Their History

Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.

We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).

Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)

Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”

Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.

But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:

“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother—
Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3

Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.

So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)

“The Spaniard

Must now confess, if they have any goodness

The trial just and noble.”

This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?

But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.

So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?

“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”

Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.

That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New Oxford Dictionary of English.

The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.

Heroes of Stonewall: Danny Garvin

Danny-GarvinAn important fact about the Stonewall uprising is that things were pretty chaotic. There were things going on inside the bar, outside the bar, and more than a few participants — at least initially — were intoxicated. Despite Craig Rodwell‘s best efforts, the riots were pretty much ignored by the press. So a lot of what we know has had to be cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts. One of the most knowledgeable of those accounts comes from Danny Garvin.

Danny Garvin was born on March 1, 1949. He grew up in New York, raised as a Roman Catholic by his two Irish immigrant parents — Michael Joseph Garvin and Mary Theresa Kelly Garvin. In his youth, like all of the boys of his neighborhood, he was a member of a gang — the Ramrods. Garvin’s mother died while he was very young, and he was mostly raised by his father — who returned to Ireland when Garvin was 17 years old, after enlisting his son in the United States Navy.

5bafd3182100006401c70aa1Working as a Navy cook, stationed in Brooklyn, Garvin began coming out of the closet. Coming out proved quite difficult, especially given his religious upbringing. Drunk and off the base one night, Garvin sought out the only other gay man his age that he knew of — but he was soundly rejected. Reeling, Garvin attempted suicide and then called a psychiatrist who told him to admit himself to Bellevue Hospital. The Navy transferred him to St. Albans Naval Medical Hospital.

This presented a very serious dilemma — if he talked about his actual problems with the Navy, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would make him unemployable to most reputable businesses. Finally, Garvin signed a document stating that his psychological breakdown was rooted in his mother’s early death, and he was honorably discharged. He was discharged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1967 — roughly two weeks after he had turned 18. Deciding he needed to celebrate, he ventured to the only gay bar he knew off — Julius’. When he was there, he was told about a new bar opening up around the corner: the Stonewall Inn.

5bafd3182400003100969a2fAlthough on his first visit, Garvin was mostly shocked to see men dancing together, he became a regular and even dated the main doorman (“Blonde Frankie“) for a time. Though he was initially living on the streets and hustling for a living — an experience he would carry with him the rest of his life — he ultimately found his way into living in what David Carter describes in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution as a “gay hippie commune.” Garvin began smoking pot, and started selling LSD at Stonewall.

On the actual evening of the Stonewall riots, however, Garvin was not inside the bar. He’d planned to spend the night at a new gay club called Danny’s. (Like we wouldn’t all always be at any bar we could pretend was named after us, right?) He bumped into Keith Murdoch and the two went back to the commune to smoke weed and get it on. After that, they decided the night was still young and they wanted to go out dancing — and that’s when they found the riot.

By the time they got there, the crowd was attacking the police wagon and the police had barricaded themselves inside the bar. A group had ripped a parking meter out of the ground and were using it as a battering ram to get inside. Garvin jumped in, egging on the crowd, jeering at the cops, and generally protesting — but he avoided partaking in any of the violent action, partly because he considered himself a pacifist but also largely so he could avoid going to jail and thereby publicly outing himself — and ruining any chances he had at a career. He watched the infamous chorus line that had mocked the cops trying to clear the streets — and the brutality with which the police broke it up.

Like virtually everyone else involved in the riots, Garvin was changed by the experience. He became a proud activist, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parades (which would later become the Pride parades we now know and love). He was a roommate to activist Morty Manford, and encouraged Manford to come out to his parents — who would then found PFLAG. In the early 80’s, Garvin gathered together a group of gays from AA to march in the Pride parade as a group called Sober Together.

Always an advocate for homeless queer youth because of his experiences on the street, Garvin became a very involved volunteer for the Ali Forney Center in New York City after it opened in 2002. But perhaps his most important role in these later years was as a witness to history — he was interviewed by David Carter for his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — which was released in 2004. He began appearing in documentaries, especially about Stonewall and the gay rights movement, in 2008. Most famously he appeared in the 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising where he summarized the importance of the riots:

We became a people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet, you know, what organizations we were going to be or how things would go, but we became something I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto, that I couldn’t grab onto when I’d go to a subway T-room as a kid, or a 42nd Street movie theater, you know, or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, which I didn’t have before. There was no going back now…. We had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.

5bafd3192400005000969a33
Michelle Obama, Danny Garvin, Martin Boyce, and Barack Obama

Throughout his work as a witness to Stonewall, Garvin befriended several other “Stonewall veterans” including Martin Boyce and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. When President Barack Obama mentioned Stonewall, Garvin began a correspondence with him — impressing upon him the need to continue fighting for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. In his initial letter he wrote, “I still have not gotten to dance that dance I started 44 years ago. The big joyous ‘I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance’ yet.” Obama invited Garvin as a special guest to the White House’s Pride celebration on June 30, 2014.

However, Danny’s final years were plagued by health problems. He suffered from COPD, caused by years of smoking, and also developed liver cancer. He passed away on December 9, 2014 at 65 years old. While he may not have gotten to finish that “I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance” that he dreamed of, his work for our community helped get all of us that much closer to it.