They, Then and Now

Asking for pronouns has become a social standard. Who is it serving?

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

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If you met me, you’d probably ask what pronouns I use. You’d ask me because my gender identity is not that clear — to you, at least. I wear light makeup and paint my nails and, depending on the occasion, might be in a slip dress with a kitten heel. And yet, if you heard me speak, you’d probably assume (correctly) that I was assigned male at birth (AMAB, in the current jargon; I was also, of course, assigned the name Brock). You might assume, based in part on my voice and disposition, that I date and sleep with men, like a gay man (also correct). And so you’d ask what pronouns I use because it’s considered the polite thing to do now — an accepted part of our perilous new social-justice social contract — and you don’t want to offend me with your ignorance and you do want to flatter yourself with your deft ally-ness, all the while probably thinking, especially if you’re over 30, Oh goodness, the world is so different now.

And I’d politely respond, “They/them is fine,” with a smile. Maybe a somewhat forced smile, because I’ve come to dread this whole interaction. If I’m feeling game, I might even ask for your pronouns, though chances are, unless perhaps you’re my age or younger — I’m 24 — they will be exactly what I’d expect. By the end of the ten-word exchange, I’d be a little exhausted and you’d be a little on edge. And if I had to guess, you’d still probably fuck up my pronouns the next time you use them. You almost certainly would when I’m not standing right in front of you.

I have been using they/them pronouns for about four years now, since I started identifying as nonbinary (enby, to use the jargon) as an undergraduate, and am a little proud to say that my generation was the one that forced — finally — the entire world, or at least the good-intentioned, progressive part of it that I am fortunate enough to reside in, to acknowledge something many queer people (and feminists and restless square pegs of many varieties) have long sought: freedom from the bright-line tyranny of gender and its accompanying expectations. In this case, starting with some of the most basic elements of the English language: the pronouns he and she. There’s power in sloughing off both of them, and some fun, especially when I see how befuddled the whole thing can make people. There is a certain satisfaction in making this confusion you seem to be having — What box to put Brock in? — your problem, not mine. I’ve thought enough about it.

This all seemed very exciting in the Trump-tainted years, during which I was a gender-studies major in college, determined, as one is at that age, to find themself and stick it to the toxic Man. Just a few years later, they/themness is everywhere. The “pronoun go-round” is the new icebreaker in schools and at the office. Your resistance-leaning co-workers feature their pronouns in their Slack bios and email signatures and Zoom panels. Joe Biden (“he/him”) and Kamala Harris (“she/her”) have billboarded theirs in television interviews. And capitalism and the culture industry have been happy to co-opt it. It’s on the reboot of Sex and the City, Star Trek: Discovery, Grey’s Anatomy, and the animated cartoons Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Peacock announces a new horror flick called They/Them starring a bunch of he/hims and she/hers and describes the movie as a “queer empowerment story.”

You certainly can’t avoid it during this year’s Pride Month. There’s a Manhattan Mini Storage billboard that reads MAN-HATTAN, SHE-HATTAN, THEY-HATTAN, WE-HATTAN. It’s on $15 T-shirts for Target’s 2022 Pride collection that read SHE HER THEY THEM HE HIM US. There are THEY/THEM face masks available on Etsy. Even peddles pronoun kitsch. Earlier this year, the Museum of Sex sent a promotional email with the subject line “Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas for 2022 — LOVE LOCK DOWN for Womxn, Men, He, She, Him, Her, They, Them, Xe, Xyr, Yyrself and Xirself.” Another promotional email subject line: “Men’s & Non-Binary Engagement & Wedding Bands.” (You know what doesn’t sound at all romantic? A nonbinary engagement ring.) A publicist sent me — addressing me on the mailing label as BROCK COLYAR, THEY/THEM — a free sample of what are supposed to be nonbinary razors. (“After all, hair is hair,” says the letter; I beg to disagree.)

It has gotten so ubiquitous that it’s pissing off the crypto bros: In early June, Jesse Powell, chief executive of Kraken, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, told his staff they had best conform to whatever pronouns they were assigned at birth, whining, “It’s just not practical to allow 3,000 people to customize their pronouns.” He also suggested that people who don’t conform to his various conventions should just quit. Pronouns have become a talking point in right-wing media, from The Wall Street Journal (“This ostensibly benign practice helps to normalize a regressive ideology that is inflicting enormous harm on society”) to the podcast Red Scare, where one of the hosts, Anna Khachiyan, considers it a symptom of the “decline of western civilization.” Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has also in the past couple of years gone on the record getting worked up about the First Amendment implications of regulations designed to prevent language discrimination.

