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They got it right: Merriam-Webster announced that the nonbinary pronoun “they” is Word of the Year. This is a critical win for people who do not identify with two of the most common pronouns, “she” or “he.” 

This new definition of “they” as a nonbinary pronoun was added in September, after Merriam-Webster experienced a 313% surge in people searching the word.

Searches spiked during Paris Fashion Week in January (which featured nonbinary model Oslo Grace), when US Congresswoman Pramila Jaypal discussed her gender-nonconforming child in April, and during Pride celebrations in June. Sam Smith — a British singer who came out as nonbinary — requested that people use “they/them” pronouns for them in September. 

People are increasingly encountering the new pronouns in their daily lives, and are looking to understand. 

But “They” Violates the Ruuuules of Grammar!

The unusual grammar — the fact that “they/them” implies many, whereas one nonbinary or transgender person may be asking you to use their pronoun — is confusing or off-putting to some, and they may resist the usage. Why do we have to violate the rules of grammar?, they might be thinking.

We should violate the rules of grammar here, because this community is asking us to respect their gender identities. And because this can be a vulnerable community, it is more important to show support than it is to die on the sword of subject/verb agreement. 

Gender Assumptions Are Assumptions.

Transgender is an “umbrella term.” It’s an adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity is incongruent (or does not “match”) the biological sex they were assigned at birth. This term refers to the full range and diversity of identities within transgender communities.

Gender is all around us, and many of us receive our first messages about gender when we are very young. These messages may embody stereotypes deeply ingrained in society, or they may challenge such stereotypes. 

Many gendered messages we receive are based on assumptions of what girls and boys “should” be, act, or look like. And many of the messages we’ve received are based on straight (heterosexual) relationships.

We all have gendered experiences, expectations, roles, and ways these messages impact us. For nonbinary and transgender people, these often have a broader impact on their daily life, mental health, and access to support and care.

Planned Parenthood’s Commitment to the Community.

We are asking our patients which pronouns they would like us to use.

Together, we’ve made a commitment to use the correct pronouns of all people once they let us know their pronouns. If a patient is not comfortable sharing their pronouns, that’s ok: We want people to share only what they want to share. But we cannot assume a person is cisgender or transgender based on their appearance. 

Asking about pronouns is both functional and respectful. We want to use the name and pronouns that are affirming to all people. By asking and honoring people’s pronoun requests, we show respect, and we honor their identity. 

Part of being an ally is hearing people, and helping them to feel more comfortable. Respecting pronouns is a logical and empathic demonstration of support.


Tags: nonbinary, transgender-issues

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