It’s a concept that has emerged alongside the growing ranks of people embracing non-binary gender identities, be they genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, or bigender: referring to people with binary gender identities (i.e. women and men) as “they” constitutes misgendering them.
Or does it?
Let’s start by defining a couple of terms. Misgendering is a big problem for Trans* folks, and also for a lot of gender-bending cisgender people (think butch women, or femme men). When a trans woman (generally, a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as female) is called “he”, she is being misgendered. And when a femme man (someone who identifies as male, but who may dress or behave in ways normally associated with women) is called “she”, he is being misgendered. Sometimes misgendering is deliberate and malicious, and is intended as an insult (as when people refuse to refer to a trans person by their preferred pronouns, because they refuse to accept trans identities as “real”.) Other times it is a result of ignorance about that person’s identity, and can be an accident – someone might see a woman with a brush cut and believe that they are looking at a man, and call her “he”, but then feel bad about it when they realize they made a mistake, for instance. In any case, it can be an upsetting (or even just emotionally complicated) experience for the person being misgendered.
When non-binary identities and pronouns are added to the mix, things become more complicated. I’ve written before about how I get that it is unreasonable for me to expect random strangers on the street to see me, and think, “oh, this person isn’t a he or a she”. They are, ultimately, going to decide I belong in one box or the other. And the best I can hope for is that they have trouble making that call (as happens pretty frequently to me these days: I’ll get called “Buddy”, or “Sir”, or (squee!) “Boss”, followed immediately by an apology (which I generally just ignore) when I actually turn around and interact with the person in question, and they “realize” that I’m actually a woman, or something.)
Further yet, even if I’m in a context where a person might clock me as potentially non-binary, they can’t from that supposition then automatically know what pronoun to use, since there are so many non-binary pronouns out there.
Right, so: referring to someone who identifies as male as “she” is bad. Referring to someone who identifies as female as “he” is bad. Referring to people with non-binary identities as either “he” or “she” as also bad, though in all cases it’s only really bad if you are actually aware of the gender identity of the person to whom you are referring.
So, then, it seems to follow that referring to someone who identifies as either male or female as “they” is misgendering. Because “they” is a pronoun used to refer to (some) non-binary people.
But really, it isn’t that straight-forward. Or, at least, I don’t think so.
The difference, you see, hinges on the very construction (because all genders are really just social constructions, donchaknow) and meaning(s) of genderqueerness in the social context.
I’ve linked before to my favourite definition of genderqueer: “the radical notion that a gender identity can be articulated imprecisely enough that it discourages people from trying to police my gender.”
The thing is, to a great extent, genderqueerness is about defying definition of one’s gender. It’s about being deliberately imprecise. It’s about refusing to accept the existing gender definitions, certainly, but also in many ways about refusing to articulate a new one. It is, in the most direct and true definition of the term, about queering gender.
And I am talking here about the actual queer of queer theory, not the Queer that you hear so much about in the mainstream media, that really just means “short-hand for lesbian or gay or bisexual”. It’s about the queerness that refuses to identify with those existing categories, that resists the idea that those are even concrete concepts. It’s about the radical refusal to accept that one is even definable.
In fact, I really believe that this deliberate ambiguity is one of the reasons why “they” seems to be growing into the most popular of the non-binary pronouns. Linguistically, the precedent that allows for “they” to be used in the singular is in cases when one is referring to a “gender indeterminate” subject or object.
That is to say, grammatically speaking, they has a history of being used in the singular in very specific cases of talking about hypothetical people (who are by definition gender indeterminate, because they could be any gender). For example, one might say: “If a student [singular] requests an extension on their assignment, it should only be granted if they have a valid excuse.” Some people will tell you that this is not grammatically correct, but it is a form of language that has been used by many writers for many centuries, and it succinctly gets its meaning across (it’s certainly better than the awkward construction of “he or she”, which comes packaged with the problem always having to give precedence to one gender or another), so I don’t really see what point those people have in the end.
