Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

The Trouble with Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Posted on Jan 6, 2011 in Uncategorized | 3 comments

Sometimes I can be a curmudgeon.  Sometimes I get irate and come off as far less progressive than I usually am.  Today may likely be one of those days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender-neutral pronouns.  A large percent of my community self-identifies as genderqueer, and even those who don’t generally spend a lot of time subverting gender norms.  While on their individual paths, the pronoun issue tends to arise as part of each person’s gender evolution/exploration.  In these friendships, I’ve run into some trouble grokking some subtle issues that have come up when the gender pronoun conversation is opened.

Let’s start with some basic agreements:

* Gender neutral pronouns have a precedent.  Many, many languages have gender-neutral pronouns, and the reason we don’t use any in America has a lot to do with English imperialism.  Check out Bitch Magazine’s Fall 2007 issue for a terrific article explaining the history and contemporary usage of gender-neutral pronouns (not online, sadly).

* Everyone has a right to express gender as they see fit.  I have no right to tell anyone but myself how to look, behave, dress, or identify.  Neither do you.

* Feeling uncomfortable being corrected about using the “wrong” pronoun is way less difficult than being the person having to speak up when your pronoun is misidentified.

Having explained my starting point, I’d like to point out some of the trouble I have with gender-neutral pronouns.  I see this as an opening to a dialogue, and an invitation for improvements upon the lexicon itself.  Again, I want to be clear, this isn’t trouble I have with people who use gender-neutral pronouns, but the language itself.

  • Genderqueer and Gender-neutral are not the same thing.

Genderqueer means to queer the binary, to play within and all around the accepted understanding of gender.  It can be a shirtless male bodied person in heels and a corset, it can be a high femme wearing a strap-on under her skirt.  It can also be a male bodied person in man-drag that would look appropriate at his little brother’s bar mitzvah, or a dyke in flannel.  Nothing about the way most people present themselves to the world is “gender neutral.”  We all present gender, all the time.  Small cues: voice, speech patterns, hand gestures; or big ones: clothing, makeup, names, pronouns; they are all gendered because our society takes pains to create gender stories around nearly all of it.  Should the goal be to “neutralize” this?  Or should it be to understand it, and subvert it, play with it, enjoy it, fuck with it, all with the goal of getting folks to understand the arbitrariness of it all?

  • Gender neutral pronoun usage tends to fall along gender lines.

I have yet to meet a male-bodied person, whether cis-gendered or genderqueer, a person who would normally be called “he” in the mainstream world, who has chosen to use “zie” or “they.”  Nearly everyone I know who chooses to identify with gender-neutral pronouns  is a woman-bodied person, one who identified as a queer woman for a large part of their lives.  This of course doesn’t mean there are no male-bodied people who use “they” or “zie” or “per,” as I’m sure there are.  My experience of gender-neutral pronoun users is likely due in large part to my community, which is heavily queer women-bodied people.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of folks who go for neutral pronouns are women-bodied folks.  The male-bodied gender queer people in my life tend to opt for pronouns on “shuffle,” i.e. using whatever pronoun is appropriate for the way they are presenting either energetically or liminally in that moment.  This comes with its own set of problems, but that is for another post.

Already, this is setting up a difficult paradigm.  If many male-bodied persons are comfortable with using “he” or “she” (the preferred language of the default world), while many female-bodied persons aren’t, and opt for terms that alienate non-queer, non-progressives, we’re setting up a chasm within gender activism that finds alliances easier to forge among those who opt for playing with the binary terms themselves, rather than creating new language.

  • Visibility is powerful.

There’s still a shortage of public recognition for women doing bad-ass things.  I admit, when I read an article about an artist or author with an ambiguous name, I scan to see if that person is a woman.  I want to feel proud of my gender for doing awesome stuff.  Same goes for LGBT folks.  If there’s an awesome, smart, geeky woman who identifies herself publicly as trans, for example, I get HELLA excited.  Same goes for bisexual, queer, polyamorous, black-belted, Nobel laureate, physicist, computer-programmer, self-made billionaire, women.  While choosing a gender-neutral pronoun is a powerful choice in the public sphere and offers genderqueer folks visibility, which is no doubt, a good thing, it does remove the opportunity to offer gender-nonconforming version of bad-ass womanhood.  Which leads me to point #4  . . .

  • Womanhood is huge.

I refuse to believe that womanhood isn’t large enough to encompass all sorts of gender expression.  From stone butches to high femmes, to genderqueers to intersex to trans to cis to two-spirited to shaman to goddess, womanhood belongs to you, too.  To choose a pronoun to identify yourself as apart from womanness implies that something is either wrong with womanhood to not include you or that something is wrong with you to not include womanhood.  Neither of those are fair or accurate.

There is also a bigger conversation attached to this which is about activism.  Using one’s identity for activism purposes (visibility, challenging status quo, etc) is different from crafting an identity just so it is easier to move through the world in one’s own skin.  That’s probably a post for another time, too.

I am very excited to bear witness and participate in the destruction of the gender binary for something more subtle, inclusive and accurate to the true nature of humanness.  I offer these troubles to you, because I’m eager to see how we can engage in these conundrums and move forward through them.  I know I have some blind spots, and I’d like my readers to help illuminate me and offer counterpoints.  If you have an opinion on any of the above, please do share it in the comments.



Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Mitch

    Call me anything pronoun you want to my face, but please use it behind my back.

  2. Ashley

    this is a wonderfully written piece. as someone who gets a bit nervous talking about gender pronouns, i felt so comfort reading. gender is such a complex topic and you’re a brave lady to write about it.

  3. jl

    As a cis gendered queer woman, I really do agree with you. Multiple times a day I wish I were more interested in the politics of gender. I want to be more sensitive to people that chose gender neutral identifiers, but no matter how hard I try I just screw it up over and over again. I have found that I have recently started to put myself down for it too.
    I’m not a member of the college educated crowd, but I consider myself a literate person and whenever I use gender neutral terms, when speaking of a singular person, I feel like I am pretending to quote Jane Austen (without the corny accent) or just an idiot that didn’t pass freshman English. And then, when my friends correct me (I encourage them to do so – because I want to get it right) I get both deeply embarrassed and frustrated.
    Much like the writer I appreciate womanhood as well as masculinity and see those identities as rather mostly or all encompassing. And I should say that I have never had so much as a mild slip when I refer to someone that is not using neutral pronouns. Actually I found it was rather easy to accept changing genders in my own language with people previously known to me as one gender made the transition to the other side of the binary. It is simply the neutral terms that are difficult for me to adjust to.

    Even writing this little blurb, with the intention of trying to be respectful, is a bit of a headache. But I keep trying regardless of my faults.

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