What are your preferred pronouns? This is a very modern question. Not so long ago, everyone was a he/him or a she/her. A character like Pat on the old Saturday Night Live skits who confounded people’s binary assumptions was a source for humor.
In today’s world many people, for many reasons, choose to use they/them pronouns. It can sound awkward at first, using they/them to refer to a single person, paired with a singular antecedent. While it might feel fairly normal to say something general like, “Each student should turn in their paper by Friday,” it’s more jarring to hear, “Chris would like to turn in their paper on Monday, instead.”
(For an excellent explanation of singular “they” and how it’s actually been a part of the English language for hundreds of years, I recommend listening to an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast called “The Rise of They.” And no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defends the practice with signature wit and style in their blog post “A Brief History of Singular They.”)
A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson is exactly what it sounds like. In graphic novel format, comics-artist Archie — who uses they/them pronouns in their real life — helps their cisgender friend Tristan (a storyteller for The Moth, among other things) understand the purposes and potential pitfalls of using people’s preferred pronouns. In comfortable, conversational style, the two authors walk readers through all the questions and confusion that might arise if a friend says they prefer to use they/them pronouns.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin features Riley, a gender fluid teen who creates a blog in the midst of facing struggles at a new school. Garvin largely avoids pronoun challenges by writing from Riley’s point of view in first person. In Every Day by David Levithan, in which a sixteen-year-old wakes up every day in the body of a different person, the main character known simply as “A” uses masculine or feminine pronouns depending on the body A inhabits that day. The lead character Sal in the fantasy novel Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller is genderfluid and expects people to use the pronouns that match Sal’s presentation from day to day.
These are smart work-arounds for an author, and also represent real pronoun choices for some people. But increasingly, people are choosing to use they/them pronouns for a variety of reasons and it’s important to adjust our ears and expectations accordingly. We shouldn’t have to manipulate our language to avoid pronouns just because someone doesn’t easily fit our standard choices. (If you like, you can explore gender-neutral options like ze/hir or e/em/eir.)
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a Stonewall-winning non-fiction book about a horrible event on a city bus in Oakland in 2013. Sasha, a gender-nonconforming teen, had their skirt set on fire while sleeping on the bus and suffered severe burns. In short easy-to-read chapters, the book tells the compelling story of Sasha and also of Richard, the boy with the lighter.
Aside from being a fascinating read, The 57 Bus also provides a thorough education on current terminology. This book helped me adjust to they and them as singular pronouns, while also expanding my understanding of identities such as genderfluid, cisgender, nonbinary (enby), biromantic, genderqueer, pansexual, and so many others.
I’m no expert (and this post is already running long) so I’m not going to attempt to explain or define all of these terms. There are plenty of good resources just an Internet search away — or starting on page 32 of The 57 Bus. And in today’s world, it makes sense to be up on the latest lingo. Here are just a few examples that are in common use today:
- Cis is a prefix signifying that your gender identity matches your physical gender assigned at birth. You could think of it as the opposite of trans.
- Some people feel they aren’t sexual at all and use Ace as shorthand for asexual.
- Younger people, if they find themselves attracted to different genders, are less likely to say they’re bi (because it plays into the notion of gender as binary) and more inclined to say they’re pansexual — attracted to all gender identities.
In the book Ship It by Britta Lundin (see QUILTBAG #3 – Cons, Ships, and Fics), Tess says she’s a homoromantic pansexual. Thanks to my reading of The 57 Bus, I knew just what she was talking about, and it made total sense in the context of the story.
We live in rapidly changing times regarding how society views sexuality and gender, and books for young people are reflecting and leading these changes. I encourage you to delve into any of these books or the many others that shed light on this topic. If you have a gender nonconforming friend, co-worker, or student, they will thank you for it.