When I was in school and even early on in my career as a technical writer, using they as a singular pronoun meant being tied to the rack or put in the stocks until you chose he or she instead. As a result, my brain was conditioned to think in a horribly binary way. Many cisgender people around my age or older were taught these things. (Cisgender means you identify as the gender some random doctor assigned you at birth.)
Fast forward to today. Today is better. That’s why I’ve fast-forwarded here. Now I understand the world is filled with all sorts of people made in all sorts of wonderful ways. There is no strict binary in the human race; gender is actually a spectrum. Our planet also has people who are gender-fluid, non-binary, or agender. These folks can use some super cool pronouns, too, like xie/xir/xem or zie/zir/zirs/zirself (there are even more than these!). Many people also use they/them in the singular form.
How hard is it for cis folks to get used to a singular they?
In my book, Life in the ‘Cosm, there is a race of people who generally celebrate the vast spectrum of gender, without focusing on it to the point of discrimination. (It’s a dream of mine to live in a world where we appreciate each other for who we are, sans prejudice based on gender.) The name if this race is the Oanyee, which is based on the Polish word, oni, meaning, they. In ‘Cosm we meet a spaceship captain named Ash Hearth, who is an Oanyee. Whenever I write a pronoun for Ash, it’s they or them or their.
So, how hard is it to get used to using they for a single person? Well, my 70something mother said to me, “At first I had difficulty with the they pronoun but in no time I knew it meant Ash!”
In no time. That’s pretty much how long it takes to get used to calling people by the correct pronoun, according to Ma. 😀
My personal experience
While I was writing the first draft of ‘Cosm, a dear friend came out as gender-fluid. Which kinda irked me because I thought I’d invented gender-fluidity. (Oh, Cait, you’re cute, but so stoopid at times.) My friend changed their pronouns to they/them/their. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing several other lovely peeps in my life who are also non-binary. They/them/their happen to be their pronouns, too.
So, I use those pronouns when addressing or referring to them. Do I ever slip? Yes, yes, I do. And not out of malice, but from being overly-conditioned to think in a binary fashion. The key is that I don’t freak out when I do make a mistake, because creating a scene of hysterical apologies is even worse for the other person. I just continue on using the correct pronoun and do my best to treat people with dignity and kindness.
The trick to getting the pronouns correct?
My BFF The Brain taught me, “Practice, practice, practice.” And that’s what I do. I slow down my thought process to remember use the correct pronoun. To me, using the right pronoun is like wanting to pronounce someone’s name properly. It’s a respect thing.
Let’s give people the R-E-S-P-E-C-T they deserve. And if you didn’t sing those letters out in your head, I don’t want to know you. (Just kidding, you’re lovely.)
Cait Gordon is the author of Life in the ’Cosm, published by Renaissance Press. Available now!