There’s a quiet revolution happening over how we address people, and behind it lies a surprising history …
Jamie Forsstroem is excited. Tomorrow they make their debut flight with Virgin Atlantic as part of the cabin crew on a plane to San Francisco. Forsstroem will be wearing a burgundy trouser suit designed by Vivienne Westwood, with their pronouns – “They/them” – on a badge pinned to the lapel. Forsstroem comes from Finland, a country where gendered pronouns don’t exist in the language. “I’ve learned English since I was nine years old, so I’ve always known about them, but in terms of using them to define my own gender identity, I was quite late to the game,” they say. It wasn’t until Forsstroem moved to London six years ago in their mid‑20s, and started to work exclusively in English, that they decided to make the change and honour a non-binary identity that they have been clear about since early childhood.
In September, Virgin Atlantic became the latest company to throw itself into a quiet revolution sweeping through the institutional world. You could call it the great corporate pronoun push. The airline’s announcement that from now on it would be possible not only for staff, but for customers to travel under the gender of their choice caused little media furore but a big run on their rather elegant pronoun badges. Within a month, the 10,000 they had printed out for distribution on planes and in their travel shops had been snapped up. A second batch is currently on order.
It was all very different from the fuss that erupted this time last year when Marks & Spencer, that bastion of no-nonsense British values, announced that it was giving staff the option of adding personal pronouns to their name badges. A couple of months later the story had rolled on to the British Library, with reports that the library had ignored internal warnings that a similar initiative could make it seem too “woke”. In the event, more than 100 British Library staff took up the option of pronoun badges after their scheme launched.
In the case of Virgin Atlantic and the British Library, the badges are optional. Some firms – such as the energy company Ovo – have taken a more proactive line, prompting colleagues to include pronouns when introducing themselves at meetings, and introducing a signoff on emails that allows employees to choose their own combination. “It might be she/them. They could leave it blank if they choose, but I’ve not come across anyone who’s done that. We encourage everyone to use and share their pronouns,” says Louise Bailey, who is responsible for the company’s inclusion and diversity policy.
While some see such initiatives as a victory in the fight for gender recognition, others roll their eyes at the onward march of “wokeness”. A third group decry the corporatisation of personal identity, and warn about the accompanying pressures to conform. In June, it was the turn of the Halifax bank to unleash a social media storm. Their first offence was to tweet “Pronouns matter. #ItsAPeopleThing” below a photo of a staff member wearing a name tag “Gemma” followed by “she/her/hers” (grammarians generally add the possessive to pronoun groups, though most badges use only two). Their second was to double down on their message, replying to one critic: “We strive for inclusion, equality and, quite simply, in doing what’s right. If you disagree with our values, you’re welcome to close your account.”
As a writer, reader and feminist who is also the parent of a transgender child, I come at this subject from several directions. Like many journalists, I’ve struggled to wrestle the singular pronouns “they/them” into a sentence. As a mother, I sometimes feel like an explorer who has wandered off the edge of the map. The leg from “her” to “him” lost me some longstanding feminist friends, who have found the whole subject too hard to broach face to face, but was otherwise relatively straightforward. My “she” was now “he”: those hard, binary pronouns signalled an altered reality and gave me the chance to avoid the subject if I didn’t want to explain it to everyone I met at the bus stop who wasn’t familiar with my family setup. The next leg, to “they/them”, was more exposing, and I still sometimes find myself floundering.
Just look at the complexities of that bus stop conversation: in order to avoid using either their birth name or “her” – both legally obsolete – or “him” – which is sometimes chronologically inaccurate, given that “he” may have been “she” at the time that we’re talking about – I fall back on “my child” to refer to someone who is now 29 years old. Using “they” smooths the whole thing out.
My child is relaxed about being addressed as he or they, and the construction “as-was” has evolved as a handy and respectful hinge for me in conversations with friends about their childhood: “R, as-was, always liked her hair long; C didn’t for a while when he was transitioning, but now they do again.” It’s a DIY fix that I’ve stumbled upon, to honour a complex history in a close network of family and friends, though I’m well aware that many trans people reject any reference to their previous gender identity.
