On Dec. 10, dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster announced that, after a 313 percent increase in “look-ups,” the pronoun “they” was declared Word of the Year for 2019.
Most significantly, the dictionary has added a new definition for “they” — “a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
The use of “they” as a singular pronoun in English is not new. For over 600 years, “they” has been used to refer to people whose male or female gender identity is unknown.
But Merriam-Webster’s choice of “they” was because of the growing number of people claiming and living gender-nonconforming lives, who increasingly present openly in social media, published texts and daily social interactions.
This is a victory for the movement of people who are gender fluid, gender blenders, gender benders, gender nonbinary, agender, androgynous, gender queer, trans or transgender, gender defiant — or other identities still in the process of being created.
The 2019 public acknowledgement of “they” is a major advance won by gender activists, trans historians and everyday people who have fought for centuries to have public space in which to live authentic lives.
Workers World Party member and WW Managing Editor Leslie Feinberg was in the forefront of the modern gender liberation struggle. Hir decades of public speaking on trans lives began in 1992, the year hir pamphlet, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Is Come” was published. (Available free at workers.org/books.)
Feinberg’s now-classic novel of trans life, “Stone Butch Blues,” became integral to women’s and gender studies classes, and is passed from hand to hand in prisons. (Available free at lesliefeinberg.net.) Hir “Transgender Warriors: Making History” (1995) was the first Marxist analysis of the precolonial, precapitalist reality of trans lives in matrilineal society and of the appearance of trans oppression under class society.
Feinberg said about pronouns: “No pronoun is as complicated as I am,” and about gender: “Gender is the poetry we each make out of the language we have been taught.” (“Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue”)
Struggle for trans justice continues
While in the last decade headlines on gender struggles have focused on such topics as Hollywood movies and the battle for safety in public school bathrooms, gender activism has been waged on all fronts — from the workplace to health care to the prison-industrial complex.
There has been no let-up in the virulent and deadly violence against people on the gender spectrum. In 2019, murders of transpeople reached the highest number ever recorded in the U.S — at least 26 — according to the Human Rights Campaign. Official statistics are underestimates, as attacks on trans and gender-nonconforming people are often underreported and misgendered by hospitals and police.
The overwhelming majority of those killed in 2019 were Black transwomen — from community activist Dana Martin, killed in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 6 to Yahira Nesby, beloved member of the local ball scene, killed in New York City on Dec. 19.
Their deaths starkly reveal intertwined oppressions: racism, woman-hating and gender bigotry.
Their lives demand that in 2020 we make ending oppression more than a word.
As revolutionary communist Leslie Feinberg posed: “How can we tear down the electrified barbed wire that has been placed between us to keep us separated, fearful and pitted against each other? How can we forge a movement that can bring about profound and lasting change — a movement capable of transforming society?”
This is the year to struggle, both for the right to use “they” and for a world built on justice and liberation. Let’s make the “we” of revolutionary struggle 2020’s Word of the Year.