Can We Start Killing Gender-Specific Pronouns?

All Genders Matter

I come at the gender-pronoun question from the opposite perspective of most people — but especially social conservatives. Ever since I started writing, I have hated gender-specific pronouns. But for a long time, I resisted the use of the plurals “they” and “them.”

For some time, I was very fond of “it.” It says a lot about me that I thought “him” and “her” could easily be replaced with “it.” My friends thought I was crazy. But why? I don’t mind being referred to as “it.” If all humans were referred to as “it,” there would be no stigma. Yes, I am weird. But after a few years, I realized this fact about myself and gave up on the idea.[1]

Back at the start of 2016, I gave up on solving the gender neuter problem in what I considered an appropriate way. I accepted the plurals as the best option. But to be clear: the issue remained contentious.

And then transgender issues made it to the mainstream of discussion.

Transgender “They” and “Them”

I noticed that a lot of transgender people — especially non-binary people — used “they” and “them” as pronouns. For me, this has been like manna raining down from the heaven where all grammar inadequacies and contradictions are solved. “Yes!” I said to myself. “Let us all act as non-binary people! Let’s destroy gender-specific pronouns for good!”

Let’s start the party!

Transgender People Are Not a Monolith

But there is a problem. There are a lot of transgender people who identify with the opposite gender as their sex.[2] And many of these people would like society to acknowledge their gender just as most cis people do.

We can’t dismiss this desire. Sure, in a perfect world, there would be no need. “We are all individuals!” But I fear we are a good deal further from that world than most liberals would like to think.

What’s more, it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of pretend alpha males who live in terror of their true selves ever being made public.[3] Who am I to say that they aren’t deserving of society’s reinforcement of their identities? I’m not going to misgender someone even if they take pride in misgendering others.

Toward Gender Neutrality in Grammar

My concern is about grammar and finding language that is accurate. So there’s never a problem saying, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and she was great.” But I would like to move toward a language that didn’t include gender — where the standard was, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they were great.”[4]

As a result, I think those who feel comfortable should forsake gendered pronouns. So please: use “they” and “them” for me. But don’t do it because my gender is indeterminant or fluid. I reside very comfortably in the male gender category. This is an opportunity to simplify the language. And I’m always keen on that.[5]

[1] Given the way that many treat transgender people, I can well imagine some awful people using “it” in an effort to dehumanize those in the transgender community. So there is another reason not to use “it.”

[2] I understand that sex is a complicated subject. Forgive me for simplifying there.

[3] I don’t mean to imply anything specific here. However, it has long been my contention that bisexuality among men is far more common than normally believed.

[4] If we ever reach the point where the plural pronouns are default, I might want to discuss getting rid of the plural verb. “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they was great.” For now, it sounds odd and grammar needs to change slowly.

[5] Note there are cases where having gender is helpful. For example, when writing about a man and a woman, you can use gendered pronouns throughout without having to use names or descriptions for clarity. But this is a very small advantage that does not begin to compare to the advantages of gender-neutral language. What’s more, even the most barely competent writer can easily solve any problems that come up because of a lack of gendered pronouns.

Trans Solidarity Rally and March 55401 by Ted Eytan licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.