The Problem With Pronouns

I want to explore the topic of gender based pronouns, but first I think it is important to quickly distinguish the difference between sex and gender for anyone who might not be familiar. Sex refers to the biology of a person, whereas gender is a social construction of what it means to be more feminine or masculine. Furthermore, sexual orientation and sexuality typically refer to one’s physical, emotional, and/or romantic attractions.  

Like most Americans, I was taught and exposed to binary expressions of sex, gender and sexuality. He’s a boy / she’s a girl. This is how boys act/ this is how girls act. Girls do this to attract a man/ guys do this to get a girl…  These binary (m/f), cisgender (sex=gender), and heterosexual (opposite sexes attract) narratives are engrained in us from the minute we begin learning how to speak.

It’s funny how they shield us from anything that might steer us queer, but what about the harm in pressuring us by way of cis- and hetero- normativity? To be clear, when I say ‘us’ I mean the inner child within us all, and when I say ‘them’ I mean the power-holders of America that gain off our degradation and despair. 

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I guess a big reason I personally feel so butt-hurt about this is because here I am about to hit my mid-twenties, and I am just now figuring out who I really am and how to genuinely love and take quality care of myself.  

WTF 

It makes me mad at the way things are when I think about how much harder this process is for someone who has more unique ways of being and identifying than myself. And this struggle—the struggle to know and accept oneself, and to be known and accepted by others—is largely because the language does not exist. This makes me think back to freshman year, sitting in my general communications class; using the example below, the teacher taught us that the language you speak effects the way you think about and see colors. 

https://burnaway.org/colors-you-see-based-on-languages-spoken-2/

Because the Himba do not have a word for the color blue, blue appears to them as just another shade of green. In the example on the right, English speakers have trouble discerning the shade of green that is different from the rest while the members of the Himba tribe can easily pick it out– the Himba discourse is designed to discern different shades of green, while English speakers typically just use one word to refer to all shades.[1]

If we take this a step further, we can begin to imagine how American discourse has physical consequences as it is reified through various social relations and then reinforced through the common and institutional use of certain symbols, expressions, and procedures.  

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It’s time that we start reclaiming language so that it works for us!! And when I say ‘us,’ I mean EVERYBODY. All shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities need to be considered. People are waking up, but it is time our language catches up. While I advocate and honor the use of gender-neutral pronouns, using ‘they/ them’ to represent a single body is still arguably a sloppy use of English and it is failing to get at the root of the issue. To me, it feels like a tiny flex within a system of oppression, rather than a radical reform to that system. We need words to reflect and open people up to the understanding that gender and sex are not one size fits all. We need to start with words because our bodies are more diverse than our current way of speaking allows us to fully comprehend. Our ability to meaningfully change cultural norms depends on our ability to speak and think about these issues, which depends on the words we use to frame our reality.  

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In 2012, a gender-neutral pronoun was introduced in Sweden and by 2015 it was added to the Swedish Academy Glossary which contains Swedish language norms. Sweden uses the pronouns ‘hon’ for she and ‘han’ for he, and the third pronoun added is ‘hen’ as a gender-neutral expression. A study on attitudes and behaviors surrounding the pronoun showed that when ‘hen’ first appeared in 2012, majority of attitudes were quite negative and resistant. As its frequency of use increased over time, people became more accepting. By the time the word was more officially adopted in 2015, there was hardly any negative feelings toward the use of the gender-neutral pronoun.[2] 

Takeaway: Sparing people’s feelings at the cost of other people’s body sovereignty is not worth it. Cis- identifying people will eventually get over themselves and realize that this change doesn’t really make their lives any different, and then queer people can benefit profoundly from being seen and validated by society.

Some Trans communities have proposed the use of ‘ze/ zir/ zirself’ to be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. I personally feel like this does more in the way of legitimizing non-cis people in our discourse. BUT, this is coming from someone who has the privilege of not caring if people call me she, he, they, that, or ze, so I want to emphasize here that my opinion isn’t shit. Whether its ‘they/ them’ or ‘ze/ zir’ the important thing is that we push for the widespread adoption of a gender-neutral pronoun. I’m talking rewriting our grammar lessons from as early as the first grade.

Lastly, if we look to indigenous cultures around the world we can find several examples of language that often utilizes three or more pronouns to express gender. As Dr. Laura McGuire so beautifully puts it, “When a person comes out as transgender, gender fluid, or genderqueer, they are following in a lineage that was and is sacred in many societies around the world.”

In essence, if you ever find yourself frustrated or confused about why things are the way the are, chances are it has something to do with colonization and nothing to do with nature or reality. It’s about damn time we decolonize our discourse yo!

Sources:

  1. https://medium.com/@illustratedresearch/why-do-we-see-the-colors-we-see-and-other-related-color-perception-questions-41837bc962ab  
  1. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00893/full 
  1. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/996319297/gender-identity-pronouns-expression-guide-lgbtq  
  1. https://www.mypronouns.org/ze-hir 
  1. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ 
  1. https://www.spectrumsouth.com/history-science-gender-fluidity/ 

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