I want to begin with a very clear and definitive statement: I firmly support LGBT rights, which are logically implicit in the very notion of human rights. The right to pursue happiness is enshrined in the founding document of this country. I have beloved family, friends, and personal heroes (living and dead) who are (or were) members of the LGBT community. If a person is attracted to others of the same gender, or identifies with a gender other than the one with which they appear to have been born, then that person should be, and feel, free to pursue whatever individual truth is available and inherent to that nature, as with every other person in the world. This is, of course, followed by the inescapable caveat, “as long as you don’t harm anyone else.”* Since I have yet to hear of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person seeking the right to harm other people, I need not belabor that caveat.
But I will NOT refer to an individual, no matter what that person’s sexuality or identity, with a plural pronoun!
I have encountered a disturbing trend—not very often and not in many places—in which certain transgender or gender-fluid individuals ask, or even demand, to be referred to as “they,” or “them,” and to use the possessive pronoun “their” when referring to that person’s possession. It’s not a major societal problem, I suppose, but as Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “some things I will not, I cannot allow.” So, let me make another very clear and definitive statement: Unless your name is Legion, or you are Norman Bates, I will not refer to you as “they,” I will not call something you (individually) own as “their” something, nor, I think, should anyone else. I barely can accept the casual, spoken use of “their” to refer to nonspecific individuals’ ownership, such as, “When a person gets off a plane, it’s important that they remember to take their carry-on luggage.” I would much rather use “one” and “one’s,” or even the slightly cumbersome “his or her” and “he or she,” than abruptly transform one person into many in the middle of a sentence.
Even Queen frikking Victoria, arguably the most powerful monarch ever on the face of the Earth, and who used the royal “We,” when speaking to show that she represented the British Empire, was not referred to as “they” by others. If Queen Victoria didn’t get to bastardize “the Queen’s English,” then no one gets to do it, and no one should want to do it. The English language is breathtakingly beautiful, sophisticated, and—in some ways—fragile. It can convey an almost unlimited range of concepts and communications, but it has an inherent logic, however bizarre it might occasionally seem, and that logic is essential to its value as a means of communication. As Henry Higgins said (in the musical), “Yours is the language of Shakespeare, and Milton, and The [King James] Bible.” Don’t treat it with disrespect! Don’t do it while I’m around, anyway, and certainly don’t expect me to do it.
Oh, I’ll play a little free and loose with grammar in casual conversation, and will similarly do so in written dialogue to maintain verisimilitude, but when I’m writing formally, I try not even to split infinitives (though many fine writers feel free to casually do so). I love language in general, and English in particular, too much to play fast and loose with such a clear and precise concept as pronoun number.
Okay, fine. But what is one to do when one identifies oneself not specifically with a particular gender? I admit that using the gender-neutral pronoun, while at first glance a possible solution, is not going to work. The implications of calling a person “it” or “that” are clearly and inescapably derogatory, and I certainly don’t endorse the derogation of someone who is already struggling to find a stable place in our culture.
There are a few other options. I shall certainly not claim to be the best arbiter of which is better for any given person, but I’ll throw out for consideration a few that have occurred to me.
If one has a particular gender with which one identifies primarily, then of course, one would use the appropriate gender-specific pronouns. I doubt this is a revolutionary or even a helpful notion. Frankly, it’s rather obvious, and I feel sure that it’s exactly what such individuals do, as do those who respect them.
For the person who honestly identifies as gender-fluid, the situation is more complicated. Of course, a person could choose to use whatever pronoun is appropriate to them for that particular moment, but this doesn’t easily allow for others to refer to such a person in general, nor for that individual to deal with issues that may transcend a particular moment in time. We cannot seriously recommend that a person eschew pronouns entirely, using only proper nouns in all forms of communication. First of all, this would make a person sound like a comic-book level lunatic. Apart from that, though, it’s a ridiculously cumbersome mode to try to enter. Pronouns exist for a reason. Schoolhouse Rock rarely spoke more truly than when it said, “Saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down.”
So, what’s a gender-fluid person to do? Such a person could just pick one pronoun gender—either the physical gender with which they were described at birth, or perhaps the other as a statement of protest—and just go with that. This is not a terribly unreasonable notion, but it has its weaknesses, and I can see why some might find it distasteful, particularly in the matter of consciousness-raising. It’s also cumbersome to fall into the “he/she” and “him/her” format (and my own gender-bias is evident in the ordering of my mixed pronouns—perhaps a statement, or a caveat, in itself).
Let me propose, then, that—since we find that there are people whose genders are not readily pigeonholed into either classically male or classically female—we create some new pronouns for those who do not fit into the she/he, her/him mold. As the gender-fluid are either of mixed or fluid gender identity, perhaps we should create a mixed pronoun, derived from the originals and yet separate therefrom. The subjective form that I propose is: “Hse.” This would be pronounced rather like the word “see,” but perhaps with just the hint of an h-sound at the beginning. We don’t have to be like Stewie Griffin pronouncing Cool Hwip, but a little h couldn’t hurt. Of similar construction, the objective form of the personal pronoun could be: “Hem.” Pronunciation here is obvious. Possession could be indicated with “hes,” pronounced with a short “e” sound and a slightly zee-like s.
These new gender pronouns owe no predominant gender allegiance to their progenitors, and are clearly different from the older, more binary pronouns. Similarly, being new, they avoid the objectifying connotations of the word “it.” And most importantly—to me at least—they avoid playing havoc both with language and with logic by referring to an individual with a plural pronoun! Avoiding that is worth some work.
I don’t expect to see these specific words adopted by the LGBT community and those who support them—I have no doubt that others can invent some far better new personal pronouns, and I shall be happy to learn of them if and when they arrive. But please, by all that is good and sweet and pure and sane and rational, don’t call an individual “them” or “they.” It’s utterly illogical, and is almost derogatory in and of itself, seeming to imply doubt about the unity or sanity of the individual about whom it is used.
You have the right to pursue your happiness and your personal truth wherever it leads you, and I would gladly protect and support you in that right. But you cannot use that as license to harm others, and you cannot use it as license to brutalize the beautiful English language. To paraphrase Gandalf the Grey: Hse who does such a thing has left the path of wisdom.
*I mean real harm here, not just making someone feel embarrassed or icky.