Begin typing your search...

‘They’ open up about right to choose gender

The website noted that the word ‘they’ is popularly used for identifying non-binary people as a gender-neutral pronoun.

‘They’ open up about right to choose gender
Illustration: Saai


Earlier this month, Merriam-Webster announced that their word for the year was the pronoun ‘they’, noting a 313 per cent increase in searches for the word when compared to 2018. The website noted that the word ‘they’ is popularly used by non-binary people as a gender-neutral pronoun.

“English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence, ‘they’ has been used for this purpose for more than 600 years,” noted the website. ‘They’ has been adopted by certain members of thenon-binary community as their preferred pronouns.

Earlier this year, when visiting a friend in Kolkata, Arvind wore kajal for the first time. This was then they realised that they do not conform to the typical male-female binary. “I experienced gender euphoria when I presented myself the way I wanted to. I felt less trapped by other people’s notions of myself, and felt who I was inside more deeply,” said the Chennaiite.

Though they were assigned male at birth, Arvind subsequently adopted a more androgynous sense of self. Choosing they/them as their preferred pronouns fit them better, explained Arvind. “A pronoun essentially replaces the noun, which in my case is my name. Pronouns are how people refer to you, and by stating your preferred pronouns, you have the slightest control over the connotations and baggage that comes with male and female pronouns,” they said. Arvind explained that they were never masculine in their behaviour, and this traced back to their childhood. “Every class has an assigned ombodhu (derogatory word for transgender people), and I was that in my class because of the way I talked, walked and behaved. By stating that my pronouns were they/them, I began undoing the years of psychological damage I experienced from bullying,” said the 24-year-old.

For Aishwarya, the ‘they’ pronoun was the closest way to describe their gender identity. “They/them are used a lot in academic writing, and when I saw it being used there, it felt right. While I do not experience any euphoria when people use my correct pronouns, I do feel satisfied when they do. It is the closest way to relate my physical appearance with the person I am inside,” they said. “Labelling oneself and their pronouns are essential to understand the systems one is working against,” said Q, a researcher and gender studies scholar who also uses they/them as pronouns. “If you are going to try and deconstruct something, you need to identify what it is you are trying to deconstruct. It is a way of saying that you exist in this form. This applies to the use of they/them as well,” they said. They explained that they personally use theirpronouns as an experiment for those sceptical of their gender identity, to think beyond the male-female binary.

Self-identification is key for any person from the non-binary community, said Q. However, this ability to establish their gender identity is threatened by the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of Rights) Act, which was passed in November this year.

The Act requires proof of a sex-reassignment surgery to be given to a District Magistrate to avail a certificate stating that they are transgender. However, Q explained that the Act wholly ignores the non-binary community, as it still regards gender in a binary.“Firstly, the Act does not take into cognizance the diversity of identities that exist. Secondly, it treats gender as a matter of great complexity, when in a matter of fact, it isn’t. On a practical and policy-level scale, self-determination is not that hard to implement, but it is treated that way,” they said.

In the West, gender non-binary people fall under the umbrella term of transgender, they explained. In the Western context, the word ‘transgender’ refers to anyone who is not cisgender (someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth). This is a result of the efforts of the LGBTQ+ movement in the West in the 70s, which categorised gender as a social construct.

Merriam-Webster credits the surge in the number of searches for the word ‘they’ to singer Sam Smith’s announcement this March that they identified as non-binary. Other popular Western celebrities that identify as non-binary include Orange Is the New Black actor Ruby Rose, Queer Eye star Jonathan van Ness, and actor Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games.

“The only reason it took me so long to come to terms with my gender identity is because of the void in the media regarding positive representation. I had a cognitive dissonance when I saw trans people on the streets. I used to look at them with disgust because there wasn’t enough information around me about trans people. There is no visceral exposure to the LGBTQ community in India. In the West, there is a clean slate when it comes to gender and sexuality. In India, gender is blackened by a negative representation of trans people,” said Arvind. A study conducted in 2014 stated that nearly 80 per cent of the LGBTQ community in India were unhappy with their representation in the media.

According to Arvind, the Indian context of the word ‘transgender’ is “bad and harmful”, as it trifurcates gender into male, female, and transgender/third gender.The current way of identifying gender rejects gender non-conforming people. Additionally, they explained that the word was socially associated with the hijra community and does not account for those on the non-binary spectrum.

In the Indian context, most celebrities who identify on the non-binary spectrum are Indian-origin celebrities based in the West. Chicago-based drag performer Abhijeet, Texas-born writer and artist Alok Vaid-Menon and California-based actor Naveen Bhat identify as non-binary. However, Tamil activist Gopi Shankar, who contested in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election, identifies as genderqueer.

Indian mythology offers instances of gender non-conformity. One such instance is that of Ardhanarishvara, a Hindu deity that embodies both the male and female body. Similarly, the fusion of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu created Lakshmi-Narayana, depicted as an androgynous deity. A study published in 2016 titled Sex and Gender Identity Phenomenon -- World vs Indian View states, “Sanskrit language that originated in India (~4000 BC) mentions about the existence of four gender states -- Pung (masculine); Stree (feminine); Kliba (Neuter) and Ubhayalinga (common gender).”

