The announcement that singular they had been chosen as the 2015 Word of the Year came as a pleasant surprise to many researchers focused on gender studies, as it seemed to mark progress for gender diversity and non-conformity. At the very least, it signalled greater social awareness of gender identities that do not fall neatly on either side of the gender binary. However, when I sought the reaction of non-binary consultants in the community I study (many of whom use singular they), I was shocked to find a general lack of enthusiasm.
Some of the individuals I asked were indifferent to the announcement, and others hadn’t even heard about it. I had expected to find at least some excited individuals amongst the group, but instead I mainly found criticism. Apart from the apathetic few, the group viewed the announcement as a media stunt that sensationalized singular they (and its users) in order to draw public attention to the organizing bodies. Instead of viewing this event as a milestone towards public acceptance, the group felt that their struggles and hardships had been erased by being symbolically “awarded” recognition. Importantly, they felt that this announcement will do nothing to change the treatment of trans individuals, and instead will only serve to make cisgender people feel good for having made an effort to socially include individuals who reject the gender binary.
Whether this announcement has a positive effect on non-binary communities or makes an impact in the lives of trans individuals is yet to be seen. For now, perhaps all we can do is ask: Is this truly a victory for non-binary individuals, or just for those who study gender diversity?