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6 Things People Who Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns Are Sick of Hearing

You’re comfortable with who you are, and confident in your own abilities. All you ask is that your friends, family, colleagues—and everyone else—use singular “they” pronouns when referring to you. It’s not that hard! All they have to do is replace the usual uses of “he” or “she” with the pronoun you prefer, and voilà.

Not all people seem to agree, and from time to time, you run into frustrating situations where others disrespect your pronoun choices. These are six things you’re absolutely sick of people saying about your pronouns.

1. “Are you two people? Do you have schizophrenia?”

This is offensive for so many reasons: it’s a singular pronoun, first of all. “They” as a pronoun is meant for one person to use in lieu of “he” or “she.” 

Jack Qu’emi, a writer for The Body is Not an Apology, says that this question “pathologizes non-normative gender identities,” meaning that it equates non-normative gender identities with something being psychologically wrong. This kind of question is also ableist, because it assumes there’s something wrong with being mentally ill. It’s meant to be an insult to those who use “they” pronouns by stigmatizing people with mental health issues. 

If you’re faced with this question, you can always refuse to engage with the person, if you don’t feel like educating them on the many reasons why this is offensive—both to you and to the mentally ill community.

Related: Ze as a Pronoun: What It Is & How to Use It

2. “You’re just confused.”

This is an insult that’s flung at just about any member of the LGBTQ+ community, but people who use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” and who identify outside the gender binary are highly susceptible to it.

People don’t understand how someone can identify this way. We’re all socialized from an early age to accept two distinct sexes and genders, when in reality, both sex and gender are so much more complex.

 “I think that kind of response says a lot about how little the individual knows about the very tangible struggles of defining a gender that isn’t within a binary,” Qu’emi says. The expert uses the singular pronoun and while they haven’t been confronted with this statement personally, they feel it’s still very hurtful.

Casey Alexander, a junior at Florida State University who uses “they” pronouns, says that they have been called confused by peers who just don’t understand. “I’m not confused,” they say. “I understand my gender better than anyone else because it’s my lived experience.”

If you’re faced with this kind of comment, you can try to shrug it off and ignore it. You’re the one living your life and that means you’re the only one who can say what identity fits you best.

3. “That’s too difficult. I can’t be bothered to use ‘they’ pronouns.”

Difficult for who, exactly? People with non-binary gender identities are the ones who have to go through the long process of figuring out who they are and asserting their self-identity in a widely unaccepting and gendered society.

“A lot of my friends and family members didn’t want to ‘make the switch’ to gender-neutral pronouns when I came out in high school,” Casey says. “It took a few weeks of me explaining how much it meant to me for them to come across. I understand that it’s a process, but I wish they’d thought about how it felt for me.”

Basically, if someone doesn’t come around eventually and realize that your identity is more important, they’re missing out on a great relationship with you. Changing their speech is only a minor inconvenience in comparison to disrespecting the personhood of someone they care about. 

4. “That’s not grammatically correct.”

“They” as a singular pronoun has been around forever, and it’s coming back into use more now. You may have heard, growing up, that using “they” as a singular pronoun was absolutely incorrect, but those rules are arbitrary. In fact, the American Dialect Society chose singular “they” as their word of the year.

“I have often repeated to people that singular they/them has been around forever, used by Shakespeare, and that my gender expression and well-being is far more important than their obnoxious grammatical preferences,” Qu’emi says.

If someone can’t come around to acknowledging that “they” is grammatically correct, they should at least respect your basic identity enough to use it anyway.

5. “Can’t you just pick a side?”

This essentially negates the entire point of a non-binary gender identity and “they” pronouns. The person saying it probably doesn’t realize that gender and sex don’t work in black-and-white terms and that there are more options than just “woman” or “man.”

Are there ways people with non-binary gender expressions can fight the binary, and make the public more aware that gender isn’t always a this-or-that decision? “We ‘fight’ it by being visible,” explains Qu’emi. “Our very existence is a political act and being vocal when we can about who we are does a lot to expose others to people not like them.”

Of course, if you’re not in a place where you can safely be open about your gender identity, don’t feel obligated to! Do whatever makes you feel the most comfortable and safe.

6. “What are your REAL pronouns? What is your real name?”

Depending on whether you use a name different from the one you were given at birth or not, these two questions can come in tandem with each other.

“I don’t go by the name my parents gave me at birth,” Casey says. “I chose a more gender-neutral name and I’ve changed it legally—three years ago, actually. But people who find out that I changed my name and use ‘they’ pronouns still become obsessed with this idea of my ‘real name.’”

It’s nobody’s business whether or not you changed your name, or what your name was previously, and you don’t have to tell anyone what sex you were assigned at birth. If you want, you can just say, “’They/their/them’ are my real pronouns, and those are the only ones you can use.”

You probably know from experience that using “they” pronouns isn’t always a walk in the park, between correcting new professors and coworkers to bringing it up at professional interviews to having to re-educate peers on a daily basis. But it’s your identity, and it matters to you, so it should matter to the people in your life. Hopefully, as time goes on and gender-neutral pronouns and non-binary genders become more visible, there won’t be as much of a need to explain their purpose.

Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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