The Well-Intentioned Boomer’s Guide to Gender Pronouns

Millennials and post-millennials are enthusiastically exchanging new ideas about gender, but the biggest stumbling block for their elders may be the terms they use.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The curly haired kid I once knew as Sam is now a 19-year-old college sophomore who goes by the name Robin. Today, Robin wishes to be referred to as “they” or “them” rather than “he” or “him.”

When Robin came out as gay a few years ago, it barely raised eyebrows in their liberal, intellectual family. Eventually, Robin began to realize that they didn’t feel like a man at all, and was attracted to “people of different genders.” The standard labels did not seem to fit. “There’s something comfortable about neutrality,” Robin says.

Today, millennials and post-millennials are engaged in a far-reaching discussion about gender. A 2015 survey of a thousand 13- to 20-year olds in the United States reported that 56 percent knew someone who used gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze,” and over 80 percent agreed that gender does not define a person as much as it used to.

I’ve studied the sociology of gender and sexuality for the past 25 years, written books about it, and taught thousands of university students. But I find that I am now being schooled in the rapidly changing world of gender by those who are decades younger than me.

Meanwhile, in homes throughout the nation a child declares that their name, and the pronouns that seem to go with that name, were unwittingly “assigned” to them. And then, after spending years calling them by that name and those pronouns, their parents try to quickly adapt to new ones. Baby boomers who were shaped by feminism at times find themselves at odds with their children, members of a younger generation of gender dissidents. “The whole idea of the gender binary has been shattered,” Margaret Nichols, a New Jersey psychologist who specializes in working with LGBT people, told me.

Though not limited to the coasts and to elite colleges, the movement of gender nonconforming youth seems strongest there. According to a new study from the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law, a quarter of California young people identify as gender nonconforming. Last month, in an effort to create a safe and supportive environment for transgender and gender nonconforming students, the New York City Education Department issued a directive that requires schools to use students’ chosen pronouns.

As a psychotherapist, Robin’s mother Judy makes a living helping others navigate life choices that others don’t fully understand. She’s a strong feminist, and a bisexual to boot, who has had intimate relationships with both men and women. But even she finds Robin’s use of nonbinary pronouns challenging.

Rather than tamp down gender, as our cohort of feminists tried to do, today’s gender dissidents are much more willing to let a thousand genders bloom.

Feminists like Judy, who are invested in gender equality, increasingly find themselves at odds with their children, who are committed to the struggle for greater freedom of gender expression. If the older generation, our generation, sought to expand the freedoms available to women, and thereby challenge men’s hold on power, the younger generation is calling into question the very basis of the categories we once took for granted. They are saying that male and female are not enough. For many of them, changing our language is key.

Judy tries her best to remember to call her child by their chosen name and pronouns, but sometimes she slips up. The fact that Robin is “out” as gender nonconforming to some people and not to others can further complicate matters. So she avoids using pronouns altogether when referring to her child—which is nearly impossible. Our language is not as malleable as we would like it to be. What’s a well-meaning parent to do?

First, realize that our generation once rebelled against our mothers too. We feminists tried to undo the constraints of gender by casting off high heels and bras and refusing to abide by gender roles. We were the first to go by Ms. and declare that women should not be identified by their marital status. Some of us created families through donor insemination that defined female co-parents as mothers. We conjured a world, through talk, community building, and activism, in which women and men would become fundamentally similar to one another.

But every generation puts its own unique stamp on the issues it holds dear. Rather than tamp down gender, as our cohort of feminists tried to do, today’s gender dissidents are much more willing to let a thousand genders bloom. They have come of age in a very different social context. Thanks in part to our efforts decades earlier, younger people are less likely to “force other people into gendered boxes, or condemn them for choices that violate traditional beliefs about what males and females should do,” according to a recent study of millennial attitudes conducted by sociologist Barbara Risman.

In a world where people increasingly interact via social media, new vocabularies for understanding social differences emerge and morph at a much faster pace than ever before. Facebook, for example, lets users choose custom gender options such as bi-gender, femme queen, genderqueer, pangender, and many more.

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So, parents: Try to honor your children’s gender choices even if you don't always understand them. Trust that young people often have fresh ways of knowing the world—they’re less encumbered by tradition. And kids: Try to be gentle with your parents, if in fact they really are trying their best. You’re much more adept at learning new languages than they are.