The Powells and the Alitos think they are losing something — some settled sense of the world, presumably with (to use the jargon) cisgendered men like them ruling wisely over us all. It clearly makes them crazy that seemingly everybody’s teenager (and even my cousin’s dog, according to my cousin, anyway) uses they/them pronouns now. The UCLA Law think tank the Williams Institute reports that 1.2 million adults in the U.S. identify as nonbinary. As for young people, a 2020 survey by the Trevor Project concluded that about one in four queer youth use pronouns that aren’t exclusively she/her or he/him; in addition to they/them, there are those who use she/they and he/they or dozens upon dozens of “neo-pronouns” like ze/zir and fae/faer. (If you’re dizzy because you keep thinking, But it’s just not grammatically correct!, please know that English speakers have been using they as a singular pronoun on the written record since probably the ninth or tenth century. If you found someone’s phone at a bar, I’m sure you would have no problem saying, “Someone lost their phone!”)

All of which should be good, right? And yet I’ve begun to wonder what exactly I was trying to accomplish when I started using they/them pronouns and insisting you do, too. In cities and states where it’s not so easy to talk about your pronouns all the time, Republican politicians are passing legislation targeting trans youth and their parents, censoring classroom discussion (a.k.a. “Don’t say gay!”), and even trying to ban minors from attending drag shows. Could all of the energy put into enforcing pronoun culture among people already generally sympathetic have been better spent elsewhere?

I also wonder whether today’s clunky pronoun etiquette has played a role in stunting my self-understanding as well as my self-confidence. I worry that in the end, they/them is just another dead end that mostly serves to annoy some people and make others feel better about themselves. Is something that has become enormously widespread actually a failed queer experiment, less a civil-rights triumph than a trend that blew up too quickly and makes us all feel persnickety? If this is a step toward some other utopic, gender-blurred society, when did it start to alienate me?

We know, Uncle Joe. Photo: National Center for Transgender Equality

I don’t remember the first time I met an enby or someone who used alternative pronouns, or even the first time I felt it resonated with how I understood myself. My first coming out, after all, felt like a much bigger to-do. I grew up in Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee, and even though everyone there suspected I was gay — I built most of my personality around a love for Stevie Nicks and had watched gay porn since I was 12 — for whatever reason I didn’t think I was. Instead, I maintained crushes on my best girlfriends and eventually dated one. (She would go on to date a girl instead, who transitioned to a man, and then after they broke up, she started dating cis men.)

Then I went off to college, where, unlike back home, there were lots of openly queer people who quickly identified me as one of their own. I didn’t hesitate to kiss the first boy who ever danced with me. (It turns out he was “straight,” and years later we’d sleep together, immediately after which he’d start posting photos of himself in dresses on Instagram; what I’m trying to tell you through these seemingly unrelated escapades is that nothing about any of this is simple or easy to understand, even for those involved.)

But you’ve heard this story before — about the small-town boy who downloads Grindr and finds the people he wants to fuck, many of whom want to fuck him, too. With that confidence, I started to learn what I wanted for myself. Although being “masculine” — or presenting that way online — is a popular sexual marketing tool among the gays, it was never going to be for me. I started wearing makeup and more jewelry and perusing the women’s section of thrift stores. But what I learned as I tinkered with my personal presentation is that the “masc4masc” gays didn’t always want to hook up with someone who didn’t conform to their version of homomasculinity, with its cropped tees and jockstraps. (Honestly, I just found it all a bit tacky.)

Perhaps subconsciously looking for answers to why I didn’t feel at home among many of those who shared my supposed sexuality, I began pursuing a major in gender and sexuality studies, taking classes on feminist and queer theory and reading all the things they have you read at a fancy liberal-arts school with classes like “Feminism in Trumplandia” and “Queer Modernisms,” such as this from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” In other words, gender is a construct, yadda yadda yadda, and gender is a performance.

This classroom knowledge — plus the privilege of being a twinky white kid living on a college campus in the moneyed northern suburbs of Chicago — felt like it gave me freedom to play. I didn’t feel like a man, or a gay man, especially of the varietal I found around me. But I didn’t feel like a woman, either. What I wanted was to be free of anything that would label me distinctly male or distinctly female. I wanted my gender to be nothing, null, nada. After all, that Butler quote begins, “There is no gender identity.” Therefore, couldn’t I just forgo one?