In this sort of construction, it is generally assumed that the hypothetical person (in this example, the “student”) in question has a gender, but that we simply don’t know it. And thus we refer to the student as “they” in order to avoid misgendering them.
Simply put, the act of referring to an individual person as “they”, at least historically, is about avoiding identifying their gender at all, not about applying an incorrect one. And I think that we can see that this meaning continues to hold even today, when people are actively requisitioning “they” as the appropriate pronoun to refer to their individual selves. And there are a couple of reasons why I believe this to be so.
First off, people still use “they” in the historical form I have here identified. In a conversation I had with my father this summer, we were discussing a young man who had fallen off of a float at the Toronto pride parade this year, and died. My father apparently didn’t catch the gender of the person who had died when it was mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, and thus when he asked for more information about what had happened, he simply referred to the person as ‘they,’ as in “But, how did they fall?”
Now, I am not out to my parents about my gender identity, and I don’t believe my father knows that there are people who identify as they; it was simply natural for him to conversationally fall back on the pronoun when he didn’t know the gender of the person he was talking about.
You actually see this in a lot of places. It’s still pretty common for people in same-gender relationships who are closeted abut it to play some kind of pronoun game when talking about their partners. What is worth pointing out about the pronoun game is that it often involves using really torturous sentence constructions in order to avoid identifying the gender of one’s partners. Really, if a closeted person wants to simplify things, all they (he or she?) have to do is go ahead and use different-sex pronouns for the person they are referring to (i.e. a closeted lesbian could simply refer to her girlfriend as “he” in order to avoid suspicion.) But most often, people feel intensely uncomfortable about doing that, and much prefer the twisty constructions of gender neutrality, and the use of “they”.
I hope the answer is obvious: calling one’s (for example) lesbian lover “he” would be a gross misgendering of that person, and doing so feels extremely disrespectful, even when it is not done in her presence. But calling her “they” does not carry the same taboo. And I really do think that this is because on a visceral level we (correctly) understand that referring to someone as “they” is nothing more than the deliberate act of eschewing their gender entirely. And as such, it cannot represent a mis-identification of their gender. It is a lack of identification, and nothing more.
And I don’t think that the fact that “they” has become a pronoun with which people actually identify themselves changes the fundamentally indeterminate nature of the pronoun. Because even if and when individual non-binary people experience their gender as a determinate, concrete thing (and I do believe that this experience is fairly rare), they must still contend with the fact that they are sharing their pronouns with a multitude of people of vastly differing identities, experiences, and genders. “They” does not carry any concrete information about a person’s gender. And that’s what many people like about it. For many people, that’s the whole entire fucking point of identifying that way in the first place. It’s a refusal to allow other people to identify us, because no matter how they try to do it, it’s going to be wrong.
Another way of putting this would be to say that when people do refer to me (and many other non-binary people) as “they”, they aren’t ‘correctly’ gendering me, since that would be impossible; they are simply avoiding misgendering me. For other people, “they” may be shorthand for their correct gender, but ultimately, the multiple genders that fit under the “they” umbrella means that the most meaning you can derive from it is “not explicitly identified as male or female”.
So, then, the TL;DR: “they” is a pronoun that represents gender indeterminacy, and as such it can perfectly comfortably accommodate various uses, including (but probably not limited to):
- Referring to people whose gender identity is actually indeterminate
- Referring to hypothetical people, who are by definition gender indeterminate
- Referring to people whose gender identity we don’t know
- Referring to people in contexts where, for whatever reason, we do not want to identify their gender, and prefer to leave it ambiguous (as with the pronoun game; but also I find that it can be an interesting experiment to try to remove one’s gendered language from everyday conversation – does it really matter whether that angry customer who ruined your day was male or female? Does it change or colour the story? Should it? I do think that a person’s gender is relevant to some stories, but it just as often isn’t.)
It’s the pronoun equivalent of referring to someone as a person, instead of as a man or a woman, ok? And calling someone a person doesn’t constitute misgendering, it constitutes not gendering. And that’s ok. It’s probably even a good thing sometimes.