Three years ago, Theo Nicole Lorenz began going by the gender-neutral pronoun "they." Some people didn't get it.
Lorenz is nonbinary, meaning that they don't identify as a man or a woman. About three years ago, they ditched the more standard gendered pronouns ("he/him/his" or "she/her/hers") in favor of "they/them/theirs."
The whole concept of being nonbinary is something that people sometimes have a tough time wrapping their heads around, but sometimes life just doesn't fit into neat little boxes.
"I knew there would be pushback," Lorenz says about efforts to get people on board with their pronouns. "When you start using they/them pronouns, suddenly everyone around you is an English major, you know?"
Photo courtesy of Theo Nicole Lorenz.
It's taken a few years, but Lorenz has found a great ally in their 73-year-old Aunt Suzy.
"When I first came out to her, she understood my gender identity but not my pronouns," Lorenz says. "She said, 'We always knew you were different, and we love you just the way you are.' But also, on my pronouns — 'I don't know if I can get used to that. I'll try.' It's taken her a few years."
On May 21, Lorenz shared a poem written by Suzy for her church writing group. It was heartwarming and really gets to the core of the whole pronoun issue.
"This person I know
Wants to be called a they.
It [could] bring us much closer
To see them that way.
It's a strange thing to think
And harder to say,
But they is so happy
When the effort is made.
For all the theys and thems
It is this that I pray,
We be kind and accepting
And just let them be they."
What makes the poem even more touching is that Lorenz and their aunt have always had a special relationship.
Lorenz credits Aunt Suzy with inspiring their interest in art, which led to a career as a professional illustrator. "Whenever she and my late uncle were doing well, they'd send me money for art supplies. Her home was my creative retreat growing up," they say.
"We're both quiet artist types who'd rather stay home in a cocoon of cats and B movies than party," they add. "Every time we get together, it's like no time has passed at all, and we talk for hours. Throughout her life she's been a belly dancer, inventor, painter, woodcarver, and scuba diver, and I've always looked up to her."
A sample of some of Lorenz's artwork. Images via theonicole.com.
A common complaint people have about referring to an individual person as "they" is that it's usually used as a plural pronoun.
But in truth, the singular "they" dates back hundreds of years, and most people use it regularly without even realizing it. For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you're likely to say "They cut me off!" even though it's clearly just one person driving the car.
We often use singular "they" whenever we're referring to someone whose gender isn't readily known, especially in casual conversation; so using it for someone who specifically uses it shouldn't be too tough.
For Lorenz, using a person's prounouns is really just a way to demonstrate common courtesy and show that you view them as a legitimate individual in the world.
"Using someone's correct pronouns is a small, vital way to tell them, 'You belong here,'" they say. "When you refuse to use someone's pronouns, you're denying their identity. In the case of 'they/them' pronouns, a lot of people use grammar as an excuse to refuse it, which is like saying, 'I value the grammar I learned in ninth grade more than your comfort.'"
We can all choose to be kind. As Aunt Suzy says, "just let them be they."