Why does this matter? Because personal pronouns not only give people a sense of their place in the world but also, in the English language at least, have for centuries been used to keep them in their place, socially and politically. This is why feelings run so high. It’s not an issue that divides neatly along traditional left/right lines, so how are well-meaning people supposed to navigate this confusing new world? Should we all be declaring our preferred pronouns? When does doing so become virtue signalling – or even a coded attack on those who reject the idea of gender, as they are legally entitled to do?
Though the rows that break out over pronouns might seem like a big rupture over the rights of a small group of people, for activists on both sides they trigger a deeply personal sense of oppression and injury. “The frontline now is trans rights,” said the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg after he was challenged for changing the lyrics of his song Sexuality from “And just because you’re gay / I won’t turn you away” to “And just because you’re they / I won’t turn you away”.
Sexuality was released in 1991, when the gay community was being persecuted in the UK on the streets and in the courts. Aids was known as “the gay plague” and section 28, introduced three years earlier, had prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, which was intended to mean that no child could learn about it at school. But times have changed, Bragg wrote on Twitter. “Anyone born since the song was released would wonder why it’s a big deal to find common ground with a gay man.”
“I was trying to get my rather blokey audiences to think about it,” Bragg tells me. “I met my first out gay people through Rock Against Racism in the 1980s, when Tom Robinson and the Clash were on the bill, and I often wonder how I’d have reacted if I’d just been down the pub with my mates,” he says. “Music can make a difference like that. I’m not saying a couple of lyrics will do a lot, but my audiences can be rather sentimental about the 1980s as a time when the issues were clear, and I’m constantly trying to challenge this. That isn’t to say it’s not immensely complicated – it is – but you can’t shy away from it.”
Bragg introduced the new lyrics in 2019, but they didn’t hit the headlines until he linked the song to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions campaign. This encourages firms to sign up to a set of protocols showing solidarity with trans people through measures such as name badges and encouraging staff to adopt personal pronouns on email signoffs: the addition of, say, “she/her” or “they/them” between name and title.
Stonewall’s campaign has become a flashpoint for those who regard personal pronouns as part of a bigger issue about the distinction between sex, which is based on biology, and gender, which is socially constructed. Though more than 900 firms are still signed up, Diversity Champions has suffered a slew of resignations over the last couple of years, including a succession of government departments and the BBC, which ruled in November 2021 that membership compromised its duty of impartiality in the reporting of transgender issues.
Comedian turned business consultant Simon Fanshawe, a founder of Stonewall who is now one of its critics, picks this up in his latest book, The Power of Difference, suggesting that “the idea of ‘preferred pronouns’ flows directly not from a desire to be ‘nice’ to trans people, as it’s so often characterised, but from a theoretical and campaigning perspective that everyone has an ‘innate gender’ and therefore there is a need to state your pronouns as separate from your physical sex. This is not widely accepted. In fact, it is highly controversial.” The irony, Fanshawe adds, “is that the progressive thinking and actions that have supported diversity and inclusion at work have now become tools of conformity, with HR acting as the enforcer and managers and staff walking on eggshells, frightened about being penalised for saying the ‘wrong thing’.”
Within the family, especially where young children are involved, pronouns can be a deeply painful subject, with both sides feeling they are being denied a voice. Sam (not his real name) speaks for many, as the father of a 13-year-old who has adopted the pronouns they/them. “Milly resents me enormously as someone they suspect doesn’t ‘get it’. They are wonderfully fierce and clear, but those words are emerging from the mouth of a neurodivergent 13-year-old. Intellectually, I think there are likely to be many things at play and so I resist, for myself, just accepting that Milly’s claimed gender identity is a biological fact when I suspect it is evolving and certainly not yet fixed and final.”
Sam is bisexual and his devotion to his child is not in question. He knows how important it is for Milly to feel safe and accepted at home, and dutifully puts 20p into a “naughty jar” every time he accidentally misgenders them. But he worries about articulating his doubts. “I know that many prominent people have suffered enormously from expressing any such thoughts,” he says. “Where is the space where one can wonder aloud what is going on that isn’t an expunging of identity?”
As a reader, in such situations, I tend to look to great writers for help. “Their change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity,” wrote Virginia Woolf of her gender change aristocrat Orlando, as he morphs into a woman, “… but in future we must, for convention’s sake, say ‘her’ for ‘his’ and ‘she’ for ‘he’.”
