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 artist 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.
Merriam-Webster dictionary recently added the word “they” as a non-binary pronoun that can refer to just one person. Apple, on the other hand, 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.