Justice

Non-Binary People Set the Record Straight on Gender Neutral Pronouns

April 3rd 2016

By:
Aron Macarow

Almost ten years ago, I stopped using gender neutral pronouns to identify myself in most conversations.

The switch from zie, zir, zirs, and zirself (one of many sets of neologistic pronouns being used by genderqueer and gender non-binary people) to male pronouns didn't happen because I stopped feeling an affinity for gender neutral pronouns — quite the opposite. I stopped because it became too difficult to live outside the male/female binary in such a persistently, sometimes oppressively, gendered world. Want to apply for identification? Gender or sex, please. Want to fill out almost any form? Yes, gender is needed for that, too. What about going to the bathroom, getting into a nightclub, or going through airport security? Check, check, and check.

If using gender neutral pronouns largely within the semi-protective walls of a small liberal arts college was challenging, I reasoned, the pushback after graduation would be that much greater. So I drifted away from them, they, zir, and zie, and toward the only other gendered space that had ever fit — he, him, and his — and eventually, to a medical gender transition from not-so-female to mostly male. 

(Before those burning questions get in the way: Yes, I'm quite happy as a man. No, it's not easy to be trans. Yes, it has been easier for me to transition genders than it was to live outside the gender binary. No, these answers don't apply to everyone.) 

It was surprising, then, to read this week's New York Times Magazine piece by David Carr Fellow Amanda Hess, which called "they" a "not-so-ideal pronoun replacement" for its gendered counterparts, labeling it "the grammatical equivalent of a shrug."

My beloved former pronoun, which I had fought and struggled for — a shrug? The description stung. 

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I wasn't the only one to react negatively. Madi Aislin Bedard of Los Angeles, California defended their use of the pronoun "they," explaining to ATTN: that they use they and them as pronouns "because they feel like 'mine.'" For Bedard, their preferred pronouns are far from the vague "linguistic crutch" that Hess portrays, instead providing Bedard with a sense of wholeness: 

"My pronoun selection process was a long one that included many (he/him, she/her, they/them, ze/hir, xe/xym, etc.) but 'they' was the one that rung most true to me. It sounded natural on my tongue and in my ears, and it gave me a sense of gender euphoria as opposed to dysphoria." 

Californian Alek Diaz also prefers "they" and "them" as gender neutral pronouns. They point out that it's easy for people to "not know the importance and symbolism something can have to them personally," but as Diaz described to ATTN:, they like they/them pronouns because "it cuts out the bias or gendered stereotypes people attach to he or her pronouns," elaborating: 

"[W]ith they/them, it's a clean slate and makes people acknowledge me for who I am and form their own perceptions of me rather than starting off with their binary gender stereotype or ideologies."   

Another person that ATTN: spoke with, Madin Lopez, echoed Diaz's sentiment about the freedom of "they" and "them," contrasting "them" with gendered pronouns which they say "always come with a set of rules and a set of politics." Lopez, also a California resident, identifies as a non-gendered person and uses a variety of sets of gender-neutral pronouns, but is comfortable using their name to replace pronouns altogether, too: "If you want to use my name forty times in a conversation, that will make me happy."

Asked which pronoun system they preferred for this article, however, Lopez responded: 

"You can use they/them/their because that’s the one that people know the best. [...] I'd rather folks get to focus on what's being said and not sit there and try to figure that part out. I think it's important to use what they know." 

Just that quickly, Lopez gets to the heart of the second major challenge posed by Hess' short etymology of "they" and "them" as gender neutral pronouns. Hess suggests that "they" and "them" are only a "shortcut on the way to acceptance," a dramatic oversimplification of the complex lived reality of gender non-conforming, gender-fluid, and non-gendered people.

"[I]t's way easier to get people to re-purpose an existing term than to introduce a wholly new coinage," said Harvard English professor Stephen Burt on the difficulty of the acceptance of new language. Burt, who also sometimes uses the name Stephanie, is close to the issue as he is comfortable with male, female, and they/them pronouns. 

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"If the question is among all of the possible language change that would acknowledge non-binary individuals," Burt told ATTN:, "which would be easiest for people, especially cis people, to adopt? Then 'they' is the right answer." 

But does that mean that asking friends and family use "they" as your pronoun rather than "he" or "she" is easy just because it's familiar? No. 

"I think that whenever we queer language, we are shifting a cultural understanding of our queered lives and identities," author and New York resident Sassafras Lowrey, who uses ze/hir pronouns, said to ATTN:. "I believe that this is true both for the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun (particularly in it's current popularity), as well as when we introduce new gender pronouns into the language."

As someone who has used a variety of gender neutral pronouns in my day-to-day life, I can say that asking the world to use any gender neutral pronoun for you, regardless of whether it's newer terminology like "ze" or "xe," or something more familiar like a re-purposing of "they," is always a revolutionary act.