The emergence from the shadows of more and more folks who don't identify themselves by traditional gender roles has thrown many for a loop. To be sure, whenever people who've previously felt the need to hide themselves are able to experience the beginnings of societal acceptance and relief from fear and shame, it is cause for great celebration. Still, for those of us who find difficulty grasping these particular ideas, the adjustment may take some time and require some education. We'll get there. But it's fair to ask for patience.
But this installment of The Weekly Curmudgeon will not come anywhere near addressing questions of sexual or gender identity, or whether one can be born with the wrong gender, or how best to accommodate the wide spectrum of positions on these matters. That's because pontificating on a subject in which one has neither experience nor expertise is terribly bad manners. One ought to have the humility to remain silent where one lacks information or the basis for an opinion. Because we don't gain information or the basis for an opinion while speaking.
However, when it comes to grammar and usage, well, this is where The Curmudgeon rolls up his sleeves and sharpens his corrective pencil.
Getting accustomed to using feminine pronouns in reference to someone who was born male—and vice versa—is a process, more so for those of us who never expected to have to puzzle through such grammatical issues. But the request seems well within reason when made by someone who has gone through the psychologically and physically complicated process of having a sex change. We certainly want to respect the individual's investment in such a profound alteration. Comfortable or not, it is rightly required of us. True, it remains a challenge when we're referencing a transexual woman who looks like Paul Bunyan and sounds like James Earl Jones, or a transexual man who looks like a pixie and sounds like Betty Boop. No, that is not hatred or intolerance; it is merely a natural and understandable resistance to being asked to deny the information coming to us through our own eyes and ears.
And yet, it's a more recent turn in this grammatical maze that has truly crossed the line for those of us who insist on making sense with our words. The new brain cruncher? We now have individuals—individuals, mind you . . . single entities—demanding to be referred to by the pronouns "they," "them," and "their." Here, The Curmudgeon puts his foot firmly down.
No. Absolutely not. Perhaps one can change one's gender identity and/or genitalia. Perhaps one can change the laws. One might even change people's minds. But one may not change the meanings of words.. If your self-definition requires straining the long-standing rules of grammar to the extent of forcing a plural to be singular, you're on your own. You don't get to do that. You certainly don't get to make others do it. "They," "them," and "their" are words that are already in use, and refer to more than one person. Individuals may not "identify" as more than one person; that isn't one of the options. It amounts to linguistic chaos, and I for one will not have it.
It is worth noting that these people who want to be referred to as one-person groups may fall anywhere across the gender/sexuality spectrums. They may be gay, straight, transexual, transgender, non-binary, gender queer, or of some other recently identified category. Some have plans to have their parts surgically changed, some do not, and some have yet to decide. The common thread is that they don't want to have their genders identified using existing terms, even if most who meet them would consider their genders obvious.
All of this entitled personalization of language makes communication extremely challenging. It also calls for some very strangely worded sentences, like "I know Steve because I used to work with them," "Ask your mom what they think," "They are the president of the club," and "My husband is getting their hair cut."
Sadly, those who maintain that words currently in use should not be assigned new meanings will inevitably be labeled as bigots and haters. We will be called unaccepting, disrespectful, and out of touch, and told we just don't understand. We will be shamed for our linguistic conservatism. And, what is even sadder, to avoid causing offense, some of us may even shy away from friendships that ask us to abuse our pronouns. As a result, we will have fewer opportunities to commune with and better understand and accept those who decry the lack of acceptance.
There is, however, a perfectly clear answer. If we really want to create our best opportunities for harmony, mutual respect, and heathy communication, then we need new words. We need to invent language to describe types of people we didn't know about when our language first developed. We currently have the singular pronouns "he," "she," "it," "him," "her," "his," "hers," and "its." While generations of linguists have operated under the assumption that these pronouns covered all singular possibilities, clearly, they were wrong; we need more words.
So, trans folk? Non-binaries? People not properly categorized in this piece? It falls to you. Get together, have a meeting, and agree on new pronouns—ones that aren't already in use. Invent them. Agree on them. Get back to us, and we'll adopt and adapt. Demanding society's acceptance and respect is reasonable and fair. Asking others to change how grammar works is not.