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Gender-neutral pronouns shouldn’t be a big deal

Lee Airton teaches in the Master of Teaching Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. They welcome questions on singular they usage and user support at www.theyismypronoun.com

The recent public discourse around gender-neutral pronouns has been sensationalistic and fundamentally unhelpful. From opinion journalists to university professors, some are sounding the alarm over an anticipated loss of freedom, implying that being required to use someone's preferred gender pronoun could lead to disaster for individuals and Canadian society.

Arguably, this outcry was sparked by Bill C-16, which will add "gender expression" and "gender identity" as protected categories to federal human-rights and hate-crimes legislation. Ontario has had legislation similar to C-16 for five years, but now, having passed second reading with the overwhelming support of the Liberal majority, the cabinet, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself, C-16 will likely become the law of Canada.

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Related: Their story: 'I want to be somewhere between two fixed points of gender'

Opinion: Welcome to Vancouver's gender-neutral pronoun wars

Absent from the discourse have been diverse voices of gender-neutral pronoun users, particularly those whose lives are not an inferno of conflict for everyone around us. And so, I'd like to throw a wet blanket on this smouldering conversation, and suggest that using someone's gender-neutral pronoun can be no big deal.

I'm a long-time user of the gender-neutral pronoun singular "they." I ask that others use this familiar Standard English pronoun when referring to me because it doesn't put me in either the man or woman basket. Why? Because a lifetime of abiding gender non-conformity has led me to a place where singular "they" makes deep sense. I have found that it facilitates my ability to be myself and in the world, where I commit my energy and enthusiasm to doing the best that I can for myself, my students, and my communities.

I'm not equipped with a tragic story that would make others' extra efforts feel undeniably warranted. I wasn't suicidal before I realized that I wasn't really into being "she" or "he." This would be a good time to pull this story out, but I don't have it. Singular "they" is just a gentle calling card: an easy and concise way for others to understand me a little better.

I have colleagues and bosses. I have friends, family members and neighbours. Maybe three use singular they as their own pronoun, and many have never met a person apart from me who does. There is tremendous diversity among them in terms of a) whether I have taken the time to explain and ask them to use my pronoun, and b) how often they use my pronoun correctly. None of these people are being hauled up before the Ontario Human Rights Commission just because they've made mistakes. And they do make them.

To be clear, I do not want anyone to lose their livelihood, experience significant distress, be shunned, or be incarcerated just because they have trouble using my preferred gender pronoun. A lot of people I know and care about are still working on getting it right. I would have to advocate exaggerated sanction for them as much as for anyone else, and I have no wish to see them harmed, whether by me or by the state. People I love, trust and respect make mistakes with my pronoun. I still love, trust and respect them when they do.

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I'll be the first to admit that my pronoun can be silly sometimes, that it can cause confusion, prompting the need for clarification. It takes patience, practice and sometimes humour. But I've found over the years that working through these little challenges can foster warmth, connection and community.

Lowering the stakes makes it possible for everyone – no matter their pronoun – to feel like their needs are sayable and important. I believe that all of this can happen without the threat of sanctions, and I look forward to good people proving me right in the years to come.

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