On Pronouns

I have a character in my current work who uses “they/them” as pronouns. When I presented a scene featuring this character in my critique group, my fellow writers were thrown off. They asked why I’m using “they” for this character. My response was that I’m writing for this century, in a timeframe that’s maybe one or two decades in the future, and not the previous century. I think they found my response somewhat flippant.

Maybe in a few decades, the English language will have found a way to resolve the crux of their objection: the ambiguity between the use of “they” to refer to a group instead of an individual. But right now this is what we’ve got to work with. I expect my group would be equally uncomfortable with “xe”, “xir” or anything of the like, even if they applied to this character, which they don’t. My group felt the use of “they” made the whole scene hard to follow and recommended that I revert to “she”.

My problem is that while this character might present mostly as female, they are not cis female. I was asked why I had a character that preferred these pronouns in the story at all. I responded that I didn’t want to be exclusionary. Their response was that they thought by potentially confusing readers in this way, I was being exclusionary to those readers! If I’m interpreting this right, they think that the act of making someone make the effort to figure out who the sole “they” is in a three-person conversation is more exclusionary than modifying a non-cishet character to fit the he/she dynamic, especially since this character’s gender/sexuality isn’t germane to the plot.

I’m stunned by this. Certainly, none of us in my group are young. This change in the way we use language is recent and perhaps more difficult for people in my demographic to accept (or at least for cis folks in my demographic). I told my group that I’ve read bestselling novels in my genre where gender is ambiguous or even fluid, where pronouns can change depending on who’s speaking. By comparison, one gender non-normative character is trivial. Certainly, it takes a little more work on the part of the reader to follow but my feeling is that to call it exclusionary is absurd and reflective of the barriers gender non-normative people face every day, even among people with less conservative values.

Good literature leads, not follows. My character will remain unchanged, just as they are now.