Right off the bat, I know I can’t come into this discussion unbiased. I’m a nonbinary person (someone who is neither male or female). That said, on the topic of pronouns, I don’t think anyone can be truly neutral. Pronouns are a huge part of how we refer to people and our relationship with pronouns is affected by our gender. The difference between me and most people is that my preferred pronouns are uncommon, because neither “he” nor “she” fits for me.
“Neopronouns,” as they’re often called, are pronouns that go beyond the usual “he/him/his” or “she/her/her” that English provides. Commonly seen ones include “ze/zir/zir,” “xe/xem/xyr,” and “ey/em/eir,” but countless others exist.
Neopronouns are popping up in response to a gap in the English language. Most nonbinary people are uncomfortable with using “he” or “she” as their pronouns, but other people are usually unfamiliar with the pronouns that do accurately reflect our gender. Most of my nonbinary friends are still closeted at work and with casual acquaintances, because they know that people’s reactions to nonbinary identities and neopronouns are usually confused or dismissive.
There is some growing awareness of binary transgender folks (those who exclusively identify as male or female -- Caitlyn Jenner, for example), but a lot of people aren’t even familiar with the concept of nonbinary. It’s hard to come out when you know your gender and pronouns are likely to be misunderstood, if not outright disrespected and mocked.
In my life, I’m still partially closeted. I don’t correct strangers on my pronouns, I don’t out myself as nonbinary to employers, and I know that the vast majority of people I run into while I’m out in public see me either as male or female - not as a nonbinary person. I live as a transgender man out in “the real world” because it’s more comfortable and accurate for me than living as a woman, but it’s still not quite right.
Pronouns are my biggest hurdle to being openly nonbinary. I could use a gender neutral name, though I eventually opted to switch to a masculine name for work and public spaces after realizing how many people pronounce “Lore” as “Laurie.” I can alter my body and attire to look androgynous, which I’ve done quite successfully; I consistently hear strangers alternate between “ma’am” and “sir” - or “ma’am” then “sorry, sir” after they hear my voice. I’ve even had surgeries to make my body match my gender. But our current terminology and attitudes don’t allow me to be out practically or professionally as someone who is neither male nor female.
I want a basic recognition of my gender in our language. I picked my preferred neopronouns, “ze/zir/zir,” when I came out as nonbinary three years ago. I don’t care about having a particular nonbinary pronoun; if another neopronoun becomes popularized and accepted, I’ll jump on that bandwagon. I want to use the easiest pronoun that acknowledges I’m neither male nor female, which is why I also accept people using “they/them/their” for me.
As I mentioned above, I’ll even take “he/him/his” - but that’s really reserved for public places, and using it suggests that while you respect me as a transgender person, you don’t quite understand or accept me as a nonbinary person.
When first looking beyond “he” and “she,” the first and most obvious option is “they/them/their.” Its use as singular third person has been described extensively, but it’s still not acceptable to present yourself to most employers or strangers using “they” as your pronoun. “It/it/its” is also technically a gender neutral pronoun, but since this is typically a term used to refer to objects, many folks find "it" to be dehumanizing.
Turning “they/them/their” into an acceptable and common pronoun for individuals would be a good start, but I want to go a step further. I want to celebrate and invite pronouns that loudly proclaim that they are neither male nor female. I don’t want to restrict these pronouns to nonbinary people either; anyone who sincerely would prefer a pronoun that’s not tied to gender should be able to use that pronoun.
We’re generally expected to remember the first names of people we know. For those to whom we are close, we’re also expected to remember their last name, birthday, and a whole host of other unique information. How hard would it be to ask friends to remember our pronouns as well?
For cases where we aren’t as close to someone and can’t remember their pronouns, why not just use “they/them/their”? Most of us already do that to an extent without realizing it. “That bus driver almost ran me over while I was crossing the street; why the hell weren’t they paying attention?” When talking about a person of unknown gender, most people default to “they” without thinking about it.
Also, I might be in the minority as a nonbinary person, but doesn’t it feel weird sometimes to be constantly identified by gender? When I step back and think about it, our pronouns for people are solely based in gender. Why is that THE most important thing to reference when referring to people?
If I ran across a society where pronouns were based solely on race or age, I know I’d be profoundly uncomfortable with that. Why is gender so different? When I’m referring to someone I talked with in my office about an upcoming conference, or a candidate who is running for president, why is it so important I indicate whether the person is male or female? How is that more relevant than literally any other piece of information about them?
The argument could be made for a single pronoun to be used for everyone. Heck, I’d make that argument myself if I wasn’t a fiction writer who knows how annoying it can be to write scenes with two characters who use the same pronoun. Still, one universal pronoun seems extraordinarily unlikely to catch on, as to even begin there we would first have to agree on what that pronoun would be.
The other possible solution is simply more pronouns. This would require learning a few new words, but most people I know will happily learn new nouns, verbs, and adjectives when it comes to slang, technology, food, or internet memes. Just like people have come to understand the verb “to tweet” or the noun “selfie” as more folks around them use these terms, neopronouns will get easier for everyone as they’re more frequently discussed and employed.
For neopronouns to become more normalized and understood, they need to be used by more people. Some of my friends who don’t identify as transgender or nonbinary have expressed that they’re comfortable with, or even prefer, pronouns that don’t focus on their gender.
I do want to acknowledge that existing gendered pronouns are really important to some folks. If someone tells you they use “he” or “she,” use that pronoun for them. In particular, many transgender folks have dealt with harassment and misgendering which includes purposeful use of the wrong pronoun. If someone asks you to use a particular pronoun, use that pronoun for them.
I don’t expect an immediate shift. I don’t expect everyone to run out and pick new pronouns, or to learn every possible neopronoun out there. And that’s fine. What I do ask is that you contemplate the possibilities of moving away from an exclusively gender-focused binary of pronouns.