Should You Default to They/Them Pronouns For Strangers?

Illustration by Julia Bernhard

by Tris Mamone

Farhad Manjoo is a writer for the New York Times, a cis man and, according to his latest op-ed, wants to be referred to by they/them pronouns. “If you write about me, interview me, tweet about me...I would prefer if you left my gender out of it,” he wrote earlier this week. “Call me ‘they’ or ‘them.’” That way, Manjoo writes, the singular “they” can be normalized, and no one will be unintentionally misgendered. 

The idea of a cis man using they/them pronouns is a bit problematic. Manjoo will never know what it’s like to be misgendered, which is the reason why many of us non-binary people use those pronouns. Some even argue that they/them pronouns are not universal gender-neutral pronouns, but specifically denote non-binary genders. 

Still, Manjoo might be onto something: Should we use they/them pronouns as a default for strangers?

I’m a non-binary person who was assigned male at birth, and no matter how much I try to present as feminine, people still refer to me as “he.” Granted, I live in a small town on the conservative-leaning Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the people there are just starting to realize trans people exist, so it’s to be expected that they don’t know anything about non-binary people yet. Even so, it’s annoying that, despite my make-up, lipstick, painted nails, and clothes purchased in the women’s department, people still read me as a man.

Sadly this is a common experience for trans and non-binary people. We try so hard to be seen as who we truly are, only to feel like we’ve failed when someone accidentally misgenders us. Many propose that the best way to avoid accidental misgendering is to refer to strangers by singular they/them pronouns. It worked for Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, and non-binary YouTuber Riley J. Dennis did a video about how everyone already uses singular they/them pronouns, so why not use they/them pronouns for strangers by default? 

I asked my trans and non-binary friends about it, and it turns out that the answer isn’t so simple.

Pros: It’s a Great Way to Avoid Accidental Misgendering

Aiden, who’s 28 and lives in Minnesota, says they’ve referred to strangers by they/them pronouns ever since both they and their wife began transitioning. “I personally couldn’t tell what [strangers’] pronouns were or what their gender identity was just by looking at the clothes they wear or how they carry themselves,” Aiden says. They also feel like asking for someone’s pronouns immediately after self-introduction puts the other person in an awkward spot. 

“I mostly hold off because I also can’t tell if someone is cisgender or not,” Aiden says, “and a good number of cis people (no matter what their proximity or knowledge on the LGBTQIA community) seem a little confused by the question. So I hold off on asking until we’ve talked on at least one more occasion, and until then, I presume they/them gender-neutral pronouns; I feel it’s a lot better than presuming their identity and then finding out that I got it wrong.”

"What is the alternative? Make your best guess? That seems worse overall."

Amy, a 43-year-old non-binary person from Rochester, New York, agrees. “When meeting a person with no one to introduce you,” they say, “it’s not usual to refer to them in the third person, so I guess that would be referring to them in your head as they/them? Seems okay.” Amy also says when a mutual friend introduces you to someone new, you can listen to how the mutual friend refers to this new person so you don’t have to outright ask for the new person’s pronouns. 

“It isn’t somehow more ok to misgender a non-binary person than a binary one,” Amy says. “It’s equally hurtful and also carries the weight of how often we end up justifying use of singular they/them. Also, what is the alternative? Make your best guess? That seems worse overall.”

Cynthia, a 65-year-old woman from Queens, New York, believes using they/them pronouns by default will eventually become a standard in mainstream society the same way we’ve adjusted to the term Ms., which rendered a woman’s marital status irrelevant. “It is useful for businesses who haven't a clue who they are emailing, sending a memo to, etc.,” she says. In 1972, she started working as a “lowly newbie after-school office clerk/sales girl” before the term “Ms.” was popularized. “Do you know how idiotic, time-wasting and sometimes embarrassing it was to have to try and figure out if someone being sent some routine business communication was or was not married?”

Cons: It Might Accidentally Misgender Some People

John, a 39-year-old living in Texas, says automatically referring to a stranger by they/them pronouns might end up being another form of misgendering “when the person is working hard to present as a specific gender.” He has a point. After all, it bothers me when I try to present as very feminine and still get called “he,” so I can imagine how it must feel for a trans woman to be automatically called “they.” A trans woman might think, “I try so hard to pass, but people still can’t see me as a woman? I must not be doing something right.” That’s exactly how I feel when I get called “he.” 

Conclusion: Using “They” Isn’t Perfect, But Mostly Harmless

Ez, a 33-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, agrees that some people may not like being referred to as “they” at first, “but it's easier for a binary person to say ‘Actually, it's he’ than it is for a non-binary person to say ‘Actually, it's they.’” People who are unfamiliar with the singular they’s existence, Ez explains, often argue about how it’s not grammatically correct at best, and at worst accuse non-binary people of being SJW snowflakes. Therefore, by using they/them pronouns by default, it normalizes the singular “they.”

Bottom line: Referring to strangers by gender-neutral pronouns is, as of now, the best way to avoid accidentally misgendering someone. Some people might find it confusing, but until we forever smash the gender binary, it’s for the best.

Tris Mamone is a freelance writer who specializes in LGBTQ issues. Their work has appeared in such publications as Rewire.News, HuffPost, Splice Today, and The Daily Beast, among others.