Do I Have to Respect Pronouns…if the Pronoun is ‘It’?

Your Other Dad says first you must untangle discomfort from harm

Illustration: David Valdes

Dear Other Dad —

My child has a friend who uses the pronoun “it.” Using this pronoun is incredibly difficult for me in a different way than learning how to use they/them. There is no instance in which you do not use someone’s pronouns, but I have a lot of feelings about using this pronoun for a human.

I feel sad when I think about using this pronoun, which makes me think of the homophobia I experienced personally in the 80s. And I feel an intense form of protective rage thinking about how that word has been used against my trans daughter.

I have spoken with folks who have never experienced the homophobia I have and they have the same impulse — to refuse to call a person it. Everyone I have spoken to about this has a visceral negative reaction.

There is nothing about this that feels good to me. Do I have to use it?

Signed — S

Sometimes, I think the universe designed the stages of life for specific teaching purposes; babies, for instance, teach adults how little sleep a human can survive on. Teens, on the other hand, seem designed specifically to upend the comfort of anyone twice their age or older. All the wisdom and life lessons you’ve accrued, all the “I got this groove” many parents have settled into, can feel challenged by the way teenagers start re-imagining everything in their lives.

Adolescence, as a developmental stage, often involves new boundaries, a change of friend groups, shifts in habit, evolution in identity, and varying degrees of separation from one’s parents. That can all be good and healthy, assuming the child is in a safe space and has mindful caregivers (parents or otherwise) during a time that can sometimes feel as scary or lonely as it is liberating.

Along the way, teens often make decisions that feel astounding to others. When a girl of color impulsively shaves off 15 years’ worth of natural curls, it is no small choice. When a kid who sings in the church choir every Sunday comes home with a tongue piercing, it feels like a declaration. I’ve heard more than one parent, referring to a haircut or tattoo piercing, say versions of “it bugs me every time I look at it.” These external shifts can require some adjustment for family members, but a pronoun change often goes down even harder because it feels more existential.

For many people (young or old), adopting a new pronoun is a way to assert their sense of identity more clearly and to help ground others in that awareness, so that everyone can operate on the same page. If one finds it harmful to be gendered incorrectly, it makes sense that one would ask others to use the pronoun that better reflects their identity. So yes, it’s ideal to make the effort to use the pronoun someone adopts.

(While some decry this all as newfangled woke-ism, the use of they/them dates back to the 14th century and alternate pronouns in the US first made it into print in the 1800s; globally, gender nonconformity dates back across millennia.)

Even if it feels like work to you, many teens of this generation absolutely expect adults to keep up, awkward or not. But I did say that teens can be astounding, right? As soon as you think you’re all caught up, they can move the goalposts. And that’s the case here. To go by “it” — and ask others to adopt that language — shoots past the average “they.”

The problem you are having with “it” is that this term comes loaded with painful history for LGBTQ people like you and daughter. You’re not alone; other minority groups can relate to the way the word “it” has been used in the past to mock or threaten them. Using “it” as a pronoun has pretty much always dehumanized the subject, turning a person into an object or an animal. That can be degrading, a way of making clear that someone is not welcome or safe.

It’s fair for you to share your feelings about these associations with your child, letting her know about the history of the word. And it seems worth asking what she thinks her friend’s motivations are. But unless she already knows the real answer, you can’t presume how your daughter’s friend settled on this term. It seems unlikely (though not impossible) that this kid is unaware that “it” typically is not a human term, but maybe that is of no concern. Perhaps this usage is an intentional reaction to some past experience of dehumanization and feels like a reclamation. Or maybe this teen is a provocateur. Whatever the origin, I think the odds are high that, like many facets of the teen experience, the use of it will be transient.

Whether or not that is true, unless you and your child observe signs of distress (or any or indication that there is an issue of concern larger than pronouns), you need not fear that you are causing any harm by honoring the request. You won’t launch a tidal wave of people wanting to be called it and you certainly won’t be fueling anti-LGBTQ prejudice by complying. (Homophobes have deep enough reservoirs of their own bias to draw on without needing help from you.)

The question is less whether you should use the asked-for pronoun than whether you can pull it off. If you’re pretty sure you can’t use the pronoun without revealing disdain or discomfort — or without continually dredging up old injuries of your own — use the student’s actual name instead of another pronoun. If the birth name was Daria, for example, stick to that. “Is Daria coming over tonight? What does Daria like to eat? Do Daria’s folks know Daria is staying overnight?” Will that feel awkward, too? Sure. But that’s better than being hurtful.

If you can wrestle down your feelings and use the requested pronoun, there is no downside. You’ll simply be showing support to a kid who wants some. Should the pronoun change later, switchback. But if this does become the lasting pronoun of your daughter’s friend, then you’ll have an early start on getting it right.

However, you approach this, your respect for this person’s wishes will make the world a little more welcoming than the one you remember from the 80’s.

Editor's Note: 'Your Other Dad Says' is a new weekly advice column for young people and those who love them by David Valdes. Waldes is a Cuban-American playwright and author. He’s written about family, race, and LGBTQ issues for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and HuffPost.