I am 45. Old enough to remember being taught that the pronoun “he” correctly referred to the entire human race, as in proverbs like “he who laughs last, laughs best.”
She was used to indicate a single female person, not the whole. It meant my mother in this sentence: “When Nixon was re-elected in 1972, she did not laugh; she wept bitterly.” She meant isolation; he was the collective. She wasn’t even a woman, as I understood it in my formative years – she was a girl, no matter her age.
I was an undergraduate during the first waves of “political correctness” on campus, and while critics warned it would end Western civilization, I loved it. At last I had permission to push back against the cultural insistence upon the universal “he” that so rankled me in first grade. I loved being called a “first-year student” and not a “freshman.” I was a woman, occasionally a womyn or wimmin, and that was fine by me.
Then, as now, we were told that requesting changes to language and curricula meant we were too sensitive and that our sense of injury was the only thing that was incorrect. Eventually we were allowed to sprinkle “he/she” throughout our papers, but if we used “they” in the singular we caught hell in the form of red pen. Everyone wants his/her paper to receive an A…don’t they?
Turns out they do! Not even the surliest English professor could argue with sentences like these: Everyone needs to feel safe in their community. Everyone, no matter their race or gender, wants their chance to achieve the American dream.
I am 45, young enough to be parenting kids who use “they” all the time. My son and daughter know both the transitioned and the transitioning; gender fluidity is neither scary nor taboo. My daughter Miriam and I are devoted fans of the reality TV competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and one of our favorite winners, Jinkx Monsoon, identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns. For example: Monsoon wasn’t shy about their response to the 2016 election; they was on Twitter vowing to fight attempts to reverse gains made for LGBTQ rights.
Other gender-nonconforming people use the new pronoun pair zie/zir, like a non-binary friend of mine, whom I know would approve of this sample sentence: “When Trump was elected in 2016, zie did not laugh; zie wept bitterly.”
Donald Trump based his entire campaign on returning to mythological greatness, with not-so-subtle promises to re-center the white male – make America “he” again, if you will. His success reflects the deep racism and misogyny that this politically correct womyn naively hoped was on the downswing in the 45 years since she was born.
In such dark times it can seem silly to focus on something as tiny as a chain of letters, but consider the intent behind the shift from “he” to “he/she” to “they” – the demand to be seen. It is an act of resistance; it is brave, and it is necessary.
Decentering maleness acknowledges a rainbow of colors beyond clothes of blue or pink, and states in blue or red. Without a challenge to the language, how can there be a change in the heart?
It’s unclear who will be laughing last in the years to come. Thank goodness English uses a gender-neutral pronoun for first-person plural – WE will need all the help we can get.
Shannon Drury lives in Minneapolis and is the author of a political memoir, “The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century.”