There was also the fact that midway through my first semester at college in 2016, instead of getting the first woman president we all assumed we were going to get, we got — well, you know who we got. During that initial year in office, Trump’s administration rolled back LGBTQ+ rights, in part through erasure. For example: removing any mentions of queer people from government websites, revoking protections for trans students guaranteed by Title IX, and announcing that trans people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. The left’s response was to insist on queer visibility. Out of power politically, they could at least control some things. Like … pronouns.

At Northwestern, a task force was formed to discuss and research the experience of “gender-queer, non-binary, and trans (GQNBT)” students, faculty, and staff, and when its final report was released the following year, 2019, “respecting and affirming names and identity” was at the very top of its list of recommendations, above creating gender-inclusive restrooms or addressing health-care needs of the gender nonconforming. Admittedly, some of the impetus behind “respecting and affirming names and identity” involved encouraging the school to honor trans students’ chosen names, but there were also several pronoun-specific directives, like “Ensure that pronouns appear in course rosters.” Learning pronoun preferences suddenly became just as important as learning first names — a nightmare, one could imagine, for a professor with a room of 100 moody first-year students. One caveat from the report: “Be prepared to respond to shifting best practices and adjust as social and cultural standards shift.”

It wasn’t just on campuses, of course, though the momentum certainly started there. Shit was changing real fast all over. By 2019, Merriam-Webster named they its Word of the Year (“Lookups for they increased by 313 percent over the previous year. This curiosity is remarkable for a venerable old pronoun,” the dictionary noted), and the American Psychological Association officially endorsed its use (in an example, the APA spelled it out as simply as possible: “Kai is a nonbinary person. They attend university in their home state of Vermont and are majoring in chemistry”). Jessica Bennett, later to be named “gender editor” at the New York Times, wrote a piece headlined “She? Ze? They? What’s in a Gender Pronoun?” and then declared a “new gender revolution.” After all, only a few years before, in 2015, even The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy was side-eyeing the practice, writing in a profile of Transparent creator Joey Soloway, “It would sound crazy, for instance, to describe Soloway by saying, ‘They are my favorite director.’ ” In the same article, the poet Eileen Myles, who has since adopted they/them pronouns, was quoted tripping over someone else’s, acknowledging and excusing it away with, “It’s not intuitive at all.”

By 2018, I was eager to join in on the hype and decided to start identifying as nonbinary. At that moment, it felt sexy and radical, like I’d discovered a shiny new paper clip in the lip. I also smoked cigarettes, painted my nails black, and listened to a lot of Bowie (“Rebel Rebel’’). This too was kind of a punk provocation.

Plus, in that era of Trump and Me Too, I had just been sexually assaulted for the first time, and what worse to be in 2018 than a man? Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t feel like one, but at the same time I didn’t really want to be one, either. It was a political declaration. Identifying as nonbinary was my way of saying to everyone else, “I’m not playing your game.” As the activist and artist Kate Bornstein said to me recently, “The sneaky magical thing about that word, nonbinary, is that it doesn’t say what you are. It only says what you’re not.” And as a friend told me not long ago about their decision to identify publicly as nonbinary, “I’m not asking you to consider my gender as much as I am asking you to spend a little time considering yours.”

But the pronouns, for me, were always beside the point. I never led with them; it felt like announcing a new haircut that nobody had yet noticed. The way I’d gotten a grasp on my weird, sticky feelings about my body was by experimenting with my presentation and the kinds of people I pursued romantically, not telling other people how to refer to me when I wasn’t around. (Another perplexing thing about the pronoun tedium: How often do you have to use somebody’s pronouns in front of them?) This felt like a personal discovery, and my unwillingness to wear my pronouns on my sleeve (literally, like on a name tag at some campus meet and greet) clearly bothered people. At the time, I was particularly close with one of my professors, whom other professors were constantly approaching nervously to ask how they should refer to me. She would tell them, “I’m not sure. What do you want me to do? Ask Brock about their sex life, too?” I treasured that response, not only for its refusal to abide by the norm but also because, subtly, it did just that (“their sex life”).

When the pronoun go-round became the norm in the classroom, I began sharing only my name — “Hi! My name is Brock” — but more often than not, a do-good cis person would remind me to please share my pronouns. It felt like an unnecessary spotlight on my difference, which was already visible to anyone who looked at me at the time (it takes practice to figure out eyeliner).

Then, on the first day of an internship at Ms. magazine, I gave it a try. When it was my turn in the go-round, I said, “Hi! I’m Brock, and I use they/them pronouns.” The next day, my editor told me my job for the summer would be writing about “male feminism.” I learned that new pronouns wouldn’t do much to change the way I was perceived by others.

