I have a close friend who doesn’t feel like a boy or a girl.
This particular friend realized a few years ago that neither “she” nor “he” really fits them; instead, they prefer to be referred to as “they” or “them”. It’s just a better emotional fit. Just as a man probably wouldn’t want to be referred to as “she” and a woman probably wouldn’t want to be referred to as “he”, my friend doesn’t want to be referred to as either, because neither is accurate.
So, when they meet new people, they introduce themselves as “them”. While it takes some practice to learn to call a person by a pronoun that’s usually plural, after a little while it’s no trouble at all. The fact that people are exclusively used to using the pronouns “he” and “she” is a reflection of our culture more than our biology. That’s clearly demonstrated by people like my friend, who doesn’t fit in the traditional gender binary.
I also saw it for myself when I learned how to properly use the label “them”, because once it clicked mentally it was easy to use the correct pronouns. There’s nothing hardwired in the human brain that demands we call other people either “her” or “him”. Most of us are just programmed to think that way because of our restrictive culture.
The truth is, there have always been people who don’t fall inside the parameters of the traditional gender binary. Just because they’re the minority of people doesn’t give the rest of us the right to disrespect them by trying to force them to identify with a gender that doesn’t describe them. All they ask is that we call them by the correct pronouns. It’s a favor that everyone should perform out of sheer decency.
It’s also free. Calling someone “they” or any other pronoun they prefer costs absolutely nothing. Using the correct gender vocabulary might mean everything to that person, and it takes nothing out of anybody else’s day.
But, you might be asking, what if you don’t understand a nontraditional person’s gender? What if it just doesn’t compute? Or what if they don’t look like the gender they’re claiming to be? How can you be expected to use the pronouns they’re asking you to use?
One word: easily.
You don’t have to feel what they feel to respect the fact that they feel it. Nowhere does it say that a person has to have the biological features that “match” their pronouns. And nowhere does it say that they have to have those features in order for you to respect their identity.
One more time, for the people in the back: A person’s gender has nothing to do with their body and everything to do with their sense of self.
That’s why it’s completely within my friend’s rights to ask other people to refer to them as “they”. That’s why I correct people who refer to them using the wrong pronouns. That’s why I’m writing this article: to make the point that it’s not just free, but expected for you to make an effort to use the pronouns other people ask for. More than anything else, it’s a matter of respect.