Non-gendered pronouns and their requested usage

I received a polite request from someone that I should use non-gendered pronouns throughout my public content.

It was a very civil conversation and without going into too much detail, the person requesting that I do this identifies as ‘they/them’ and explained to me that the very concept of gender was alien and meaningless to them.

Which is all well and fine, except apparently it was not just that I should use gender-neutral terms in reference to them, or to people whose gender identification is unknown to me, but they would prefer that I should just use them all the time, and that even in reference to specific individuals who already have an established specific gender identity that is known.

For example the late Paul Eddington (star of the sitcom Yes Minister) is quoted as saying "A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be, ’ He did very little harm ’ ".
In describing the above, I don’t think it makes any sense for me, in 2020, to now say:

A journalist once asked Paul Eddington what they would like their epitaph to be, and they replied ‘They did very little harm’

And yet, this is what is sometimes being requested of me. Now, I’m getting old and possibly stuck in my ways, so it’s possible that I am just being an insensitive idiot - which is kind of why I am making this thread in the first place.

I get that people would prefer to be referred to in specific terms, and that seems a reasonable thing to do.
I also appreciate that our language and culture has a significant weight of gendered-language baggage (and this actually makes the use of non-gendered pronouns kind of awkward), but if there’s a non-awkward way to neutrally refer to a person whose gender identification is unknown, sure, we should try to use it.
But the idea that this should extend to cases where there is a known preference that is specifically gendered - heck, let’s make this personal; I would prefer people refer to me as he/him - it seems almost like a sort of revisionism to try to override that with neutral terms.

Is this a thing? Am I being unreasonable? What’s the solution?

But it’s certainly not meaningless to the vast majority of people. Are other people not allowed to follow their own preferences?

It’s unreasonable (and futile) for them to expect the whole language and society to change to suit themselves.

You are right. Use their preferred pronouns for them, and otherwise ignore their demands.

No, I don’t think it’s a reasonable request. The whole concept of gender pronoun preference is that it is an individual preference that it is polite for others to recognise, but that also means that people who prefer a gendered pronoun should also have that choice respected. The whole world doesn’t need to bend to one person’s individual world view.

I speak as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and am she/her.

Forgot to add a ‘solution’, I would respond with something along the lines of 'I more than respect your preference for use of non-gendered pronouns in respect to yourself and others with that preference, and will make every endeavour to use those in such circumstances in the future, but I extend the same courtesy to people who prefer I use a gendered pronoun in respect to themselves. ’

But then maybe I’m lacking in patience.

I meant to add: I also get that people can be uncomfortable when people assume something incorrect about their gender, but everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has mistakes happen to them. When I had long hair (a subset of the time when I had hair at all), I was mistaken for female a couple of times (e.g. someone from behind taps me on the shoulder and says “scuse me love”), and many more times than that, people have made innocent mistaken assumptions about my sexuality (which I know is not gender, but is on a similar sort of level in many social contexts).
IMO, it’s only bad for me to be mistaken as a female, or mistaken as gay, if I thought that being a female, or being gay were bad things in themselves. It’s no different to people mistakenly thinking I am a teacher or a chef, when I am not - honest mistakes can be awkward, but they shouldn’t be offensive.

I entirely agree. When I had short hair, I would sometimes get mistaken for a man (not for long, only from behind or something, as you say). I didn’t take offence, unless they were trying to be offensive.

It seems to me that referring to someone who is of known gender as they/them is just as misgendering as referring to your friend as he/him or she/her.

On a readability note, it’s very confusing to me when they/them pops up where I expect a singular pronoun. I have zero issue with referring to someone that way if they request it, but when referring to a person whose gender I know? Odd. “My wife, a fan of the Cubs, put on their hat.”

Singular they for a known individual is something that still sets my teeth on edge, although if somebody were to request it of me I wouldn’t refuse, (although I’d still use terms like “this person” or just repeat their name rather than “they” when possible).

The idea that this should be extended to cover the vast majority of he/she using people is quite ridiculous.

If someone prefers to be referred to as they/them that’s fine and I’ll do my best to accommodate them. But it’s very unreasonable for someone to expect another person to user gender neutral pronouns in all situations where they’re addressing the public. People seem to be more accepting of those that don’t fit into our traditional gender categories and that’s great. But I suspect the majority of people are perfectly comfortable being referred to as he or she and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

I agree with the consensus. I have an acquaintance who identifies as non binary and has the preferred pronouns they/them. As part of treating this person with respect and courtesy, I comply. It’s not a big deal.

Certain portions of the Philadelphia city charter were recently re written to be gender neutral. IIRC Before that, it said “The mayor shall perform his duties . . .” and so forth. I thought the change was great as being male is not a legal prerequisite for being mayor.

But, I don’t see any reason that gender neutral pronouns should be used when discussing a person whose prefered pronouns are known to be he/him/his or her/she/hers.

It’s a thing, you’re not being unreasonable, and there’s no solution that will satisfy the radical fringe.

Keep doing more-or-less what you’re doing - use preferred pronouns for people who express a preference, use the historic ones where it’s known, and try to use neutral ones for unknowns.

A few disjoint thoughts that don’t add really up to an essay.

  1. My general attitude aligns with the OP & the thread consensus. Treat people as they wish to be treated, but Person A doesn’t get to tell me = Person B how to treat Person C. That’s Person C’s choice to make. And absent knowledge about C’s choice, I’ll do what’s commonplace. Which today is he/she if known or reasonably assumable.

  2. I know they/them has a long history as English’s least-bad gender-neutral term. But it’s a darn shame we don’t have better word(s) for the singular variant. Plural vs. singular is one of the few useful grammatical distinctions left in English. Shame to lose that too. For a long time I adopted “s/he” pronounced roughly “shuh-hee” and “her/m”. That never gained traction and is affirmatively annoying to many. Oh well.

