It’s not just about the non-binary. Gender pronouns have always been awkward and oppressive. It’s time for our language to evolve.
by Fuzzy Shostak
Imagine for a moment—and I know this might be a stretch, bear with me—imagine there are only two genders. Sounds unbelievably boring, I know, but hear me out. In this bizarre alternate universe, every human fits neatly into one of two boxes and stays in that box their entire life. Everything else is the same. Men have oppressed women for millennia, often treating them as property. Women have fought bravely for their rights, and in the past century or so, they’ve made some pretty amazing progress. But sexism is still a big problem. Women get substantially less money—and respect—for the same work. They’re vastly underrepresented in positions of power (to the immense detriment of everyone). Gender is still a major axis of oppression at all levels of society.
Now let’s change one more thing about this world. Imagine we have to use different pronouns for people along every axis of oppression. Different pronouns for black people and white people. Rich and poor. Gay and straight. Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. People from other countries. People with different mental and physical abilities and illnesses. And so on.
What would it be like to interact in this world? Before you could even talk about a person, you would have to find out (or assume) a lot about their identity—characteristics that may or may not have any relevance to what you’re talking about, but carry a heavy weight of politics and stereotype. Whether or not you wanted to make assumptions about a person, just hearing them referred to would elicit all kinds of conscious and unconscious assumptions about them, their history, and their place in society. You would not be able to choose to keep any of these characteristics about yourself private or unspecified, because others would need to know them (in order to tell their friends how awesome you are). The first time you met someone in person, you would have to size them up, guessing based on their appearance which box to fit them into, or if it wasn’t obvious, awkwardly ask and risk offending them.
If this description makes you uncomfortable, consider that it’s exactly what we’ve done with gender. For some reason, we have elevated this one characteristic of a person to a status above all others—built into our very language, the one and only thing you need to know about a person before you can even talk about them. And once you know it, you can’t help making assumptions based on it. Even if you live in a fantasy world where there’s no gender spectrum, you have to admit this is weird.
I don’t intend to minimize the importance of gender. For some people, I gather, it’s very important—particularly those who have worked hard to change the way theirs is perceived. And it’s important to me to acknowledge whenever it’s relevant that I have always benefited from male privilege, and I can pass as a man anytime I want. But is gender always the most important thing to know about a person? What if you don’t want that to be the very first thing everyone learns about you? Aren’t there situations—like applying for jobs or housing, or running for office—where it might actually be better not to know right away?
I know “they” is awkward too. It loses the distinction between singular and plural. It means you have to say people’s names more often. To some people, it just sounds wrong. And of course, for this change to be effective, we also have to make some other awkward changes to our language. Words like “person,” “sibling,” “server,” and “firefighter” are pretty easy to integrate, but we don’t have such readily available gender-neutral alternatives for everything. “Adult child” sounds like an oxymoron, but “child” alone implies youth in a way daughter and son do not. “Nibling” is starting to catch on as a replacement for niece and nephew, but the best thing I’ve found for the reverse relationship, “pibling” (a contraction of “parent’s sibling”), sounds weird and means nothing to almost everyone. Change is awkward. We might have to invent new words and adjust to new names. It will take time. But it’s either the awkwardness of clumsy-sounding language or the awkwardness of insulting people by guessing their identity wrong while perpetuating what may be the oldest form of societal oppression. Some things are worth sounding awkward for.
I don’t particularly identify with my gender assigned at birth. I especially dislike the cultural expectations and assumptions that go with it. I don’t particularly identify with any other gender either. I like wearing colorful dresses with a beard, dangly earrings, suspenders and a fedora. Personally, I think the whole concept of gender is kind of dumb. But my preference for “they” pronouns has almost nothing to do with any of that. Whatever you think about gender, it’s clear that gender pronouns do far more harm than good.
So please, use “they” for me. Regardless of your gender identity, offer it as an option for others to use for you. And consider trying it out as the default for everyone, until and unless they ask otherwise. Let it be awkward. The sooner we get over the awkward hump, the sooner we can stop fighting about words and forcing people into boxes, and just accept people for who they are.