One of the arguments posed by those sceptical of the use of they/them pronouns is that the word cannot be used as a singular noun. According to Aishwarya, this was the most common argument they heard when they came out to people. “I have a policy called ‘30 minutes of stupid’ for both my gender and sexuality. It’s a safe space where they can ask all the bizarre questions they have, and I won’t judge them for it. People have asked me, ‘Oh, but you’re not multiple people! So why are you using they?’ But once the 30 minutes are up, I don’t entertain any condescending questions,” they said.

Merriam-Webster stated that this usage is grammatically correct, adding on their website, “We will note that ‘they’ has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular ‘they’, mirrors the development of the singular ‘you’ from the plural ‘you’, yet we don’t complain that singular ‘you’ is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses singular ‘they’ in casual conversation and often in formal writing.”

Q said that the most common reaction to their pronouns is denial of their gender identity. “People will say that our identity is not only illegitimate but does not exist, or that it is a pretence. The most basic argument is that people are afraid of or uncomfortable with the unknown,” they said. Arvind believes in clearing up misconceptions as long as it comes from a genuine desire to understand. “However, there is a kind of scepticism that is applied again and again to devalue my identification. People keep questioning everything until my last answer to them can only be ‘Because I wanted to’. I cannot answer to their infinite scepticism. At the end of the day, I’m also learning about myself and questioning, and I’m trying to figure it out myself,” they said.

Dialogue with the queer community is especially important for lawmakers and political leaders, said Q. They said that engaging with grassroot organisations working with the LGBTQ community will allow them to have a clearer idea of their loves, and thus, will assist them in making laws that aid and benefit their community. By offering a safe space for questioning people to explore their gender, more people can embrace their identities with ease, said Arvind, as social acceptance is a detriment to many.

Arvind said that their friend circle has been incredibly supportive of his journey, offering them a safe space to verbalise and understand their gender. Arvind’s family, however, is yet to come to terms with their gender identity. This is where the concept of ‘chosen family’ enters.

“For a lot of queer people, the concept of a chosen family is very important. It offers a safe space for you to question and experiment, while also giving you solace. The queer experience can be very lonely – I experience loneliness every time I go to work, as I am the only openly queer person there. For many, their first chosen family comes from the internet – through a Facebook group or in chatrooms. The best part of the internet is that you can log in and chose your name and how people will see you, and while it may not be so revolutionary now, it was back then,” said Arvind. However, all agree that this is not the end of their journey of questioning. Gender is fluid, said Aishwarya, who uses she/her or they/them as pronouns. They explained that their pronouns may change on a day-by-day basis, depending on which gender they identify with at the time.

“It does intimidate me that this will be a lifelong process of questioning. Firstly, there are the daily nuances of presenting my gender and how I would be perceived on that basis. People ascribe approachability based on how you look, and I realised this when I presented in a more masculine manner. Secondly, if this becomes a lifelong process, it has to be communicated to those around me constantly, and how I communicate it to them is important. People also need to understand that it’s not just curiosity or confusion,” they said. This concept is something well-understood within the community, said Arvind.

“Once you take the leap and realise that your gender is not restricted to your birth certificate, you know it can change over time. For trans people, we have already questioned and debated gender by rejecting the gender we were assigned at birth. So, we know it is a fluid concept,” they said, adding that it is now on society to understand the same thing.

What is a preferred pronoun?
Preferred pronouns are a set of pronouns that an individual wants to be used with respect to them. For example, someone who identifies as male will use the pronouns he/him, and a person who identifies as female will use she/her. Preferred pronouns include they/them, ze/zir, xe/xem, and more
Can they/them be used as a singular noun?
According to Merriam-Webster, they/them pronouns can be used as a singular noun when used as a pronoun. Several literary texts dating back to 500 years have used they/them as a singular pronoun, including works by Shakespeare
What is non-binary?
  • Non-binary is a gender identity that does not fit into the male and female gender binary. It is an umbrella term to denote various gender identities such as genderqueer, agender, gender non-conforming, and genderfluid
  • Genderqueer refers to someone who queers genders by expressing typical male and female traits at a time or neither
  • Agender refers to someone who neither identifies as male nor female
  • Genderfluid refers to someone whose identity may change based on time, such as identifying as female on one day and male on another
Are non-binary people the third gender / transgender?
Non-binary people fall under the transgender umbrella in the Western understanding of the word transgender as someone who does not identify with their assigned gender at birth. They are different from the hijra community
Why do people want these pronouns?
According to some, it is the most accurate way to describe themselves. For others, it is a way to rid of the expectations and baggage that comes with the male-female binary, and the roles played by certain genders (men are loud, women are demure). Yet another reason cited is that it gives people the power to be addressed in a manner that they have deemed accurate and correct

Send your comments to

Visit to explore our interactive epaper!

Download the DT Next app for more exciting features!

Click here for iOS

Click here for Android

Next Story