[Content note: brief mention of suicide.]
Being nonbinary has one hell of a negative externality.
Which is to say: for most people I encounter, I’m the first person they’ve met who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Normally, pronouns are a part of speech we don’t think much about, similar to “the” or “and.” Having to consciously think about the scaffolding of language is awkward, makes speech less fluent, and makes people feel guilty when they mess it up.
Is this a huge cost for most native speakers of English who don’t have a language disability? No. But when you’re me, and looking at sixty years of causing other peoplt to go “she, uh, I mean, they”… well, it adds up.
It occurs to me, though, that no one has a similar problem with “he” and “she”. No one has any difficulties calling Alice “she” and Bob “he”; the problem only arises when they must call Eve “they”. And this isn’t a product of any Inherent Gender Sense in the human brain which excludes nonbinaries– native Chinese speakers, who don’t have gendered pronouns in speech, have equal difficulty with “he” and “she”. The important variable here is whether people have used the pronouns multiple times a day since they were small.
The best estimates suggest about 0.3% of the population is trans. Only a fraction of those people are nonbinary. The average person may go years between talking to nonbinary people. The problem seems insoluble.
However, gender dysphoria isn’t a binary Yes or No variable. Some people say “either I transition or I kill myself; there’s no third option.” Other people are like “I am miserable as my assigned gender, but I can survive.” Still others are like “I’m less happy than I would be if I transitioned, but I can be okay in my assigned gender.” And many people– perhaps a group larger than the rest combined– are like “I am happy now but I would be even happier if people viewed me as a different gender.”
Right now, it seems like the plurality of people who transition are in the second group, with a large minority of the first group and a smattering of the third. But if we want nonbinary genders to be normal— if we want people to be used to calling people “they”, to have it roll off the tongue as easily as “she” and “he”– we are going to have to welcome a whole bunch of people in the third and fourth groups.
We’re never going to get there to be as many nonbinary people as there are men and women. We’re probably never going to break ten percent. But if we get one in a hundred people to identify as nonbinary, then the average person is going to interact with a nonbinary person at least once a week.
And then– we develop a way to signal that we use gender-neutral pronouns. We have an “Other” option on forms. We get gender-neutral restrooms. And no one stumbles on our pronouns again.
While I’ve been using “nonbinary” and “uses gender-neutral pronouns” interchangeably in this post, they aren’t the same thing. Many nonbinary people use “he” pronouns or “she” pronouns. And some cisgender people use gender-neutral pronouns. A lot of nonbinary people tend to frown on cisgender people who use gender-neutral pronouns; however, I don’t think we should. They’re doing us a favor, getting more people to use and become comfortable with our pronouns, helping us hit that one percent.
In conclusion: if you want to use gender-neutral pronouns, please do– whether you’re cis, trans, questioning, or breaking down the cis/trans binary. All it can do is help. Thank you.