Trimble is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Pop Culture Criticism
In their 2014 queer graphic compilation, 100 Crushes, Elisha Lim profiles a friend who was an early adopter of the pronoun “they”: “Hari quit the gender binary,” Lim writes. I still remember reading that sentence a few years ago. I sat back and exhaled. My shoulders loosened; my chest opened. I thought about all the times I’ve been stared at in women’s washrooms, all the strangers who have called me “sir” and then stumbled and smiled their way to “ma’am” to smooth things over. I thought about grade seven, the year my peers found a thousand ways to tell me I wasn’t doing gender right, and wondered what my 12-year-old self would have thought about quitting the binary. It wasn’t the first time these thoughts had crossed my mind. For years, I’d been sensing the possibilities of “they” and asking myself if it’s the pronoun for me. I still do.
But a funny thing happened on the way to quitting the gender binary. Before I could request that people use the singular “they” for me—before I decided if it’s what I want—it started happening on its own. As the pronoun has become more mainstream, it’s also become the default for me in many circles. I’ve even known of well-intentioned students and colleagues who have “corrected” my friends who refer to me as “she.” And I’ve come to the realization that while calling me a woman, lady, or “ma’am” is enough to give me hives, somehow “she” feels different. It’s not altogether right or comfortable, but I have attachments to the pronoun that make me resistant to leaving it behind. I didn’t know this until it started seeming like it might not be up to me.
This is about how our identities are shaped by conditions we can’t control, including history, the perceptions of others, and the language and stories available in a given time and place. Pronouns are loaded: They’re basic linguistic building blocks that can also signal things like gender identity (he/she/they) and group affiliation (us/them), so new pronoun practices suggest deep-seated cultural changes. That’s why pronoun discourse is contested terrain. For some conservative pundits, preferred pronouns are just another instance of political correctness run amok. For some nonbinary and trans* people, gender-neutral pronouns make the world more workable. For trans people who want—or need—to pass, requests for preferred pronouns can be experienced as hurtful extensions of a world that refuses to see them.
The emergence of “they” as a singular-pronoun option is an important cultural development that’s been a long time coming. For decades, trans*, queer, and feminist activists have been imagining pronoun portals to take us beyond the binary. In Marge Piercy’s 1976 feminist sci-fi classic, Woman on the Edge of Time, a utopian community uses the pronoun “per”—short for “person”—for all its members. And for years gender-nonconforming people have been experimenting with similar neologisms, including “ze” and “hir.” Whether proposed by genderqueer communities or by writers frustrated by this gap in the English language, none of these terms has been widely used. That’s why the mainstreaming of the singular “they” matters. Most of us use it in casual conversation anyway. And Merriam-Webster has schooled sticklers who object on grammatical grounds, observing that it’s been in use since the 1300s and there’s a precedent in the 17th-century emergence of the singular “you.”
Like many people who identify as nonbinary, I love that “they” is a viable option. “She” has never been an easy fit for me, but it’s emotionally connected to my coming-of-age as a feminist and coming out as a lesbian in the ’90s. So as a gender-nonconforming person with a “she” history and an increasingly “they” present, I find myself, as usual, betwixt and between. This is why I’m ambivalent about some of the everyday ways in which we announce our pronouns or ask others to specify theirs. Sharing one’s pronoun preferences during an icebreaker activity or in an email signature are innovations I mostly welcome. But these practices can also make it seem like gender identity is fairly stable, even if now there are more options. In fact, there’s a long, complicated story behind every pronoun. Here are some of mine.
When I was a kid, my mother had a sweatshirt bearing the words “She who must be obeyed.” Written in cursive, with a flourish on the tail of the S, the “She” anchored everything else. For me, it was synonymous with my mom’s feminism: a tongue-in-cheek affirmation that she was the boss in our house, but also serious business. By the 1980s, my thirtysomething mother had already been through the wars. Her first husband was a drinker with a deep well of violence in him. So while second-wave feminism was gathering steam in the late ’60s, my mom was monitoring her husband’s moods and, occasionally, fleeing into the night through neighbors’ backyards to avoid the lit streets where he could find her. She left for good when he went to prison for manslaughter in the early ’70s. These experiences brought my mom to feminism. But when I came along in the ’80s, the backlash was beginning, and I witnessed family members jokingly, but not really, call my mom a ball-buster and a man-hater. Somehow, “She who must be obeyed” held all this together—a joke and a claim to power all at once.
