Writing From the Heart: Navigating new pronouns

Learning to refer to each other respectfully.


Last night I was at a Zoom birthday party. In our introductions as we went around “the room” we were asked to identify our pronouns. It wasn’t the first time I encountered such a request. Last year when I was training for a political fundraiser on another Zoom call, it was the first thing we were asked to do. That time I had no idea what in tarnation they were talking about. Soon after, a close friend told me she was now going to be a “they.” Huh? I remember saying. She said, “Nance, some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of male or female. Some don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s genders change over time. It’s just respect we’re asking for.” I started to understand but as we kept talking, I kept making mistakes which “they” kept correcting.

At first I had a lot of trouble processing how to navigate the language. My feelings were not the problem. The grammar abuse was. How could I say “they” are coming to visit when it was one person? I asked her (they) why “they” couldn’t come up with a better word. She was able to laugh with me and I was able to suspend any judgement.

After I hung up from the celebration last night where we were also asked where we lived and who the indigenous peoples were, I felt old. A fabulous kind of old. I thought, look how far we’ve come. And look what these kids care about.

My first encounter with a gay person was in 1954, when I was in seventh grade. After school everyone went to Maxwell Drug for rootbeer floats and potato chips while we waited for the city bus. There was a mirror that ran the full length of the shop and stools that lined the full length of the mirror. I was standing behind a girl whose reflection I could see clearly. I must have been staring because she turned with such venom and said, “What you lookin’ at?” I couldn’t say I was looking at you because you don’t look like anyone I’ve ever seen before. I couldn’t say you are a girl but you look like a boy. I couldn’t say it, not because I was afraid of hurting her feelings or what she would say back. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t even have the language.

In my family I had heard the yiddish word “feggilah,” which was used to describe a boy who was feminine. It was never spoken in derision, maybe in hushed tones now that i think of it, but it seemed like it was just a description. But I had never heard of the opposite gender with any kind of word. So this situation I found my 13-year-old self in was brand new.

But being taunted for being different was not new. I was tall for my age and was called “lanky lew” and “stretch,” and when they really wanted to hurt me they called me dirty Jew and kike. The snowballs had stones in them, and walking home from school was often a scary ordeal. Kids who wore glasses, anyone with a limp, kids who were chubby, kids whose parents got divorced, anyone who had anything different had to be on guard.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds but it can’t help itself when it comes to paradigm shifts. And in my old age, the age I am cherishing now, I have seen a bunch of them. For one tiny example, how did we manage to go from smoking on airplanes to being forced to stand out in the cold in front of our workplace building in such a short time? And indigenous people? I don’t think that was in my consciousness until I was a grown up and read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

Last night most of the partygoers were young. And when I hung up I thought about what I cared about when I was their age. How I hated my curly hair. How many calories a scoop of mint chip ice cream was. If the cute guy who had asked me for my geology notes would call me. It’s embarrassing.

I also realized (not for the first time) that it’s those young people’s (did I ever think I would use the phrase “those young people”) job to teach me to move forward. I thought I was the teacher and I also thought I was always ready to learn. But I have been noticing I do not always like being taught.

My grandparents saw the advent of the car, the telephone, the television, women doctors, the polio vaccine, the WPA, the atomic bomb, jet planes, transistor radios, antibiotics, using Ms. instead of Miss and Mrs. (maybe the “they” of it’s time).

So if my Gram and Pappy could adapt to all those changes, certainly I can figure out a way to say “they” without wincing. Respect for my fellow human must win out over my love of Strunk and White’s perfect-sounding grammar.

At least I knew and was proud to answer, the indigeonous peoples of my home where I now live, is Wampanoag.

Unfortunately, I still think about the mint chip ice cream.



  1. I love traveling with you in your writing, Nancy. I felt myself in your shoes. My older brother used the term he-she, and I picked up on that until society (they) developed a more appropriate language to identify and communicate with those who don’t fit neatly into the gender box. But I gotta agree with you on “they” as a replacement for he or she. It’s like fingernails on a blackboard. I’m doing my best, but “they” has always been plural in my world, so it still gives me heartburn to use it when referring to a single person.