What if Lewis Carroll had written this in the first chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by their sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice they had peeped into the book their sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’”
The Rev Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, wouldn’t have recognised the concept of “woke” unless it involved Lazarus or a choir of angels on judgment day, but he would merely have been following Jane Austen, Charles Dickens – or the translator of a French poem, William and the Werewolf, in 1375 (the earliest example of the singular “they” in the Oxford English Dictionary). I take comfort from the fact that the chapter of Alice was titled “down the rabbit-hole”, because that is where the pronoun debate takes us all, and it’s indeed a place devoid of pictures or (sensible) conversation. To make sense of it I have to burrow further underground, into history and politics, psychology and linguistics.
To return to basics, what exactly are pronouns and why are they so contentious? The Oxford linguistics professor Deborah Cameron tells me that in classic linguistic grammatical theory, they are simply placeholders – “a piece of language that allows you to retrieve something that hasn’t been said or that has previously been said, or that will be said”. In other words, they’re a shorthand that prevents the need to refer to people by name again and again.
Old English used variations of the same word – “he” and “heo” for “he” and “she”, and “hi” for third-person plurals of all genders. But in day-to-day life these could be confusing. When Viking settlers brought the old Norse “they/them” with them to the north-east of England, it offered a handy solution, and gradually spread across the country. Over the centuries both second- and third-person pronouns became a marker of power and social status. The second-person “you” became superior to “thou” (as “vous” is to “tu” in French) – a distinction that, Cameron says, disappeared in standard English only with the growth of cities in the 15th and 16th centuries, because of the risk of committing a faux pas by misreading the status of someone you had only just met.
Meanwhile, in legal documents and definitions, a patriarchal establishment seized on “he/him” as the third-person default – ostensibly for convenience, but also as a way of keeping women in their place – with the result, Cameron says, that pronouns have been a battleground for English-speaking feminists since the earliest organised campaigns for women’s legal and civil rights.
The Reform Act of 1832 transformed the rights of men, but excluded women by limiting the definition of universal suffrage – the right to vote – to “every male person of full age”. In 1851, in partnership with his new suffragist wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, the English philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill neutralised the language in his most influential books, replacing “men” and “mankind” with “person” and “people”, and complaining in a footnote that “the pronoun he is the only one available to express all human beings … This is more than a defect in language, tending greatly to prolong the almost universal habit of thinking and speaking of one half of the human species as the whole.”
The history of oppression by pronoun is wittily investigated by the linguistics professor Dennis Baron in his book What’s Your Pronoun?. He quotes an American newspaper correspondent who declared in 1892 that there was a word missing from the English language. “What is wanted is a personal pronoun, common gender; the singular of they … The person that invents a word to fill the vacancy will receive the benediction of other nations as well as this.” In fact, many alternatives had already been invented. Baron lists 200 of them from newspapers and dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from “ou” (suggested by the Scottish philosopher James Anderson in 1792) to “ve”, “vis” and “vim”, which were proposed in 1864 by an American periodical, The Ladies’ Repository, as a unisex pronoun that would ensure “precision, perspicuity and brevity … in this age of improvement”.
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In 1932 the Guardian made its own contribution, when it awarded second prize of a guinea to Arthur L Dakyns, of Didsbury in Manchester, in a competition to suggest the 10 most needed additions to the English vocabulary. His offer included three “personal pronouns of indefinite gender”: ha, ham and shas. Dakyns’s list also included “Bronk: to raise and lower one eyebrow while keeping the other steady (indispensable to actors aspiring to film work)”, suggesting he was not perhaps being entirely serious. The tone of his entry is instantly recognisable. It’s mockery dressed up as wit – the ancestor of the “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” meme that emerged on Reddit in 2014 and has since multiplied across the internet.
Despite centuries of ridicule, however, the search for gender-neutral pronouns continues. A recent children’s picture book, out in the US and the UK, lists 14 different alternatives, including ey/em/eir, fae/fae/faers and xe/xem/xyr. “They can seem confusing at first,” chirrups The Pronoun Book, beside a colourful picture bubble of a bemused-looking child with unruly curls, “but you use them just like you would any other pronoun. For example, ‘Xe brushed xyr hair’.” The problem with this – and the reason that so many suggestions have failed to catch on – is that a pronoun is only a pronoun if it comes from a limited set. If everyone is free to adopt one that is not part of a socially agreed range, you might as well use their name again. “As xe said to em” wouldn’t work in a university seminar.
