Further Notes on Calling Binary-Identified People “They”

There’s a minor addendum I’ve been meaning to make to my post on whether referring to a binary (i.e. male or female) person as “they” constitutes misgendering that person. The short version: No. It isn’t.

There is an important clarification that I need to make here, though. Because, while calling someone “they” is simply a case of avoiding gendering them, and thus can’t possibly be misgendering them, it can definitely still be a form of oppression and a microaggression against that person.

bus_stopPeople tend to be pretty attached to their gender identity, and refusing to acknowledge that aspect of who they are can definitely be a damaging and mean-spirited thing to do. In the extreme, the insistence on referring to all people as “they” all the time is tantamount to trying to use “color-blindness” as an approach to anti-racism. A person’s gender, like their race, (and their class, and their sexual orientation, and many other things) is a part of who they are, and it has shaped their life experiences, and the ways in which they can and do navigate the world, and to erase such essential parts of people’s personal narratives is not in any way ok.

What I had intended to address in the original post was more the concern people have about continuing to use the singular “they” in its more traditional sense, to refer to people when we don’t know their gender. An example of this would be if someone says something to you about their doctor, and you want to ask whether she/he (but you don’t know which) is accepting patients, or whatever else. Actually stepping out of the conversation in order to as k about the doctor’s gender simply to be able to form that sentence seems a little silly, and might make it seem like your curiosity about them was dependent on their gender. Easier then, to go with “they”. And also, not a case of misgendering, not a refusal to acknowledge gender, so long as once your friend says “Oh, I don’t know if he/she is or not,” you switch to using the pronouns your friend did.

I do sometimes also advocate the use of the singular “they” when talking about people whose gender we do know, though. This is the example I talked about in the original post, where when I am relating a story in which the gender of the person I’m talking about is simply not relevant, and if I’m concerned that revealing it will colour the response of whomever I’m talking to. People tend to respond differently to the same behaviours in men and women, and if I’m telling a story about some asshole customer, I don’t want other people’s responses to that story to be coloured by sexism, so I might prefer not to give them the opportunity to view the story through that lens.

This is, of course, a relatively low-stakes example. However, I would be interested to see what would happen if, for instance, HR departments started enacting policies to discuss job interviews with each other in gender neutral terms, thus getting less biased input on interviewees behaviours.

The other case when it can be important to use non-gendered pronouns for binary people can be simply for the purposes of protecting identity. Using “they” instead of “she” or “he” increases the pool of people about whom you might be speaking, and further obscures the identity of the person you are talking about. This can be especially important in contexts where there is a very unequal distribution of male and female people. In my department at work, for instance, there are 30+ women, and less than 5 men, so if I were to tell a story about an unidentified employee, and identify that person as “he”, it might be all too easy for someone to figure out who I had been talking about.

TL;DR: I stand by the use of “they” to refer to individual men or women in some cases. But I also want to add that refusing to acknowledge a person’s gender ever is a fucked up thing to do, y’all. And I am aware of that, even if my initial post did not make that entirely clear.

One comment

  1. I agree with the entirety of this post and the one before it. Calling someone singular they when it’s clear what gender they are (generally through asking) is highly offensive, but using singular they when genuinely unsure of someone’s gender (especially for genderqueer people) is actually preferable to being misgendered. This goes as much for me as a cisgendered male as it must for trans people.

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