    I never thought of this gender pronoun issue in comparison with all the advances our grandparents witnessed in their lifetime. And the adjustments they had to make. It is a brave new world, this 21st century.

    Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Your essays bring a smile to my face, and they always leave me with something to ponder.

  2. Nancy, you’ve done it once again! Only you can waltz us through such an important and timely topic with this much eloquence and grace. As I was reading “The Story of the Pilgrims” to my 3 year-old granddaughter, who was interested in why we celebrate Thanksgiving, I realized that I needed to replace the word “Indians” with “Native Americans” the dozen times it appears in the 1995 copyrighted book. After spending 20 minutes Googling racist-free alternatives for the “eeny, meeny, miney moe” rhyme, I made up a choosing rhyme of my own to use with my grandchildren. And I had to catch myself when I wondered out loud why someone would wear a babushka to the inauguration, realizing that it may be because she’s Muslim. Yikes! I suppose adapting to a changing world has never been easy, but at least today’s changes feel like positive steps in our evolution.

  3. Nancy, I loved this! I have also been perplexed by “they”. If you are bringing this person with you to a dinner party, do you say “I’m bringing they” or “I’m bringing them”? Of course you can, and should, just give the name! A recent leader of an online conference I attended listed her pronoun as “she/they.” So, one can refer to her as “she” (or her) as well as “they”, which I thought was great.
    Diane from Cape Cod. Miss you!

  4. Thank you Nancy! I’m 68 and facing, in some ways, the same dilemma! The aspect I face is I am finally admitting to myself that I am a radical Being who is furious about having to be designated a gender at all. There are limitations of what we can think if we speak 2021 English, as opposed to other languages that I have heard have nuances of understandings that English does not. I do know poetry. That English has often sustained me. I do know my heart. I do know I want to express my care, concern, love, passion, ideas, meaning, the full catastrophe as Zorba the Greek would say, with kindness and respect. I was born with certain body parts. Today I can even change that! Who and how I touch and love is mine to decide. I am survivor of childhood sexual trauma. I choose healing and forgiveness. Perhaps it is time to reach beyond the convenient easy english of either/or, or truncated text speak, of TV speak. Perhaps it is time to speak the language of the heart: I feel. I love. I have a body. That is enough.

  5. Nancy this is such a delightful reassurance that I’m not the only grammarian out there trying to wrap my head around the use of “they” from a language POV and from a personhood POV. I turn to my teenage son and his friends very often to help me get it all figured out. The encouraging and wonderful thing about this is that “those young people” (omg am I now considered old??) is that this (i.e. “they”) is completely natural for them. They are growing up in a world (or maybe I should say SOME are growing up in a liberal community, because not all young people have caught on yet or live where this is taught or accepted) where gender identity truly is “fluid” and it’s no big deal. So enlightened! For those of us taking a bit longer catching the gender train we need to keep the wheels of our minds moving. Thank you for bringing humor to this important topic, as you so often do.

  6. Damn Sistah! I’m with you on the grammar abuse. “Hey you” is starting to sound pretty darn sweet. xoxo No One.

  7. I can picture the images Nancy touches on in this piece. Nancy uncovers something here that makes me recall my own coming-up experiences that I supposedly forgot. Her juxtaposition of the silly with the profound is endearing. It’s Zen writing.

  8. Nancy – your articles are balm to my brain – you have a way of distilling the essence of life into a nectar for the thirsty reader. I can feel the dusty road kicked up by the rude driver to easing up on my aging annual resolutions and the quixotic pronoun that dribbles down my chin in a low murmur. Your humor and glee for every minute tickles my heart!!
    Glad to have you on the page !!

  9. Nancy – I always appreciate your insightful, inspiring messages which touch my heart. Thank you for bringing awareness to pronouns used today. Enjoy reading your articles. ???? Michelle

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