None of the three groups I’ve cited from The Pronoun Book exist in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s not surprising, given that words usually have to be in circulation for 10 years before they’re considered, but neither does it necessarily mean that none will ever be included, says senior editor Jonathan Dent. The OED updated what Dent calls “th- pronouns” in October 2019, to include the use of “They: them” for “someone whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions”. But he points out that language is constantly evolving, and the OED only updated the entry for “pronoun” itself in September 2021 to cover “specific use of third-person pronouns to reflect gender identity”.
The Pronoun Book is aimed at readers aged five and over. “Some people ask if children of that age need to know about this stuff, but children themselves don’t have a problem with it and there’s a huge demand for this sort of book, from schools and from LGBTQ+ families,” says its British editor Andrew James, who bought it as an unsolicited submission from American author Cassandra Jules Corrigan.
The book’s assumption that children should be free to make up their own minds is supported by Claudia, a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in young people with gender dysphoria, who says: “Misgendering young people with an intense trans- or cross-gender identification can cause them pain and sometimes results in them not even recognising themselves. Language is a social construction which brings things into being, and pronouns are a part of that.” Sam has experience of this with Milly. “They find it physically painful when I get their pronoun wrong,” he says.
Terri Apter, a Cambridge sociology professor whose research specialism is family dynamics, identity and relationships, believes an evolving acceptance of they/them may play a part in addressing this problem. “I had a grammarian’s bias that ‘thou should not use they as a singular’,” she admits. But that changed when she started work on her latest book, The Teen Interpreter, and she realised how freeing it could be as a way of avoiding gender stereotypes, and how much neater it was than her previous strategy of alternating he and she.
This isn’t just an issue of literary convenience, Apter says. She believes a wider adoption of they/them might even allow some children and adolescents to explore and resolve their confusions around gender without rushing into potentially life-changing decisions. “The problem is that, at the moment, a request to be addressed as ‘they’ is sometimes used to mark exceptional status; to say, ‘Look at me, I need special treatment.’ But it’s so useful to have a non-gendered third-person pronoun, because there are some people who feel acutely ‘not me’ when addressed as he or she.”
In April this year, the US became the 17th country in the world to introduce gender-neutral passports, offering the option of “X” alongside “M” (male) and “F” (female). We live in a globalised world where many languages, such as Finnish, don’t have gendered personal pronouns; there’s no one size that fits all. The Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld first started to explore pronouns on being shortlisted for the International Booker prize. “I had an interview with The New York Times and was asked what I wanted to be called. I remember being a little surprised. I hadn’t actually thought about my pronouns and it hadn’t occurred to me that I had a choice. In Dutch interviews, you are rarely asked,” says Rijneveld, who went on to win the prize. “But when I started doing more interviews abroad, people often asked me, and since a good neutral solution already existed in English – they/them – I chose that.”
Soon Rijneveld began to feel that this didn’t represent the true picture. “I’m being billed as non-binary everywhere, but actually it is becoming increasingly clear to me: I feel like a boy. Not a man or a woman or non-binary, but a boy.” Finally, one night earlier this year, Rijneveld made a decision: “For the past year I’ve been digging into myself like a vole and looking for what I am. I don’t have a definite answer to that yet, but that night I decided to change my pronouns in my biography to he/him. And it felt wonderful!”
There are many reasons why people might not want to declare their gender. Claudia, the child psychologist, is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, but doesn’t mention them to the families they work with, “because I work in such a sensitive area, where I wish to maintain some manoeuvrability in my clinical interactions”.
Alex, who identifies as they/them, was working early and late shifts at a Tesco store in Scotland when the supermarket rolled out pronoun badges in November 2020, and decided against wearing one. “I thought: that’s cool, but it would take away the choice to disclose my pronouns, and I’m aware that there have been homophobic attacks in my area. It would probably be fine in the store, but what would happen if I bumped into a homophobe who recognised me on the way home?”