In the early ’90s, I was thrilled to see that same sweatshirt on TV, worn by the main character in Roseanne Barr’s groundbreaking sitcom, Roseanne, which ran from 1988 to 1997. Before Barr became known for a Twitter feed filled with racism, transphobia, and conspiracy theories, she was a feminist pop- culture icon. Her drawn-from-life character, Roseanne Conner, was fat, brash, and perpetually pissed off, a white working-class woman exhausted by sexism and poverty. “She who must be obeyed” was a fitting honorific with an ironic twist: It captured the way Roseanne ruled the Connor household with an iron fist and somehow registered, too, her disempowerment in the wider world. In fact, the ambiguity of the phrase is connected to its origins. A century before it was emblazoned on a sweatshirt, “She who must be obeyed” appeared in pop culture via H. Rider Haggard’s serialized 1886 “lost world” story, She. The saga follows a couple of white British guys who go adventuring in the African interior and come across an undiscovered tribe led by a white queen, the eponymous She-who-must-be-obeyed. After that, the trope of the white jungle queen exploded in British and American pop culture, even informing the depiction of the Evil Queen in Disney’s animated 1937 film Snow White. These monstrous white or white-passing women were products of a racist-sexist imaginary in which white women are either virgins or whores, embodiments of racial purity or agents of degeneration. I didn’t know any of this back then. But that flamboyant, outsized “She” taught me that powerful women are culturally fraught figures.
How we identify is provisional, an intervention shaped by time and place rather than the disclosure of a deep, essential truth about one’s being.
In 1993, my little corner of the universe felt the glow of a distant star. I was 12 and becoming vaguely aware that I was growing askew to the girls. My heart was stuck on a blond who was about to play the role of Belle in our school production of Beauty and the Beast, so maybe some little pocket of my mind was optimistic that she’d be open to an untraditional pairing. Still, I was unprepared for news that came to me that year in the form of a passing remark in the schoolyard: I overheard one of my peers saying something about “Melissa Etheridge and her girlfriend.” I don’t remember the context or the tone or whether the phrase was followed by a joke. “Her girlfriend” was pure, mind-bending data. Suddenly, girls having girlfriends became a possibility where before it had been nothing. Not a thing. This puzzle piece snapped into place because a rock star had just come out of the closet and was inviting some lover, somewhere, to come to her window.
A couple of years ago, I started telling my students this story to illustrate a point about identity: that how we identify is provisional, an intervention shaped by time and place rather than the disclosure of a deep, essential truth about one’s being. In a 1989 lecture called “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” cultural theorist Stuart Hall said “[E]xperience belies the notion that identification happens once and for all—life is not like that. It goes on changing and part of what is changing is not the nucleus of the ‘real you’ inside; it is history that’s changing. History changes your conception of yourself.” I wanted to make this concrete for my students, so I told them I came out as a lesbian in the ’90s because that’s the language that was available. Then I shared how, in my 20s, I read Leslie Feinberg’s now-classic Stone Butch Blues and wondered if I might be trans. Now, coming up on my 40s, I say that I’m still experimenting, in part because I’m surrounded by young people whose vocabularies include words that weren’t available 20 years ago—like “nonbinary,” the one I like best these days.
I started teaching women and gender studies undergraduates in 2012. When I look at the comments on my teaching evaluations from that year, I see myself referred to mostly as “she.” Less than a decade later, I’m almost always “they.” To be clear, I’m not knocking my students, who are rays of sun in dark times. Their readings of me are affirming: With the singular “they,” a new set of positions is opening up within our culture, and my students see me as belonging somewhere in that space. I do, too. But I’m uncomfortable about how quickly and uniformly this shift is happening. Last year, in a New York Times editorial, Farhad Manjoo suggested we make the singular “they” universal in recognition that gender-nonconforming people aren’t the only ones who are harmed by the gender binary. I don’t disagree with that point, which feminists have been making for ages. But I do wonder, along with Wren Sanders, about this call coming from a self-identified cis man who’s able to use “they/them pronouns as a political gesture, rather than an avenue of self-actualization.”
The singular “they” is filled with possibility, and it’s an important survival tool for those of us who struggle to fit into the world as it currently is. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to gender trouble. There are important differences in the ways we relate to the binary. As Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford argues, the promise of gender neutrality is an illusion “in a world where nothing is neutral” and, often, “defaults are based in masculinity and whiteness.” As a Black nonbinary person, Ashleigh chooses both she/her and they/them pronouns because she had to fight for “she” in the first place, because our culture has long imagined girlhood and womanhood through whiteness. And trans YouTubers Natalie Wynn and Kat Blaque have both said the practice of defaulting to “they” makes them feel de-gendered in ways that are upsetting.
I’m a white person, and I don’t identify as transgender. But gender questions have plagued me for most of my life, so I, too, have been fighting for a more inclusive “she,” even if I’ve also been wondering what lies beyond. That tricky, unsettled identification with “she” and “her” is part of the story of how I’ve found my way in the world. I’m happy the story doesn’t end there. I just want whatever happens next to make room for what came before. The past helps me get my bearings, and not just on a personal level. In the struggle for new collective projects, I’m inspired by the imaginative resources—and lessons—of older ones.