a change of “gender” in the grammatical sense, but a change of “number.” When I went from “John” to “Holly,” I changed the gender of my pronouns, yes. Alex, however, had changed both “gender” and “number.” (From “male” (I assume) to “indeterminate,” and from “singular” to “plural.”)
I found this change befuddling.

I could make the “gender” change in conversation, but the change in “number” absolutely stymied me. My brain would not let me try to speak. I wanted to, but I was so afraid of using the wrong pronoun that I just clammed up.

And not only did I fall silent, but my other friends in the bar were equally speechless. After a few moments of awkward silence, we all moved on to another subject and left Alex (and Cindy’s happiness) behind.

Why do I care? Because multiple times over the past few months, I have had people (non-LGBT people) ask me, “Are you like Caitlyn Jenner?” Because whatever you may think of Caitlyn, it is undeniable that she has raised the profile of “transgender” in the public consciousness.

So when I meet people who are unfamiliar with transgender women, they often ask me about myself and my history. Because they are not likely to ever meet Caitlyn, but they can (and do) meet me.

So what do I do when someone asks about me? Well, I make a special point of being open and friendly.

I do my best to put that person at ease, and I try to explain what I can about being transgender. And if that other person uses the wrong pronoun, I give them a pass and ignore their mistake. Because my goal is for that person to conclude, “Wow, she was nice! Friendly and caring and seemed like a reasonable person. Nothing crazy or weird about her.”

Because right now, this is what we transgender women need: Understanding and acceptance. We are a tiny minority in this country, and there are way too many people out there telling lies about us and trying to whip up hatred against us. So, we need to seize every possible opportunity to show the world that we (in most respects) are no different from anyone else (and can be trusted to use the ladies room).

But if my “gender-fluid” and “gender non-conforming” compatriots are going to run around trying to impose unnatural, ungrammatical pronouns on the people they meet, we will never gain the acceptance we desire.

Acting like a “Pronoun Nazi” is not going to win us any friends, nor will it build any bridges to the great majority of Americans who have never met a transgender (much less “gender-indeterminate”) person. It is in our interest – and in the interest of LGBT people, generally – to encourage conversation across that “gender gap.”

Now coming to the end of my fit, I say: Insisting upon the use of grammatically-inappropriate pronouns is just going to alienate the very people we need to win over. We should be encouraging communication, not needlessly interposing barriers that shut it down.

Holly Maholm is a transgender woman living in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of a recently-published book Brave in Ribbons (November, 2015) which features a transgender woman who faces hardship in her life. Other articles by Holly can be found at www.HollyMaholm.com.

She lives in Cleveland, OH and is an active member of the local LGBTQ community.

For more information please visit www.hollymaholm.com

Brave in Ribbons is available on Amazon.

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