Verb Conjugation and the Act of Listening

Last week, one of my students excitedly proclaimed that they had chosen a new name with their mom’s help. I spent the next few hours saying the name to myself. Out loud. Repeatedly.

It still feels unfamiliar. I’m still coaching myself. But they doesn’t know that. And there’s no reason they ever should. This isn’t some act of bravery. There is no hero in this scenario. There’s a kid whose name was wrong and now it’s more comfortable for them. And there’s me, listening to this kid. That’s it.

This morning, we had a discussion about singular and plural verb conjugations with they pronouns. (Go back a paragraph. Third sentence. “They doesn’t know that” or “they don’t know that.” You with me? Cool.) My token cis-straight boy argued that colloquial usage already accommodates plural conjugations (“they don’t”). The kid with the new name agreed, but acknowledged that singular is technically correct (“they doesn’t”). Another kid argued that common, colloquial conjugations would make the language more accessible for moderate souls who might be more inclined to participate in non-binary language if it requires less effort to integrate.

Here’s the thing. That’s not my fucking responsibility.

Someone else can make it easier for normative people to absorb non-normative people into their society. That’s probably the most common way to integrate change—convince the kyriarchical structure to expand. Whitewash. Accommodate the patriarchy. Pass. Imitate heteronormativity. But I’m not interested in asking the power structure for acceptance. I mean, that’s nice. I’m just not built for that sort of work.

Shifts in language are uncomfortable. I get that. I’ve been explaining to my department that they pronouns are appropriate (or will be shortly) for years. Spoiler alert. It happened. That moment passed. AP updated their Stylebook. This isn’t new anymore. Our established systems are actively employing they pronouns. The linguistic kyriarchy expanded. So let’s take it a step further. Where AP says “otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” I say we don’t need to reword anything. I say, if a kid tells you they have a different name, use it. Don’t avoid it. Don’t reword it.

Laverne Cox said, “misgendering is an act of violence.” I trust her. Not just because it sounds both palatable and erudite, an easy to regurgitate sound bite, but because it is her lived experience. I will happily discuss gender and grammar and systemic oppression all day. I love a good debate. I particularly like debates I know I’ll dominate. But someone else’s identity is not debatable. It simply is.

If you want to know what to call someone, ask them. When they answer, listen.


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