The idea first hit the internet back in 2017 when Christian minister and failed Virginia Republican candidate for various offices E. W. Jackson went on a tirade on his radio show.
“This whole thing of going to a plural pronoun, to me, it is a subconscious spiritual admission of demon possession by multiple demons,” he said. “The only single individual I’m familiar with who spoke from the plural pronoun was Legion. Think about that: You’re not to be referred to by the single ‘he’ or ‘she’ but the plural pronoun ‘they.’ Who is the ‘they’ in there? We know who the ‘they’ in there is: a bunch of devils.”
From there, the idea has been resurrected during the current anti-trans backlash into various memes. These all follow the template of Jackson’s thought, using disturbing demonic imagery and quotations from the Gospels to shore up the idea that non-binary pronouns are inherently infernal.
This is theologically and semantically nonsense, a deliberate misreading of the Bible in a way that is, frankly, breaking the Third Commandment to further a bigoted agenda. The Rev. Moira Finlay is the pastor and teacher of three United Church of Christ congregations in northeast Wisconsin, as well as the founder of Break the Silence Sunday, an advocacy group fighting rape and sexual assault in the church. She looked into Jackson’s reading of scripture as well as some of the memes based on it that are floating around the internet.
“I looked up the memes you mention and they're. . .sad,” she says. “It's a poor reading of the scripture in Mark 5 (specifically Verse 9). It misses the context of this exorcism happening under the occupation of the Roman government, whose divisions of troops were called ‘Legion’ and the way in which Hebrew borrowed the word to use as a description of a great, but unknown quantity.”
Legion does not represent modern uses of they/them pronouns. Non-binary people are not referring to themselves as a plural and do not think of themselves as multiple united beings. Acting as if “they” automatically means plural entities is a deliberate misconstruction of language.
“It also completely misses the notion of the evolution of language, particularly English, where ‘you’ used to be plural and is now singular and ‘they’ (which has been in use as a singular pronoun since something like 1370).” Says Finlay. “What is even more troubling, to me as a pastor, is that people are spending their time obsessing about this line without understanding the freedom that Jesus gives to the man by releasing him from his demons, by returning him to life and community (since he would have been ritually unclean and was condemned to live among the tombs without human company of any kind). In a world where people are hungry, and homeless, and where there's a mass shooting at least once a day, it seems a waste of our emotional energy to worry about this line instead of how we can create a better world for all.”
It’s worth noting that uses of "they" abound in the canonical Gospels. The fuzzy-headed interpretation used to generate the memes could also apply to John Chapter 17, when Jesus prays for his followers, and he openly endorses the idea of plural oneness as a concept of sanctity.
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, a collection of disputed sayings that some say came directly from Jesus that were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, Jesus even seems to discuss the gender spectrum. While no major Christian sect currently acknowledge the work as canon, Biblical scholars like Robert W. Funk consider it the closest any written work is to being the authentic surviving words of Christ. In Saying 22 (translation by Bentley Layton is the Goff Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University), Jesus says:
“When you (plur.) make the two one and make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below, and that you might make the male and the female be one and the same, so that the male might not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye and a hand in place of a hand and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image - then you will enter [the kingdom].”
Understanding of gender among early Christian writers is far more complex than transphobes and reactionaries make it out to be. Un-nuanced readings of Genesis seek to affirm a strict gender binary through the creation of Adam and Eve. However, though Genesis deals in a lot of binaries, in no other aspect aside from gender are they perceived as opposites that never cross over. God may have created day and night, but no one seriously argues that there is no dusk or dawn based on the creation.
As the excellent blog A White Stone puts it “In no case other than gender do we read these pairs or triads as imposing absolute limits on creation – we do not deny the proper existence of noontime, of marshes and wetlands, of ducks or amphibians, nor do we believe that the taming of a wild creature, nor a domestic cat going feral, is a violation of divine law – nor yet do we believe that every fruit tree must have a specific seed-bearing counterpart plant to be complete.”
Non-binary people are not demons or inherently blasphemous, and the use of they/them pronouns is not some coded reference to a devil. The words are a perfectly normalized singular non-gendered nouns that have been in use for centuries. There is no conflict between their usage and any serious reading of scripture. In fact, there is more evidence for spectrum thinking in the Bible than for its exclusion. We spoke to one other pastor, Rev. Lura N. Groen, of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who reminds us that God themselves is not a singular being.
“They/Them is the best pronoun for the God, who we understand to be three in one, and one is three,” she says. “But more importantly, Jesus teaches us that love for the person in front of us is always more important than any of our theological ideas.”