Why Using They/Them to Avoid Misgendering People Could Do More Harm Than Good

A Twister game spinner with nonconforming gender icons on it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I’m a skinny, white lesbian. I have short hair, exclusively wear men’s clothing, and avoid makeup. When people first interact with me, I can see the Twister spinners in their heads pausing on “teenage boy” before settling somewhere between “????” and “trans.” My stint in customer service only increased the frequency of these encounters. “Don’t worry,” a customer would say to their significant other in the movie theater concession stand line, “I told”—notable pause—“them to put extra butter on our popcorn.” I was addressed with gender-neutral terms like them and that person far more than my gender-conforming co-workers.

Most people’s spinners don’t seem to have a “gender-nonconforming woman” region, although that’s what I am. I am a woman who only uses she/her pronouns, but my gender presentation is decidedly masculine. In the lesbian community, this borders on boring. Yet elsewhere, even in progressive circles, it’s enough to break people’s brains. At first glance, straight, cis people seem to assume I am a young boy. The queer community assumes I am a trans man or, more often, a nonbinary person. Aggressive men on the subway assume I am a curb-stomp-able freak. Of those nonviolent examples, it’s actually the nonbinary read with which I take the most issue.

I get it. In liberal circles, they/them pronouns are largely considered the safer default option when you don’t want to misgender someone. The problem is, putting a stranger in the “they/them” gender category is still putting them in a gender category. This practice requires the assumption that any gender-nonconforming person cannot identify with a binary gender—in my case, woman. It may seem paradoxical, but this is still misgendering.

People who ask to be addressed with they/them pronouns tend to identify as nonbinary, or outside of the gender binary. Agender, bigender, and gender-fluid people all technically fall under the “nonbinary” umbrella. As a result, nonbinary-identified people exist all over the spectrum of gender presentation. Yet the general assumption in progressive circles seems to be that nonbinary people are white, skinny, female, and gender nonconforming. This creates issues for any nonbinary people outside of those categories, as well as for people who meet those criteria but are not, in fact, nonbinary.

To be clear, getting they/them–ed doesn’t upset me because I think there’s something wrong with being nonbinary. There are commonalities between all gender-nonconforming experiences, regardless of identity, and I do feel a certain solidarity with my fellow gender outlaws. Still, being a woman is integral to my identity, and it hurts when people in my own community assume I am not one because of the way I style and dress myself. I have done a lot of work to become comfortable with my own womanhood.

Growing up female is a practice in mental gymnastics, as one tries to separate who she knows herself to be from the narrowly feminine, dehumanizing images of women all around her. From disproportionately high rates of body dysmorphia and eating disorders to the disassociating effects of sexual violence, girls are raised to feel alienated from their own bodies. One of my greatest achievements in adulthood has been finally learning to love and accept who I am as a woman. This is integral to who I am as a lesbian feminist. I love, advocate for, and protect other women. When people assume I am not a woman, it’s a blow to my sense of self. I imagine this must feel much the same for feminine-presenting men.

In liberal spaces, I prefer getting he’d to getting they’d—at least those who assume I am a boy rarely pause to consider where to put me. Honestly, it’s that pause that cuts the deepest, when I can see people size me up and decide I don’t fit into their incredibly antiquated definition of what a woman should look like.

So what should you do if you’re a well-meaning person intent on being considerate of people’s gender identities?

If you’d still rather use they/them pronouns to avoid gendering people, you need to use them for every stranger you meet, not just gender-nonconforming people. It’s impossible to shove people into the “other” category if you don’t create categories in the first place. I understand that this may sound idealistic and a bit silly—if you don’t live in a progressive little hamlet by the Berkshires, they/them–ing the biker dude on the other side of the counter could have some serious consequences. Asking everyone, “What pronouns do you use?” leads to similar issues.

Instead, then, let’s all agree to try our best. I don’t appreciate being they/them–ed, but I know the people who misgender me can’t read my mind and don’t know what that act represents to me. I’ve done my part in this awkward dance, silently stewing instead of politely correcting those well-meaning customers. But I realize now that nothing will change if I don’t start that conversation. And this should be a conversation—mandating one “correct” practice for gendering others is a fool’s errand, as is expecting others to just naturally do what you want.

There is a divide in the LGBTQ community as to whether misgendering is inherently violent or not. I’m only one person, but I’ve heard from trans and gender-nonconforming people who agree they would rather be cluelessly misgendered than decidedly degendered. In the case of the polite they/them, intent matters as much as impact. If we gender-nonconforming people treat others with compassion and allow them to make mistakes, and those people likewise are open to correction, we can more effectively change the conversation around gender to include all kinds of bodies and presentations—including a pocket-size Rachel Maddow like me.