I recently became aware that the 14-year-old daughter of a friend of mine wants to be referred to not as “she” and “her,” but as “they” and “them.” My friend is really struggling with this because he wants to be 100% supportive of his “kid” (her choice, rather than “daughter” or “son”), but there is the practical problem of "they/them" meaning "more than one." Like my friend, I find it simply confusing when individuals want to be referred to by plural pronouns.
“They’re a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech.” “They love me; they love me not.” “They maketh me to lie down in green pastures; they leadeth me beside the still waters.” “They walk in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in their aspect and their eyes.” “There they come; Miss America!” (Okay, that one should be banned regardless of the pronoun, but I hope you get my point.)
I've managed to find ways around gender-loaded terms by substituting "firefighter" for "fireman," "letter carrier" for "postman," “chairperson” for “chairman,” even “first year student” or “9th grader” for “freshman.” Once you get used to doing that, it becomes habitual.
When I was teaching high school (I retired a few years ago), I never allowed my students to use "man" or even "mankind" when referring to the human race. “Man” is a single individual of the male persuasion, period. If you mean all of humanity, including females, say "humanity" or "the human race." Not that hard. Even “man-made” can become “artificial” or “constructed by people.”
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But this "they/them" thing is different. “He" or "she" is one human being; "they" is more than one. If I am told that “they” are coming to dinner, how much food should I prepare? Do I set out one extra plate, or two, or six? I’m not being smart-ass here. There are lots and lots of situations where it is useful to know just how many bodies are involved.
I have the same problem with using a plural pronoun when you have a singular noun of unknown gender. Back when I was in school about ten years after Columbus discovered America, I was taught that if the gender of the noun is indefinite, you use the masculine “he” as a pronoun.
Thanks to a wonderful professor named Judith Gardiner at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle, who taught me that Women’s Liberation was not about liberating women, but actually about liberating me (nothing like self-interest to get one’s attention), I learned to work around the dilemma of indefinite nouns with "she/he" and “her/him”; once you get used to it, it's not that hard to do.
But "they" for the indefinite singular noun? No, that just doesn’t cut it. Call me old-fashioned, but singular and plural are not interchangeable. Whether a person is trans-gender or no-gender or whatever, there is still only one physical body. If I am confronted by Proud Boys who want to beat me to a pulp, it is useful to know whether I’m facing one person or multiple people so that I can decide whether to stand and fight or run away.
But in my friend’s case, he can't constantly be referring to his kid as "he/she" and "her/him," if for no other reason than that's not what the kid wants. Can one create a brand new word that would mean "a single individual who does not want to be identified with a particular gender"? So far, I haven't been able to come up with a work-around for that one. Anybody got any ideas?