The singular ‘they’

We’ve come a long way

Fifty-three years ago, the March 1966 edition of the NJEA Review published an article titled “Deviations from Sexual Norms.” The article concerned itself with boys and girls who did not conform to the social expectations of their sex.

“The feminine boy and the masculine girl may be cause for some concern on the elementary level,” the article contended. “However, remember that often too much emphasis is put upon what might be termed ‘appropriate roles’ for the sexes.”

While the notion that too much emphasis on appropriate roles could very well be said today, the next sentence in that vintage article seems badly out of place: “As a matter of fact,” it reads, “there is no reason to doubt at this point that Trudy will eventually become a happy, competent wife and mother, or that Mark will choose a rugged, he-man profession.”

The article went on to provide strategies to address a variety of potential deviations from expected norms for how boys and girls are expected to behave. It suggested, for example, pointing out to the “feminine” boy the desirable, and presumably more masculine, behaviors of some of his male acquaintances and praising the child when he joins in such activities.

Fifty-one years later, the NJEA Review published a very different article on the topic of sex and gender titled, “Making Schools Safer for Transgender Students.” That article, rather than ruminating on ways that teachers and parents can change their children, challenges us to educate and change ourselves.

The more recent article celebrates diversity in human identity and seeks to ensure that our schools are safer for all students, regardless of their gender identities.

One thing that both the March 1966 and December 2017 Review articles have in common is that both recognize the presence of students who do not conform to traditional notions of sex and gender. The older article considers this a problem to be solved; the more recent article celebrates diversity in human identity and seeks to ensure that our schools are safer for all students, regardless of their gender identities.

The December 2017 article goes a step further, using data from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Last year, the institute published a nationwide survey of teenagers, aged 13-17, finding that one out of every 137 self-identified as transgender. In a high school of 1,200 students that’s about eight students. With 200,000 members, that ratio translates to 1,400 NJEA members who may consider themselves transgender.

The differences between those two articles illustrate a societal shift that is now reflected in law in New Jersey and other states. In 2017, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation directing the New Jersey Department of Education to establish guidelines that “provide direction for schools in addressing common issues concerning the needs of transgender students, and to assist schools in establishing policies and procedures that ensure a supportive and nondiscriminatory environment for transgender students.”

These policies and procedures are sometimes highly visible, such as setting aside several gender-neutral bathrooms, or subtle, such as ending the practice of commencement rituals that assign the color of graduation robes according to sex.

Language is another area where subtle changes can create more inclusive environments. In the 1970s, NJEA publications instituted a policy of using gender-inclusive language: chairperson, not chairman; workers’ compensation, not workman’s compensation; staffing the table, not manning the table.” In the last and current editions of the NJEA Review, careful readers may have noticed another subtle change: the singular they.

The NJEA Review has ceased to use the “his or her” construction in sentences where the gender of the individual is not known. Instead, where possible, the sentence is made plural (e.g., “all students… their”). In the less frequent instances where it is not possible to pluralize the sentence, and where the individual is hypothetical, or the gender of the individual is unknown, pronouns such as they, them, or their will be used (e.g., “Any member wishing to sit with their county at the event should indicate that when registering”).

In most cases, a change this subtle will go unnoticed. In others, it might cause careful grammarians to do a double-take. It takes time to get accustomed to change, but this small change is nonetheless an opportunity to signal that every member of NJEA matters and that they are represented in this union.