They Is… by Angela Rieck

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I have been an advocate for gay rights since my teens.  As a teenager struggling to fit in and equally uncomfortable with dating, I unconsciously sought to “date” boys who were gay.  Few admitted it at the time, but it was clear that we were each other’s “beard”.

My eyes were opened to the incredible injustice that gay men and lesbians suffered in 1969 (ironically, the same year as the Stonewall uprising). In my junior year of high school, I went to the University of Kansas to take summer classes in Spanish. There and I “dated” a gay man, who had come out to his friends but not to his family.  To help me understand his life, he took me to a secret gay bar. Hidden in a deteriorating house in a struggling neighborhood, there was no indication of the activity inside. A person guarding the door (from the inside) let me in when my date “vouched” for me. They didn’t care that I was only 17, just that I would be discrete. When I entered, I saw about 30 regular people sitting at the bar and at tables and I was struck by their ordinariness.  

“Everyone here is so NORMAL.”  I exclaimed in wonder to my date. 

Apparently, I said it loudly because the customers turned to look at me and saw an incredulous, young, naïve girl. They laughed and graciously came over to share their stories. 

I was surprised to learn that they were just like everyone else: schoolteachers, a principal, an executive, several military men, a salesman, nurses, women who worked in offices.  Some were married, others divorced, only a few had always been single. They had one thing in common. Absolute fear of being discovered.

At that time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was a crime in most states.  If they were discovered, they faced imprisonment, losing their jobs and humiliating their families. 

I never forgot how difficult their lives were and the injustice that they faced if they lived their truth.

As our nation has evolved, acceptance has spread to the transsexual community and to people who choose not to define themselves by gender (non-binary). “Non-binary” individuals do not wish to be defined as either male or female.  

This is where the problem occurs. The English language has never been great with indefinite pronouns. Traditionally, he or him has been the default pronoun for a person with nonspecific gender.

I have struggled with the use of the male pronoun, thinking that it was inherently (albeit unintentionally) sexist.  My solution has been to randomly interchange he/him or she/her for the indefinite pronoun. Not a particularly good solution.

The problem is solved by using “they” as a singular pronoun and “their” as the object.  Which brings us to the awkward “they is”.

Many colleges today ask incoming students to identify their pronoun: he/she/they.

Dictionaries have followed suit. Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary have recently added notes supporting the use of the singular “they” for a person whose gender we don’t know. 

Some usage is easy for me.  For example:

If Lisa or John had time, I would contact them. (The correct pronoun is “him”.)

In fact, “they is” solves a lot of problems.

But it just doesn’t sound right and I stumble when I try to use it.  Over 60 years of grammatical training cannot be undone so easily.

Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.

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