  3. The OP’s example of Eddington’s quote is IMO sorta mis-applied. A quote is a quote is a quote. Eddington said “he”, so when writing what Eddington said, you should use “he” within the quote. Where it gets fuzzier is once you get off the the quote and are writing about what was said. e.g. You or I write “Eddington’s request for his/their epitaph was ‘he did very little harm’.” The last “he” is/was Eddington’s decision; not yours or mine to change. The earlier he/they is your/my decision.

    And could go either way depending on how much you value parallelism vs currency. Clearly if writing about Chaucer you wouldn’t choose to use Middle English spelling, vocabulary, or word order. When does being parallel to the words of the person you’re talking about become more trouble than benefit?

  4. How do these 2nd & third 3rd person neutral pronouns compare versus things like gender neutral job titles? @DocCathode’s point above about the Philly mayor no longer having “his” duties defined in statute is well-founded. “His” clearly has no place there. But …

    Most of us are old enough to remember the fuss about mailman / mail carrier, policeman / policewoman / police officer, fireman / fire fighter, actor / actress, etc. Today it’s (100%?) uncontroversial to refer to a “fire fighter”. But are the men who do that job somehow pining for the old term fireman? Are they somehow belittled by the new term? If I’m speaking face to face to an obviously male fire fighter is he put off by me calling him a firefighter rather than a fireman?

    And if not, how is that different really from calling everyone they/them now instead of he/she? Other than merely that one idea hit the mainstream 40 years ago and the other is just now escaping from the fringe usage starting gate?

  5. I’m forced to conclude that while Person A can’t dictate what term I use for Person C, common practice can dictate what term I most likely use. Just as society has converted me from fireman to firefighter, I suspect they will convert me from he/she to they. Maybe not today, but it’s (probably) coming. I can choose to lead or follow. But swept along I will be if indeed this becomes mainstream.

I should note that I personally don’t have any problem with they/them pronouns as being somehow “weird”, I find context usually makes the meaning clear, and nowadays I default to them as much as I can be arsed to remember to.

Is this person a client that you’re producing content for? If not, I don’t see how the pronouns you use to refer to third parties are any of their business, and I wouldn’t pay them any more attention than I would to any other random crank with an opinion. (If they are, that’s obviously different, and it would make sense to accommodate their preferences.)

Also, if the concept of gender were actually alien and meaningless to them, shouldn’t other people’s use of gendered pronouns be a matter of complete indifference to them, rather than something they’re actively seeking to stamp out? It sounds to me like this is a person with an ideological axe to grind, which is fine, but the rest of us aren’t obliged to sit still and be the grindstone.

It’s 100% uncontroversial today to refer to a “firefighter” , “mail carrier” “sanitation worker” and so on - those gender neutral terms are the official job title. But in everyday speech, when referring to a known person(s), it is not at all uncommon for me to hear the gendered terms for males even from younger people* I never hear “garbagewoman” or “firewoman” or “mailman”.

I agree that common practice can dictate which pronouns are used- but I’m not so sure that it won’t be similar to what I see/hear now.

  • with the exception of policeman/women, but they usually just get called “cop(s)” which never had a gendered equivalent

Hi @doreen - Just to be clear, those were rhetorical questions with “no” as the universal answer. As you agreed, pretty much everybody nowadays is on board with gender neutral job descriptions. With, as you saw/said, the occasional backslide to the hoary old masculine-as-generic-that-isn’t-really.

My real point was that as much as the OP (and most the rest of us of us) was off-put by the other person insisting the OP use “they” for everyone, how is that different from common usage today insisting that we all use “firefighter” even for known males in the fire service?

My point is it isn’t different. It’s just less familiar. We grumbled but adapted to “fire fighter” in the 70s and 80s. I predict we’ll grumble but adapt to “they” everywhere in the 20s & 30s.

The only difference is the date on the calendar.

@LSLGuy , I think I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t talking about

That happens, but what I’m talking about is the common (IME) “My cousin is a fireman” or " The mailman came down block half an hour ago" for known males. I hear that sort of thing so often that if I hear “The mail carrier came down the block …” or " My cousin is a firefighter" I almost assume the person in question is female.

My point isn’t that “they” is different - I don’t think it is. And I’m as sure as you are that we will adapt to “they” just as we did to “firefighter”. But I think I disagree with you about the extent to which we’ve adapted to "firefighter: In job titles, yes. In formal speech and writing, yes. For mixed groups, yes. As a generic term, yes. But I think I might fall over if my neighbor referred to the six men going into another neighbor’s house as “firefighters” - it’s not incorrect , and I try to make it a point to use the gender-neutral term myself , but I seem to be the exception in my world.

I have no problem giving people respect. I will do my best to accommodated their requested gender reference. But they don’t get to decide for everyone. And I won’t use made up words.

All words are made up. The only difference is when they were made up.

ETA: actually, there is an additional difference: whether and with what meanings they became generally accepted. But their having become generally accepted a long time ago still doesn’t mean that they weren’t made up.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to offer up this as a suggestion. Grammatical gender is unnecessary. I myself over many decades will sometimes “they” someone even when I know their gender, without even thinking about it beforehand. I’m not even sure why I do it when I do it, probably either a rebellion against its uselessness or a fear of the embarrassment of misgendering someone.

But as a live and let live person I wouldn’t take offense if you didn’t take me up on my suggestion. As long as you didn’t take offense if I were to use “they” to refer to everyone myself. Which I may or may not start doing more often if it becomes less confusing as more people start doing it.