The pronoun wars have become personal: A member of my family identifies as gender-queer and has requested that we honor them by using the pronouns "they/them/their" instead of the exclusively masculine or feminine ones when referring to them.
Since I am a literal-minded person to a fault, the use of plural pronouns to refer to a singular person is challenging. The concept of applying gender-neutral pronouns is not problematic for me, but I sort of wish there were a whole new set of words for an individual nonbinary person. When I mentioned this to another family member, however, she reminded me that, as a writer, I surely must be aware that language is a living, changing, organic thing. And she is right.
I think of words that were once in common usage, but that are unnecessary or obsolete today. For example, most women I know neither wear nor own a "crinoline." Other words have a completely different meaning from a century ago: The adjective "sick" used to be a simple synonym for "ill." In a young person’s jargon today, it can be a compliment. Words we think we know also evolve, as seen in the linguistic change of "queer" from an adjective meaning "odd," to a slur aimed against gay people, to a description reclaimed by the LGBTQ community. The fact that the Oxford English Dictionary annually adds new words and meanings to our shared lexicon, with such entries as "vape" and "doomscrolling," should relieve my unease.
It hardly matters, however, what I make of my loved one’s preferred pronouns. What matters is that I respect their wishes, just as I would respect anyone else’s request regarding what name they wish to be called. And I submit that respect is deeper than political correctness or wokeness or any other accusation provoked by the social issue of pronouns.
It’s obvious to me that there is a vast field of lived experience between the endzones of male and female. I often cite the example that I like pro football and my husband likes shopping to illustrate the ways we all sometimes contradict the gender stereotypes. But my liking something mildly surprising is nothing like actually identifying as someone different from my outward gender.
I don't know what it's like to suffer from gender dysphoria, which the Mayo Clinic defines as "the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics." I have never worried that an alternately-gendered person lives inside my female body: my pronouns are she/her/hers. I have never agonized over coming out as my true self.
It hurts my heart that my loved one has silently endured this precarious and anguished state for so many years. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel whole. I want them to be free to be exactly whom God intended them to be.
I invoke God because Scripture teaches us that God created all of us in God's image. And God, in God’s infinite wisdom and compassion and love for us, does not make mistakes. If the gender identity of a person created in God's image troubles us, rouses our anger, or makes us feel that we must persecute that person for being different from our expectations, God is not the one with the problem. We are.
Not everyone agrees, of course. LGBTQ people frequently face contempt, rejection and discrimination from both family and strangers. In Warrenton, Ore., for example, a public library trustee had this to say when a new library employee with they/them pronouns was introduced in a newspaper column: "I don’t like being forced to read such pronoun drivel. And I’m sure this wokeness is permeating our little library." I imagine the new employee thinks their pronoun choice is neither "drivel" nor "woke," but rather an honest identity. Perhaps the reference to "our little library" is a metaphor for the trustee's smallness of outlook.
My grammatical brain still rebels against the plural-for-the-singular, and my clumsy tongue still trips on the unfamiliar sentence structure. In spite of my failings, however, my heart is in my efforts. By struggling to abide by my loved one’s pronouns, I am attempting to show how much I love them. My speech may be awkward, but in the long run, kindness and consideration require little of me, other than an open mind.
Should someone in your life come out to you as gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or nonbinary or queer, I hope you will respect and honor them for whom they tell you they are. I know it's not easy to let go of our own norms or preconceptions. I know it can be complicated to accept an unfamiliar premise. Try anyway. Learn their terminology. Use their pronouns. Be the one they can rely on for support. Be the tender face of love.