A few years ago Emily Gardner, who identifies as “more feminine than not,” instructed family members of a new preference to be referred to as “they” rather than “she.”
The 23-year-old represents a growing trend among progressive Americans, who are claiming a right to choose their own pronoun, regardless of their sex at birth.
It is a battle playing out on business cards, in email signatures and on social networks, where many people are identifying their preferred pronoun outright.
And “they” is gaining ground as the pronoun of choice by “non-binary” people who identify neither as male or female.
The Philadelphia bookstore that employs Gardner is on board, with a sign taped to the counter reads: “Please do not assume staffers’ pronouns, ask.”
“Non-binary people have existed forever. It’s not something new, not a trend, it’s just who we are,” said Pidgeon Pagonis, a Chicago artists who goes by the pronoun “they.”
“When people don’t respect my pronouns I coil up inside, I don’t feel good” said Pagonis, who launched the apparel brand “Too Cute To Be Binary.”
Gender-neutral pronouns, long confined to the LGBTQ community, “are becoming increasingly popular, including beyond big cities,” said sociologist Carla Pfeffer.
“The rise of social media means that cultural transformations can happen faster and disseminate more broadly than in earlier eras,” Pfeffer said.
It also helps that non-binary people are enjoying increased representation on television and in pop culture, such as British artist Sam Smith, who recently revealed a preference for “they/them” pronouns “after a lifetime of being at war with my gender.”
However use of “they” is not trending in all quarters and can give rise to mockery, with critics denouncing it as politically correct overkill.
“At a Starbucks this morning & the baristas had their approved gender pronouns,” pro-Trump conservative activist Charlie Kirk recently tweeted.
“We are creating a society of people waiting to be offended,” he said.
Mallory Cross, whose hair is cut short, said “I think I’m aware of how I look like and how people read me, I’m very masculine.”
“When I make such an effort to look that way and people call me ‘ma’am’ or hold the door it makes me angry,” Cross said.
In New York, a “gender-neutral” boutique clothing store called The Phluid Project sells skirts, caps and shoes with large heels, encouraging customers “to go beyond binaries.”
The US financial capital in particular has embraced this mindset, offering a new neutral category that people can use to amend the gender on their birth certificates since January.
Merriam-Webster dictionary meanwhile recently added the word “they” as a non-binary pronoun that can refer to just one person. And Apple has added “neutral” emojis that don’t distinguish between genders to the latest version of its operating system.
As the trend catches on, a growing number of binary people are even displaying the pronouns “she/her” or “him/he” on social media accounts and elsewhere as a sign of solidarity.
Elizabeth Warren, one of the frontrunners in the crowded 2020 US Democratic primary field, last month became the sixth candidate to add her pronoun, which corresponds to her birth sex, on her social media.
“Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that starts with using correct pronouns. I’m Elizabeth. My pronouns are she/her/hers,” she wrote on Twitter.
Candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, has specified that he is a “he/him” and heterosexual candidates Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Tom Steyer have also indicated their pronouns.
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