Opinion

Why 'they' matters

When a person refuses to use someone’s stated pronoun, it translates to the following: I don’t respect you. I know better than you, you do not exist, you only exist on my terms, I tell you who you are.

When a person refuses to use someone’s stated pronoun, it translates to the following: I don’t respect you

Respecting people's stated pronouns – though it may seem foreign at first – is a powerful act of respect and inclusion. (CBC)

The saying "the pen is mightier than the sword" speaks to the mighty power of words. Indeed, words can and do have the power not only to uplift and empower, but to also inflict serious harm.

Last week, CBC's Neil Macdonald wrote a column exploring the emergence of the singular pronoun "they." The piece did not, however, give fair attention to the reason why "they" is becoming more commonly used in the singular — that it is a simple yet powerful way for a marginalized group of people to be included in everyday life.

In the English-speaking world, most people don't give much thought to the pronoun they use for themselves. They don't have to: everything lines up. Most people were assigned male or female at birth, and from as young as they can remember were addressed as "he" or "she" and that was that.

Some people, however, were assigned male or female at birth – based on genitals – but at some point they realized it didn't line up to how they saw themselves. This is usually a very painful realization that results in various challenges, but the basic idea is that for many of these people (though not all), their sex and gender identity do not match up.

More than two genders

There are many gender identities beyond just male and female: transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, gender non-conforming and others. But, in the English language, when it comes to gender, "he" and "she" are the two universally accepted singular third-person pronouns — which don't always apply to all people along the gender spectrum.  For some people, the singular "they" is most appropriate, but its use in many instances has come with great backlash.

Why does respecting someone's request to be referred to using the pronoun "they" get so many people worked up? Power. That's the real reason. The pronoun discussion is not simply about grammar or gender – it's about re-examining the very beliefs upon which our society is based.

But respecting people's stated pronouns – though it may seem foreign at first – is a powerful act of respect and inclusion. To refuse to do so is to participate in the injustices that gender-variant people in Canadian society experience on a daily basis.

When a person ridicules or refuses to use someone's stated pronoun, this translates to the following: I don't respect you, I know better than you, you do not exist, you only exist on my terms, I tell you who you are.

Trans people put themselves at risk just for existing in the world as themselves, writes Julian Paquette. (The Associated Press)

International Transgender Day of Remembrance is marked annually on November 20 to honour those who have lost their lives to transphobic violence. The day is also to raise awareness of the oppression many trans and gender-variant people face daily, the statistics of which are staggering.

Trans people put themselves at risk just for existing in the world as themselves – every time they go to the bathroom, meet a new person, walk down the street, apply for a job, get an ID, cross a border, go to the doctor, a food bank, on a date, out dancing, try to secure housing, buy clothing – and on, and on, it goes.  The very least people can do, to make their lives marginally easier, is use the correct pronoun.

Nothing new

Gender diversity has been around as long as humans have been and the beauty of humans is that we evolve. Think of language as living.

So the next time someone tells you their pronoun, simply respect their request. Not because it makes you comfortable — it very well may not, at first — but because you are a human being who doesn't want to cause additional harm in the world. There's enough of that already. It's time to turn the page.

This column is an opinion - for more information about our commentary section please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Julian Paquette is a writer, performer and transgender rights advocate whose writing has been published across Canada.

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