For the love of they, them and we who use them.
Those of us who are nonbinary, who use these pronouns, or both, didn't need a dictionary to validate our identities, or the pronouns we use. Anyone and everyone's identities and pronouns are valid, whether the dictionary or other cultural institutions acknowledge them or not.
Let's say that again, just for good measure, as well as for those who still don't yet have the privilege: everyone's identities and pronouns are valid, whether the dictionary or other cultural institutions acknowledge them or not.
They and them in this kind of use were grammatically correct and in use for a very, very long time -- at least all the way back to the 1300 in the English language alone, a thing our pals at Merriam-Webster have not only already backed us up on, but explain the context of pretty nicely, so I hopefully can be done, finally, with having to say much more about it myself.
Respectfully -- I say that because I was a child who literally read the dictionary front to back by choice; I have a level of reverence for the dictionary that borders on religious -- they do miss the mark a bit in that blog post.
For some, being nonbinary or using they/them is, as they say, about being (they actually say "seeming," which is awfully cringeworthy, so I'm going to just say being instead and hope that someone takes the hint) neither male or female, or man or woman.
For others, it's more complex, dimensional or just plain different than that. It might be about being outside or beyond that whole system of gender so completely -- as is often the case for people who identify as non-gendered -- to the point that "neither" doesn't make sense, much like describing a tomato as "neither suitable building material for an office building nor a reliable means of human transportation," wouldn't be a sound way of talking about the systems tomatoes are even any remotely feasible part of. If you just don't feel any attachment or orientation within a system at all, or maybe don't even believe in its essential existence, "neither" in reference to that system and you just might not work at all.
They/them or being nonbinary can also be about being -- sometimes, as is the case for many genderfluid people, or even all the time -- a nonbinary man or a woman (or both, or all: these things aren't exclusive in nonbinary frameworks like they are in binary ones), but not feeling, experiencing, or presenting those as binary, where there are only two genders or sexes, or where they are framed as opposites or two parts of one whole. Those are just a couple examples. Nonbinary identities, they/them pronouns, and the people who use them have a wide range of experiences and expressions, and it's usually about a lot more than just not fitting into male/female or man/woman. For more on this, this wiki is a good place to start, and so is Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson's Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns.
This recent addition to the dictionary isn't about they/them being brand new, so much as having evolved to have an additional, common use over the last few decades, and this change doesn't make they/them correct when they weren't before. This recent addition is, one hopes, about recognizing and acknowledging a use of these words that has become common and -- and this is the best part -- recognizing and acknowledging the existence of those of us who use those words and others like them in this way and supporting us in language.
This also gives those of us who use they/them the ability to at least say, "Go look it up in the dictionary," which is going to be an awfully nice break from the myriad arguments, defenses and sometimes out-and-out fights we all get constantly cornered into engaging in, with way too many people, if and when we have the audacity to ask people to just call us what we want to be called. Thanks, Merriam-Webster.
I'm also hoping -- for all of us, myself very much included -- this might help to more quickly usher in the end of:
• Articles announcing someone uses they/them pronouns that STILL misgender them, for crying out loud (Sam Smith literally told the whole world their pronouns, and the AP reported on that using the wrong pronouns, something that had to be way harder and far more brain-breaky than just using the pronouns Sam handed over so clearly).
• Reading pieces that, when using my pronoun -- a thing I, like most people who use they/them, usually have to work very hard to get people to include in the first place -- say things like, "Heather, who prefers they/them pronouns..." That's never written about people who use he or she: neither that they "prefer" he or she, nor that they use he or she. Instead, their pronouns just get used without comment.
While we're here, good form with this is not "prefers." Our pronouns are our pronouns, period; they are the pronouns we use. I prefer people call me by my first name, not my full name. They/them are my pronouns. Easy, right? To say which pronouns a person uses in context, you don't usually need to say which pronouns they use
• Having to choose between he or she on things -- including things that identify us to others in very lasting or powerful ways, and sometimes matter more than how we ourselves actually identify -- when we don't want to choose either, and when everyone should have a third option that can literally be used by everyone, anyway, no matter how they identify. Having a gender-neutral option -- on all things -- just makes sense, and not just for nonbinary people.
• Having to explain at the beginning of books or articles I write that I use they/them for myself and others, what it means, and ask people to go along with that as if I were asking them to engage in some kind of hard labor rather than just acknowledging our identities like they do for themselves and others who use he/she.
• Experiencing someone painfully try and ask what pronouns a person uses while trying not to use he or she, when they can instead just say, "What pronouns do they use?"
Ideally, people would and will respect our identities and our pronouns, dictionary inclusion or not. But, alas: we don't live in an ideal world, we live in this one.
I know I'm not the only one who's got some feelings about people who NOW will get on board because of the authority dictionaries are afforded, but wouldn't before when we -- the very best authority on ourselves -- told them who were were and what our pronouns are. Or people who will say that their only issue was that it was apparently not grammatically correct before, and has been deemed so now, not only because that's now what has actually happened, but because we all know that was never their actual issue. Their actual issue was that they didn't accept or want to acknowledge our identities.
If that sounds like you, I think you've got a great opportunity here.
If this makes you feel able to finally get on board with this right now, all the way? You can do so without cloaking it in a bunch of malarkey about how it was just about grammar or lack of apparent proper locutionary authority. (We know it wasn't.) You can instead just do it in the very best way, the way that feels the most affirming for all of us, and make it about accepting us, and the words we use because WE say. Even better, if you've got other identities or their words you're still not accepting yet, you can work on changing that now, instead of waiting for the dictionary to do it first. <3