They / Them

This is cross-posted from the ZS intranet (which we call ZSpace), where I write episodically about issues of interest to the LGBTQ+ community and our allies. It’s been lightly edited for an external audience.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary recently announced that their word of the year is THEY.  You can read their article on the topic here – Word of the Year 2019 | They | Merriam-Webster .  Here is a brief excerpt:

Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year. … More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. 

The article goes on to describe some of the ways that the term ‘they’ has gained prominence in the news – it’s definitely worth a read.  If you aren’t familiar with the dictionary and their Twitter presence, they are worth a follow … though I would caution that their posts are not apolitical, and they lean pretty far to the left!

However, the topic of gender neutral pronouns is not something just for the left-leaning; it is increasingly present in broader U.S. society:

The population of young people who identify as gender-nonbinary is growing. Though no large surveys have been done of kids younger than 10, a recent study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 27% of California teens identify as gender-nonconforming. And a 2018 Pew study found 35% of Gen Z-ers (born 1995 to 2015) say they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like they and them, compared with just 16% of Gen X-ers (born 1965 to 1980). The patterns are projected to continue with Generation Alpha, born in 2010 and later.

You can read the full article on the Time magazine website. 

Pronouns are something we’ve talked about on ZSpace, and we’ve talked about them quite a bit in our Evanston and Chicago Pride meetings as well.  We are organizing a local workshop in January to teach people about pronouns, followed by asking people to put their pronouns in their signature files.  My hope is that we will raise awareness with all ZSers.  Imagine a future like this:

Really, it’s about creating a culture where asking people about their pronouns is just a normal, natural part of introductions. Like this:

“Hello, new person that I’m meeting at a cocktail party. I’m Jacob.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Andre. What pronouns do you use Jacob?”

“I use they. What about you?”

“I use he, thanks for asking. Anyway, um, some weather we’re having today, huh?”

Asking about pronouns will not solve your social awkwardness issues, but it will definitely make you a nicer, more empathetic human being.

You can read the full article this was excerpted from here –  Gender Neutral Pronouns: How to Use the Right Pronouns.  It’s a testament to our changing times that this is now Time magazine material.  You can learn more about appropriate pronoun use from CNN, as well – International Pronouns Day: A guide to personal pronouns.

But hair care companies (see my earlier ZSpace post about challenges for the LGBTQ community over the holidays, along with a link to the new Pantene ad), talented pop stars, and Time magazine aren’t the only ones thinking about gender-neutrality.  Even industry giants like Mattel and Marvel are thinking about how to appeal to a growing number of young people who want to live in a world where their self-understanding is reflected in the world around them.

Mattel has released “the world’s first gender-neutral doll”:

The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both, and Mattel, which calls this the world’s first gender-neutral doll, is hoping its launch on Sept. 25 redefines who gets to play with a toy traditionally deemed taboo for half the world’s kids. Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. There are no Barbie-like breasts or broad, Ken-like shoulders. Each doll in the Creatable World series looks like a slender 7-year-old with short hair, but each comes with a wig of long, lustrous locks and a wardrobe befitting any fashion-conscious kid: hoodies, sneakers, graphic T-shirts in soothing greens and yellows, along with tutus and camo pants.

If you’re interested in reading more you can find the full article here – Why Mattel Is Releasing the First Gender-Neutral Doll.

And, Marvel (in addition to featuring LGB characters in it’s comics and upcoming movies) now has a transgender hero in their comics as well – https://www.advocate.com/transgender/2019/12/06/meet-marvels-first-transgender-hero-12-year-old-mighty-rebekah.  The article is an interview with twelve year old activist Rebekah, who is featured in Season 1 of Marvel’s Hero Project.  The show is behind the new Disney+ paywall, but you can read or listen to the comic online – Marvel’s Hero Project Season 1 (2019).  While Rebekah was born a boy, she identifies as female (she / her / hers) – not non-binary – but it’s nonetheless an inspiring story of family love and support.  

If you’ve read all the way to the end of this long-ish post, thanks.  If you want to know what else you can do to help, you can always start small; consider changing your email signature file.  You can learn why that’s so important in this Medium article. Here is what mine looks like:

Finally, we will making our local Pronouns workshop available via a global webinar in 2020.  As pre-read for our local workshop, we’ll be distributing A Quick & Easy Guide to They / Them Pronouns, which we’ve purchased in bulk from their publisher.  Maybe you’ll find that to be a good way to learn as well.  

If you have other relevant reading and resources, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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