I often find that history has very interesting things to teach us. It might reveal ancient familial ties we never knew existed. Or maybe that the actual inventor of the printing press is not who our grade 4 teacher said they were. But one unusual thing history can also teach us is that the past, at times, is more affirming and radical than we thought possible. I can go on for pages talking about the systematic erasure of queer and trans folks in modern history and how this "trend" of transgender children is not a trend but historically accurate. But that is not what we're here for today. Today history teaches us something foundational about trans folks. Today history teaches us grammar.
Within my own history as a trans person, whenever I introduce myself I am regularly asked for grace as people figure out my pronouns. The use of the plural they/them pronoun as singular is confusing, they say. It takes time to get used to.
There is this idea within our society that the singular pronouns they/them are grammatically incorrect and thus too foreign for immediate satisfactory usage. But what I make very clear to new people I talk to is that this is not a new skill for them. In fact, I have used singular they/them pronouns in at least two sentences since starting this post and I'm sure you barely even noticed. Because not knowing someone's gender often leads to gender-neutral pronouns until there is further clarification. And this is not new to us. History and grammar laws prove this.
And as proof, here are some examples of singular they/them pronoun usage throughout literary history:
Hamlet: "'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech." (Shakespeare, 1599)
Here Shakespeare could have used she/her pronouns. We knew he was talking about a mother, singular. And generally people who identify as a mother use she/her pronouns. But Shakespeare instead uses them. Not to make some radical claim of gender inequality. He is not saying the mother is genderqueer or non-binary. Shakespeare is merely using a common facet of the English language for no real reason other than to use it.
Elizabeth Bennet: "Of whom does Jane ever think ill? And who is there, whatever might be their former conduct, that she would believe capable of such an attempt, till it were proved against them?" (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin, 1813)
Those of us well acquainted with Jane Austin's work will know of quite a few moments in which she uses they/them pronouns when the gender of the example person is unknown, much as in this comment made by Elizabeth Bennet.
Throughout history, we as a western society, have shifted from using they/them pronouns for people who's gender we do not know to a vague guess based on stereotypical cues. How often have you talked about a new doctor with someone and just automatically used he/him or she/her pronouns? Maybe their name is Dr. Kelly Smith. You might default to she/her pronouns. But Dr. Kelly is actually a cisgender male. You just misgendered Dr. Kelly, obviously not on purpose, but you still did. To remedy this situation Jane Austin would suggest they/them pronouns. The translators of the KJV Bible would also suggest they/them pronouns. Even the NIV translators in 2011 used they/them pronouns!
Philippians 2:3 "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves." (King James Version, 1611)
Jane Bennet: "But to expose the former faults of any person, without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable." (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin, 1813)
Mark 4:25 "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them." (New International Version, 2011)
I am going to be very blunt about something, so please stay with me to the end. The pronouns they and them have never been restricted to only plural meanings. These words within the English language have always had a plethora of meaning (including singular pronoun usage). To suggest to someone who uses these pronouns that they are using grammar incorrectly is false. A quick look at our own historical lexicon proves that.
Instead of getting caught up in grammatical intricacies, I want to encourage those who struggle with calling people by they/them pronouns, to really analyze why they are struggling. Is it just the grammaticism's of a sentence that making you stumble over your words? Or is it the fact that by purposefully using they/them pronouns you have to recognize this person in front of you as something other than your binary perceptions of male and female? Do you have an issue with grammar or an issue with gender? Because I find that more often than not, people hide behind the "complications" of grammar instead of confronting their own transphobia.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that because you accidentally misuse a pronoun you are automatically a horribly transphobic person. What I am saying is that these small sign acts might be pointing to something much bigger.
To be an ally of queer people you actually have to look deep within yourself and see if there are biases and phobias around queer identities. Doing so does not admit defeat. Instead, recognizing your own transphobia and fighting against it is exactly what transgender people need.
And if you have done this vital piece of work, fought your transphobia tooth and nail, and still have a problem with the grammaticism of it all, I have a resource for you. Trinity Western University has what they call a Quick Start Guide all about pronouns within language including the validity of the singular gender neutral pronoun they/them. I will link it down below.
Thank you for getting through what might have been a very hard piece for you to read and I encourage everyone to keep sending in questions so we can continue on this journey together.