Me and My Pronouns
I go to a lot of meetings and events in which people are invited to “share their pronouns” after introducing themselves, or as part of their name tags or online meeting identities. That’s why I added my pronouns (she/they) to my email signature a year or so ago. Shortly after I did that, I received an email from an old friend that began:
Re: your signature: “She/THEY?” (Much) more about “they,” please.
Naturally, of all the many topics in your email, I focus on that. Plus ca change.
So here it is. Much more about “they.”
I am a cisgender female who has never questioned or doubted that identity. My use of she/they pronouns is frankly transitional. Transitional and aspirational. I long for a day when we will all be they, but until that day comes, I certainly won’t be offended if people refer to me as she.
In the meantime, I do not think my gender needs to be one of the first things people know about me. In a world in which we had true gender equality, it simply wouldn’t matter whether your dentist or your auto mechanic or your bookseller was male or female. Really, unless you plan to reproduce with that person, it should never matter. And yet the implication is that it does.
When our son was born, we did not announce “It’s a boy!” As the only mutant redhead in my family, I was more concerned about the hair color of my offspring than his gender. (Having suffered greatly from childhood teasing about my own hair color.) I was relieved to announce “It’s a brunette!” on our announcements, though his hair color changed over time. I applaud the efforts of people who try to keep the gender of their children unspecified to avoid the assumptions people might impose on them based on gender, though I did not and would not have the stamina for such an undertaking.
What assumptions, you might ask? I recall years ago standing on line in a store. My son, then about six, was with me. Behind us, two women insisted to a boy of about four that “big boys” did not like Barbie umbrellas of the type the little boy so desperately wanted. Once we were out of earshot, my son remarked, knowingly, “He’s not a big boy. And some big boys do like Barbie umbrellas.” (He knew about gay pride.) Thus the photo of the broken Barbies on this post. Use of gender-neutral pronouns would eliminate the sexual stereotypes and the limitations embodied in Barbie. In a world of gender equality, boys could have Barbie umbrellas but girls would not have to have feet permanently molded for high-heeled shoes.
Okay. I know the sentence above does not have air-tight logic. But my point is–unless you are seeking a sexual partner (and have specific gender requirements in that regard), why must your gender be one of the first things people know about you?
Not everyone is comfortable stating their pronouns. Some people are still working If all of us used they, it would not be necessary. And elimination of gender-specific pronouns would both aid and signal the emergence of greater equality.
Yes, the grammar bothers me. I struggle to remember to refer to certain people as they, in accordance with their stated preference. It sounds funny to me, but there was once a time when when adult females were so regularly referred to as girls that the use of the term woman practically sounded like a call to the barricades. And strictly speaking, while it may be unfamiliar, it is not necessarily grammatically incorrect.
Nor was it terribly long ago that terms like gay and queer were insults. They still are in some places, but not everywhere. Hearing and seeing the unfamiliar often brings acceptance. Acceptance is not the whole story, nor is it enough.
But it’s a beginning.
When it comes to grammar, I am still struggling with “they.” Do we say “they is” for an individual and “they are” for a group? I keep asking, but I have not heard an answer. I like the expansion of pronouns, but could we please work out the grammar issues.
Great point, Kai. It might be that using the singular verb with they would help us distinguish between they as an individual vs. they as more than one person. It sounds awkward because it is unfamiliar, but I’m going to try to remember to implement that approach and see how it goes.
We have a couple of friends who use “they”. It’s they are, even for the singular, Kai.
I like the ideas in this post, Lynne. Lots to think about.
Thank you for a thought provoking article.
I find your point of view about gender interesting.
As a cisgender woman, I am so identified with being a woman, especially given the power differential in our culture and the differences between cisgender men and women, but I am willing to reexamine my beliefs and attitudes.