The Humanist Dilemma: My Son’s Friend is Gender Neutral. How Do I Handle?

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Pronoun Problems: My older son, who attends a very progressive liberal arts college, recently took me aside and asked if a friend could stay with us during his upcoming break. Although his younger brother tends to not like having guests, we always say yes to friends from school who would like a place to crash. But I could tell my older son was concerned about something more, so I asked what was up. He said this friend is gender neutral and must be referred to as “they.” Although he wasn’t worried about me, he was anxious that his dad and little brother might be unkind, not only behind the friend’s back but also directly. I played twenty questions to try to get a better understanding of what being gender neutral involves. In the photo my son showed me, his friend looks like a quarterback, and apparently dates girls and has a gender-neutral first name.

Agreeing with my son that the other members of our family might indeed be clumsy or obnoxious, and I myself might be really stilted trying to work in plural pronouns, I asked if the friend couldn’t be persuaded to just go by male gender terms for the short duration of the visit (just one or two nights). My son looked stricken and said absolutely not, it was very important to use “they” and “them.” I joked that maybe we could just use the person’s name and say “you” all the time, but my son didn’t think that was laughable or workable. He says he really likes this person and wants to offer our place to stay, but is afraid it might turn into a bad scene. Do you have any suggestions?

–Struggling to Act Neutral


Dear Neutral,

Situations like this are becoming increasingly commonplace, which is remarkable when just a few years ago they were virtually unheard of (at least in my corner of reality). I don’t have any first-hand experience myself, but here’s what I’m thinking:

The burden of addressing nontraditional gender identification must be shouldered by the individual, not by everyone they come into contact with. Someone with food allergies has to take the initiative to avoid the items they react to rather than assume everyone else will anticipate their sensitivities or banish offensive ingredients—and they must understand that while the general public is becoming increasingly aware and considerate of food allergies, we’re a long way from full understanding and compliance. The same is true for someone with a nontraditional gender identity in a default binary environment. Part of this person’s college education needs to include learning how to navigate the larger world rather than expecting the world to cater to their particular personal pronoun preferences, even if everyone on their campus does it.

You and your son should have a frank discussion with the family about his friend—what they like to be called and why, what this gender identity entails (to the extent your son is aware and can articulate, without violating the friend’s privacy). Make it clear that this person would be a guest in your home where everyone is expected to be kind and friendly (or at least not unfriendly or rude). If anyone finds the situation intolerably uncomfortable, they are welcome to keep their distance for the brief duration of the stay. Your son, on the other hand, must understand it’s his duty to be attentive to his guest’s needs throughout the visit.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine that you and your family are really going to have to use a pronoun anyway. If they are in the room, use their name. Needing to use a pronoun means you’re talking about your guest, not to them.

Meanwhile, your son should honestly explain to his friend that this is all new and foreign to your family, and that there will likely be some awkwardness and ineptness. The friend will have to take the lead in modeling the desired behavior and cutting everyone some slack if they slip up or don’t get it.

Unless your family refuses to keep an open mind or a reasonably “neutral” demeanor—or unless the friend has unrealistic demands for other people’s behavior—I encourage you to proceed with the invitation. It will give everyone a unique opportunity to learn more about gender identity dynamics in general and this person’s in particular. Kudos to you for being supportive of your son and his friends.