Being a health and sex education teacher, I have been all for this. But this past summer, I discovered that not all parents were. I found myself in conversation with one parent who was concerned about the “confusing” message sent by these changes. Another referred to this as “just the latest trend.” A third worried about grammar. And, at a dinner party, more than one guest seemed to agree that using nontraditional pronouns was just too difficult for our generation to understand and use.
While such arguments might be common, they are all flawed. Here’s why:
It’s just too difficult to be asked to use different pronouns or new names
There is no doubt that it can take a little while to get accustomed to a young person’s new name or pronoun, or to using “they” as a pronoun if you’ve never done so. As a result, plenty of people make mistakes along the way. But if you do blunder, don’t take your mistakes as proof that you can’t make the switch. Rather, try to see them as part of the process of supporting the identity of someone who is trans, non-binary or questioning. And when you do mess up? Don’t dwell on it. Correct yourself, move on and work toward doing so less in the future.
Many things in life take practice, but failing to make the effort with someone’s name or pronoun has far more serious consequences than, say, failing to work on improving your French. Studies have found that using a trans or non-binary person’s chosen name and identified pronoun can improve their mental health and can significantly reduce overall negative health outcomes. Plus, doing so helps boost a child’s self-confidence and promotes safer communities for all gender-nonconforming youth.
It’s just the latest trend
As folks with gender-nonconforming identities receive more public attention, it is easy for some adults to dismiss youth who come out as trans or non-binary as simply following the latest trend or just going through a phase. Those adults may then use this rationale as an excuse to ignore those young people’s new pronouns or chosen names.
Whether children’s current pronouns remain with them for life isn’t really the point. If a young person is asking us to use a certain pronoun, pushing back against their request on the basis that it is just youthful whimsy is misguided and dangerous.
Consider the fact that a 2018 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that close to 40 percent of transgender and non-binary youth had attempted suicide at some point. Then consider the findings of a 2016 study by the same organization that found that transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression in relation to cisgender children, while transgender children who are not supported in their identities have higher rates.
They/them pronouns aren’t grammatically correct
Language is always evolving. So, it should come as little surprise to know that even though most of us learned to exclusively use singular “he” or “she” pronouns, there have been times when “they” was widely used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. But despite what we may have learned, the “they” pronoun is already regularly used colloquially. Just think: If you see an erratic driver whose gender you don’t know, it is common to exclaim, “I can’t believe they just did that!”
These days, using “they” as a pronoun is not just a colloquialism. As of September, Merriam-Webster officially added the non-binary pronoun “they” as an entry in its dictionary.
The pushback against the “they” pronoun on the basis of grammar requires us to ask those who are still hesitant about its use if adhering to certain rules of language is really more important than supporting a young person’s sense of who they are in the world.
Children will be confused
This issue is often raised by adults who are themselves uncomfortable or confused. Unlike many adults, a lot of today’s young people are perfectly at ease with identities their parents don’t understand, and plenty are growing up in a world where trans and non-binary celebrities, public figures, politicians, as well as people they interact with every day, are increasingly visible.
In my family, one of those people is my older kids’ Hebrew schoolteacher, T. Wise, who identifies as a trans man. I asked T. if he felt that any of his students were ever “confused” about his identity, and if so, if that was a stumbling block for them.
T. explained that before he medically transitioned, young kids would often ask about his gender. But he said, “I cannot think of one time that a child seemed upset by this exchange. I think being told there are only two options is what is confusing to them, especially when they see people who prove this untrue, and can intuit and often feel in themselves that there are actually many more options.” T. said his students have overwhelmingly been understanding.
What about the idea that if children learn that gender identity is not tied to biology, they will somehow be influenced to transition when they otherwise would not have? It’s true that a more open world might allow more kids to explore their gender identities. But just as we know conversion therapy can’t change sexual orientation, it is also clear that exposure to gender-nonconforming folks won’t make a child trans. What it will do is support those kids who are trans, and remind all children of the vast diversity around us.
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