When I graduated from school and began my first job out of college, at this magazine, “What are your pronouns?” became the first thing many of my new co-workers asked me — proudly, hip as they were to this representative of the incoming generation. I would usually say, “They/them, but I’m really not that precious about it,” because I didn’t want them to think I was some kind of Gen-Z Gender Police here to sow discord in their workplace. Plus I learned that people liked me more if I didn’t make a big fuss about it, and I secretly enjoyed watching people bumble over their words in front of me, which felt like sweet payback for the same people constantly telling me about all their trans friends and family members. That was part of the fun. I was, I thought, forcing them to think.

Privately, I’ve often also told myself it was my privileged duty — as someone, for whatever reason, not terribly easily triggered — to be other people’s workshop. I was, effectively, a safe space for them. And maybe they would do better the next time they met a nonbinary or trans person. I justified my flippancy with a 2019 opinion piece by the Black feminist Loretta Ross in the New York Times arguing against callout culture. In it, Ross tells a story about accidentally misgendering a student during a college lecture. Unfazed, the student responds, “That’s all right; I misgender myself sometimes.” Ross, in response, writes, “We need more of this kind of grace.”

By then, the pronoun thing quickly became oppressive. (Admittedly, my presentation also became more refined: better shoes, better hair, better eyeliner technique.) At work, people began asking me about them even more often, sometimes on a weekly basis. There was a sign placed outside the men’s room and the women’s room at the office that said RESTROOMS ARE BINARY. PEOPLE ARE NOT. (Do you know what’s not binary? Single-stall restrooms.) Every barista, every first date, every stranger at a party, every best friend of ten years, and (in a sign this had truly gone mainstream) my mother inquired about my pronouns. Do you know what ruins sex? Asking for pronouns directly before, during, or after getting naked; I’ve experienced all three. All of my friends’ moms ask them about my pronouns and then my friends recount the conversations to me … again and again and again. Now that I have my byline in this magazine, I have become Googleable. Type my name in the search bar and “Brock Colyar pronouns” is one of the autofills. I’ve watched people I don’t know discuss my pronouns on Reddit threads and in TikTok comment sections. (Does my algorithm know my pronouns?) I go to a party where I overhear a close friend accidentally use he/him to refer to me. I then hear another person, someone I’m not that close to, lay into the first person. I’m not sure whom I should be more offended by, but everybody is embarrassed. I’ve been consumed by pronouns.

A Manhattan Mini Storage ad.

Many of the nonbinary people I’ve spoken with recently feel similarly underwater. For some, there’s a sense that constantly asking about pronouns is a way for straight people to virtue-signal their wokeness. Ben, who previously worked for a company where putting pronouns in email signatures was the status quo, told me that when they switched jobs to a less self-consciously progressive organization, their co-workers quit getting them wrong. The unwoke, without all that lefty pressure, were simply less worked up about it. Another person phrased their experience this way: “It’s constantly straight people freezing up and stressing out. Like, How do I be an ally?” There is nothing enjoyable, in other words, about being a small-talk roadblock. “I can’t relax because you can’t relax. It makes it not fun for me,” said Beau, talking about their experience with pronoun culture at work. Sam, another nonbinary person present for the conversation, told me they don’t always insist upon their pronouns in the office for exactly these reasons: “Although the people I work with are very nice, they’re also 45-year-old women who are gonna fuck up and make it super-awkward when they fuck up. ‘Oh my God. I didn’t mean that.’ ‘Oh my God. I’m so sorry.’ ‘Oh my God. Are you offended?’ I don’t want to deal with that.”

However, advertising their pronouns was helpful when Sam explained their gender to friends and family: “I present pretty femme. When people meet me, they’re going to think I’m a woman, but that’s simply not the case. How do I let somebody into that experience without being disgustingly vulnerable?” The solution: they/them pronouns. The problem: The pronouns then become a hang-up for titillated and nervous cis people. They ask for your pronouns, usually not once but a number of times. Still, “If you know my pronouns,” Sam continued, “you know very little about me. It was never about the pronoun. We’re doing it for other people. In an ideal universe, I don’t need to have a pronoun.” Another nonbinary friend, Nic, added, “What I prioritize more is how people relate to me. Do you see me as me and not this thing, this word?” Which reminded me of those first days at work, when my new co-workers would ask for my pronouns before they asked where I was from, what school I went to, where I was living in New York, or what my ambitions were as a journalist.

