DemDaily: The Politics of Personal Pronouns

August 21, 2023

Language is an ever-evolving social creation that continues to adapt to societal views, events, expression and history.

Among the most prominent examples of linguistic evolution in recent years is the adjustment of the English language to be more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people. One of the most significant elements of this movement is a heightened appreciation of the use of personal or gender pronouns.

The introduction of gender-neutral pronouns like "they, them, theirs," as alternatives to the more conventional "he" and "she" has been the subject of much debate as corporations, institutions, schools and even the US Congress have embraced new terms in the name of diversity.

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of one or more nouns. Personal pronouns are words you use to refer to someone, other than the person's name. A gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronoun is one which does not specify the gender of the person being discussed.

Public discourse around gendered and gender-neutral pronouns has existed since the beginning of the English language. The Middle English pronunciations of pronouns for men and women were practically indiscernible, until the development of the pronoun "she" was introduced in the 12th century.

"They," the most common gender-neutral pronoun used today, was used as a singular pronoun as early as 1375 and can be found in the works of both Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Advancements in linguistics reflect multiple cultural trends and events that have shed a light on issues of gender inclusivity and the manner in which individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth wish to be addressed.

Those events, over the two decades, include the increase in hate crimes against transgender individuals, the influence of prominent public transgender and genderqueer figures, and the election of LGBTQ+ officials at all levels of office.

In 2015, the American Dialect Society voted the singular gender-neutral "they" as its Word of the Decade. In 2019, Merriam-Webster became the last major dictionary to include a nonbinary definition of "they" following the lead of the Oxford English Dictionary and guides such as the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook.

"If you aren’t already clear about which pronoun a person uses, it’s OK and often advisable to ask them. Don’t refer in interviews or stories to preferred or chosen pronouns. Instead, the pronouns they use, whose pronouns are, who uses the pronouns, etc. While many transgender people use he/him and she/her pronouns, others — including nonbinary, agender or gender-fluid people — use they/them as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun." - AP Stylebook, 2023

Legal Status
In 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes discrimination based on an employee’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Under the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the use of pronouns or names that are inconsistent with an individual’s gender identity constitutes unlawful harassment in the workplace and is a violation of Title VII.

From day one of his administration, as a part of President Joe Biden's policy of tackling discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, individuals can select gender-neutral pronouns when contacting the US government. It is part of an ongoing government-wide effort to remove barriers that transgender people face accessing critical services.

In January 2021, the US House of Representatives, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, approved gender-neutral language in the official House rules and established a permanent Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

In March 2023, the Republican-controlled US House passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would require parental consent before honoring a student’s request to change their gender-identifying pronouns. If a school failed to obtain parental consent for such changes, it could lose federal funding. The bill failed to come to a vote in the Democratic-controlled US Senate.

Legislation in at least 10 states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah -- exempt teachers, staff, and classmates from having to use students’ pronouns or names if they don’t align with the student’s sex assigned at birth. In six of those states, teachers or administrators are also required to tell parents if their child requests to use a different name or pronouns.

A March 9-23, 2023 PRRI survey of American adults showed a majority of Democrats (53%) say they would be comfortable with learning that a friend uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared to 17% of Republicans and 34% of Independents (MOE: +/- 1.5%).

Regardless, the choice is theirs.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: AP, PBS, NIH, Ananzar, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, EEOC, PRRI, EducationWeek, LGBTQ+ Pride Center/UCM, White House, US Congress

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