Jane, a university professor, was delighted when her doctorate meant she no longer had to signal her gender. “In conversations with the carpet-fitter on the phone, it’s a huge relief to be able to say, ‘I’m not Miss or Mrs. I’m Dr, actually.’ It’s something men don’t have to deal with.”
But it’s quite another matter to deny other people the right to their preferred pronouns. Kate, whose child uses they/them pronouns, is outraged by friends who refuse to use “they”. “Mates of a certain age all think they are being so valid when they say, ‘I can’t do it – it’s plural! It just doesn’t make sense to me.’ It pisses me off totally. It’s lazy. Yes, I found it a little tricky at first, but it’s become completely natural. It’s how my child and their friends feel most themselves. The only respectful thing I can do is to get my head around it.”
“There’s a sense in which dead-naming and misgendering me is trivial,” says the trans writer Roz Kaveney, “but it’s also a very economical way of erasing and sneering about everything I’ve done as an artist, critic and human rights activist in the four decades since I transitioned.”
There is no doubt that social media has played a key part in the firestorm. Since announcing his revised pronouns on Twitter, Rijneveld says: “I received a tremendous amount of good messages, but also a lot of misunderstanding and hate reactions.” Yet Aoife Martin, an online columnist and IT professional who works in Dublin and lives in a small town near the Irish border, has had no problems since transitioning four years ago. “My pronouns came with me. My employers and my landlord have been very supportive,” she says.
At PwC, an accountancy firm that has diversified into a wide range of services, the option to display gender pronouns makes business sense. “We’re a professional services firm, so all we have is our people: we sell their brains and expertise to our clients, and that expertise doesn’t come in a standard form,” says Sarah Churchman, chief inclusion, community and wellbeing officer. “Your average person working in cybersecurity isn’t the same as the person in audit. Ten years ago, it was a big thing not to wear suits all year round. Now, we have people in shorts. We’re a global business and 22% of our staff are generation Z, so we want to reflect their values. Pronouns are part of that.”
Martin Smith, one of the firm’s directors, offers his own story as an example of their value. As a young gay man, he says, he found himself running multiple lives. “I had a gay life, a university friends life, a home friends life, a work life, and I didn’t know how to join it all together. It was exhausting,” he says. “What I’d like to do is to make things better for people who are a bit like us 15 years ago. It’s all about respect among a group of people who want each other to thrive and succeed.”
In my own lifetime, identity conventions have changed radically and for the better. My father was appalled in 1983 when I breached the Mrs/Miss binary by designating myself Ms on getting married. Yet it was a statement of self-belief that has helped me to negotiate the complexities of life as a working mother, and it’s an option on every official form today.
One of my school friends, who recently adopted they/them pronouns, wonders how different their life would have been if the option had existed when they were young. Angie McLachlan, who is now a bishop in a church that ministers to the LGBTQ+ community, was a tomboy at school and had crushes on girls as a teenager, but says: “There was no way to talk about being gay. The only way to express those feelings was by refusing to wear girls’ clothes, so all through school I wore jeans.”
They had been married for several years before coming out as lesbian and falling in love with the woman who is now their wife, with whom they live in the south-west of England. It was only after they had a hysterectomy in their late 50s that they finally understood that they were non-binary, and changed their pronouns. “I was very lost for a long time,” they say. “It feels like coming home.” McLachlan’s story is one of personal growth and self-respect, which they carry with them into the institution in which they work, rather than the institution pushing it on them. They were out there, alongside the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, shimmering in their episcopal purple, at a demonstration this spring against conversion practices for trans people.
Pronouns are just a grammatical convenience, which has been pushed and shoved around by accidents of history and geography, but they are also so much more than that. Forsstroem will wear their burgundy suit and badge only on flights to destinations where it is safe to do so. The fact that these do not include Qatar, host of the football World Cup, is a reminder that there are many places in the world where it is still dangerous to be gender non‑conforming. If declaring one’s pronouns, and accepting that “they/them” doesn’t ruin a sentence, can help to raise awareness and enable an embattled minority to live happier lives, then bring them on.
This article was amended on 26 November 2022 to correct a misspelling of Jamie Forsstroem’s surname, introduced during editing.
There’s a quiet revolution happening over how we address people, and behind it lies a surprising history …