From the moment a doctor told your parents what biological sex you are until right now, you have lived an extremely gendered life, and you most likely never challenged the boxes you were placed into.
But some people challenge those boxes daily.
If the term “gender fluidity” is new to you, congratulations — you’re not alone. Society is ever-changing, and so is language. But we have to adapt because gender is so evident in every part of our world, and respecting people by the way you talk to and about them is crucial.
When someone is gender fluid, their gender expression can shift between masculine and feminine, CNN reported in 2016. People who are gender fluid often use the pronoun “they” to identify themselves.
The American Dialect Society selected the pronoun “they” as its Word Of The Year for 2015 and defined it as a “gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier.”
“‘They’ is getting used as a pronoun that people take for themselves to express gender fluidity or transgender identity,” sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, the chairperson of the annual vote, told TIME in January 2016. “That’s relatively new or at least new in the public eye.”
Adopting gender-neutral words like ‘they’ makes it a more comfortable world for those around you who don’t fit into the gendered boxes they were placed in at birth.
Sydney Fowlkes, a junior journalism major and member of Pitch, Please, Temple University’s LGBTQ advocacy a cappella group, said she knows people who use they/them pronouns and while she adapted easily, she catches herself forgetting sometimes.
“I always correct myself though, whether in the presence of the person or not,” Fowlkes said.
It can be frustrating and even hurtful when you call someone by a pronoun they don’t identify as. The least we can all do for each other is be mindful.
Hayley Goddard, a freshman architecture major who identifies as queer, said — like our gendered way of speaking — the world is full of strict gender norms.
“We have different bathrooms, different clothing sections, different outfits on wedding days, different colors for gendered babies, different job expectations and different life expectations,” Goddard said. “Gender is everywhere.”
She can’t imagine a world where “people can just be people without everyone else telling them who they should be,” she said.
And in a world where everyone tells us who to be, let’s treat individuals with respect by listening when they tell you who they are.
While using agender pronouns may be relatively “new” to the mainstream, gender-neutral language is certainly not new and neither are non-binary identities. People have been defying the gender binary throughout history.
You may have even used the singular “they” without noticing. If you found a wallet in a coffee shop, you would probably tell an employee by saying, “Someone left their wallet on the table.”
So, how hard can it be to work toward using these pronouns on purpose when it’s necessary?
For non-binary people, people who don’t identify as either men or women, this pronoun detaches them from gendered pronouns. Additionally, many non-binary people also use “Mx.” as a title. It’s important to keep up with this changing language, even if you’re not someone who identifies with it.
In September 2017, the honorific title “Mx.” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The titles Mr., Miss, Ms. and Mrs., besides revealing gender, reveal the marital status of a woman, which is arguably sexist and unnecessary.
This is only one way to bring gender-neutral language into our everyday lives.
For example, try saying “distinguished guests” instead of “ladies and gentlemen,” or “partner” in substitute of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” You can also politely ask a person if they are comfortable with words like “dude” or “guys” before using them. Overall, always respect the pronouns and identities of those around you.
I know it’s tricky and it won’t happen overnight, but I’m just asking that we all try a little harder to be sensitive of others’ identities when we speak to and about them.