Christopher, who presents as femme and used to work in a job where they had to deal with the public all day long, told me the bombardment of pronoun questions sometimes made them feel even more uncomfortable than a misgendering. “I go to work. I’m wearing a miniskirt. Everyone asks me for my pronouns. To me, what that means is ‘I see that you’re a man. And I see that you’re dressed in a woman’s costume. And I would like to know whether or not you want me to participate in the fantasy you’re having,’ ” they said. “I don’t think my answer should fundamentally change anything about how we’re interacting right now. And the fact that you’re so desperate to know is weird.”

Of course, on the other side of this hang-up are all of the well intentioned trying desperately not to fuck up. “I think a lot of the conversation has been around ‘What do I do if I get it wrong?’ I think people are afraid of making mistakes,” says Alfredo Del Cid, the head of learning and development at Collective, a California-based consulting firm for issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (Collective is a vendor for Vox Media, which owns New York).

Which brings me back to Loretta Ross’s grace. Part of the reason this is a lightning rod for the left and the right is this specter of the angry queer, ready to yell at you for getting their pronouns wrong. Which is understandable — it takes a long time to figure some of these things out, and screw everyone who can disregard all of that work with a quick he or she — and at the same time is partially grounded in truth (though society is always ready to frame its outsiders as wet blankets, as the scholar Sara Ahmed has written about extensively, there’s a reason my Twitter handle is @UnhappyFem). But for me personally, it has always been perplexing why our gender has become so predicated on the experience of injury. What exactly is empowering about going through life with a reservoir of internal anger, ready to explode on anyone who doesn’t understand our admittedly complicated relationships to our genders? The gender theorist Jack Halberstam, who admits to also being “loosey-goosey about pronouns,” told me about a recent experience of being misgendered at a doctor’s office. Rather than getting upset, he chose instead to think about the receptionist who had done the misgendering. “I can’t say to that woman in the office, ‘How dare you?’ This is her job. I need to be generous about what she’s doing all day as well, not demanding on every level that I am comfortable.”

A mask from Etsy. Photo: Etsy/Howddode

Meanwhile, maybe in an attempt to inject some humor back into the conversation, all of this has become a meme on the queer internet. I scroll through Twitter: “I’m the first non-binary person to have a little tummy ache,” “He/him sun, she/her moon, he/they rising,” “Working in a tea shop is the most non binary job,” “Orville concert was a transformative experience … bunch of Bushwick they/thems screeching ‘Yass vibrato!!’ ” Trident gum, the brand, tweets out, “he/they of the day: spearmint Trident gum.”

Quietly, my friends and I deploy our own they/them jokes. Most have to do with stereotypes and sex. At drinks with a nonbinary former hookup, they define the stereotype: “People who survive on their parents’ money, putting on a shit ton of crazy makeup, floating around Bushwick, being hyper politically correct.” They continue, “There’s so much of my personal life that’s embedded in word politics,” meaning they can’t figure out what their boyfriend should call them (definitely not “partner” at this age). Another friend, who was recently told they were a hookup’s first “penis person” — which is only slightly better than something I read about in a confessional on Instagram, “good they” — and I begin using the word joyfriend as a joke, but then it starts to catch on.

It doesn’t help my headache that many representations of nonbinary people in the media are social-justice-warrior characters like Che Diaz, the “queer, nonbinary, Mexican Irish diva” on And Just Like That … Avie Acosta, a genderqueer former model, told me, “People don’t want to sit with ambiguity and mystery. There’s no poetry to Che Diaz.” There’s also a meme of one person responding to another person correcting their misgendering of the actor Ezra Miller: “Right, thanks! They keep assaulting people, women mostly.” These are the cringe struggles of representation. And what’s there to say about Jonathan Van Ness?

These days, it feels as if an identity that, not long ago, felt unique to me in most rooms I entered has gone mass. Yes, part of what I’m personally upset about is the fact that this thing I loved isn’t so alt anymore. But more than that, it feels as if pronoun culture has contributed to nonbinary becoming just the third gender after male and female, more static and concrete than its original fluid intentions. The same nonbinary person who complained about nonbinary stereotypes lamented to me, “I don’t want to be a homogeneous normcore mashing of the two genders.” Ben hoped, “If man or woman can mean so many things, then so can nonbinary.” We all became nonbinary to escape gendered expectations, and now we’re stuck again. I can’t help but think that the walking-on-eggshells battle for pronouns is turning my gender into a human-resources-approved corporate product, more neutered than neutral, and, maybe above all else, profoundly unromantic. Next time, just call me by my name.

They, Then and Now