Just as with countless other words in English and in other languages, the word “they” does not have any one meaning, nor is its meaning fixed in time.
The dictionary defines they as follows:
And as will be clear to more and more queer-versed people, this definition omits the uses of the word “they” when it comes to nonbinary or gender neutral people. More specifically, it’s time we think of “they” as a gender fully and equally parallel to “male” and “female.”
Instead of saying, for example, “Whoever is selected as the candidate, he or she will have important decisions to make” or instead of “Whoever is selected as the candidate, they will have important decisions to make,” say, “Whoever is elected as the candidate, he, she, or they will have important decisions to make” or “Whoever is selected as the candidate will have important decisions to make.”
“He” and “she” perpetuate a problematic, ahistorical, and unscientific binary.
“They” used as either a singular word for when the gender of someone is unknown or used as an all-inclusive label, risks excluding trans (and cis) people who have fought hard for a gender identity that could be male or female.
While I continue to long for a time when we might be able to move past all gendered language–because of the unconscious sexism it helps perpetuate–we’re not there yet.
For now, people need to stop thinking of “they” as an appropriate pronoun to refer to another noun when we’re talking about students or workers or any “group” of people–instead use a more specific pronoun or the appropriate noun in question. Additionally, more often than not, pronouns and gendered language aren’t needed to communicate the idea in question.
Just as calling someone a woman when that person identifies as a man is rude and offensive, deliberately calling someone a “he” when the person in question is a “they,” is not appropriate. Don’t misgender people.
Just as there are billions of ways to be a woman, there are billions of ways to be “they”–being neither a man nor a woman or maybe both or maybe something in between.
Because we live in a society so steeped in concepts of she and he exclusively, adjusting takes practice. Re-learning is part of life. While we might unconsciously think of the name “Jackie” as one gendered female, it could just as easily be a name for someone who uses the pronoun “he” or “they” (or “ze” or any of the other non-binary pronouns for people).
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda