by Blair Morton
A wave of social announcements have hit Facebook and social scenes across the globe: the preferred pronoun. While these four letter identifiers may seem like a small step towards gender equality and rights of recognition, they are causing a storm of confusion. To many non-binary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer folks, pronouns like they/them/their, sie/hir, xe, ze/hir, are a gateway to language that better represents them in a cisnormative world. The use of gender neutral language is an inclusive way to divest from a gendered binary that leaves many feeling unwelcome, but in a world where we are socialized to put gender in the forefront of descriptions and conversations, is it possible — or even right — to remove gender from our social script?
While they/them pronouns have given gender nonconforming folks a home, it leaves some feeling othered. For those in the trans community, gender neutrality can be seen as isolating. When all they want is to fit into a box of woman or man, being represented in the “they” collum can be insulting to who they truly are and identify as such. There is privilege in the desire to deconstruct the gendered binary; when you don’t fit, you can either make room or find a way in. Some are born into a body they do not want and are socialized in a gender they do not feel comfortable in. We can’t close up the woman box if others are trying so desperately to break in.
“My gender is a work of nonfiction” exclaims Julia Serano in her book Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. In chapter 11 of her work, she deconstructs the idea that gender is a construct. If someone is born into a body and socialized in a way in which they feel uncomfortable, how can their gender be constructed by their dissent? Gender is not simply drag or a performance, Serano explains. Gender is a loaded idea that means something different to everyone; it who we are — not who we are trying to be.
I try to use they/them for everyone, but is it offensive to un-gender someone who wants to be gendered?
I am a cisgender woman who prefers to be referred to as they/them, but I recognize my pronouns are she/her. I am empowered by being a woman. I am connected to the gender and I have never felt like I was something other than girl. (Except when I was 10 years old and wore the same camo cargo shorts and an oversized Air Force t-shirt — I would share pictures if I hadn’t destroyed them all years ago.) That being said, however, I recognize that gender is a construct and my idea of being a woman is totally subjective. When those around me who identify as something outside of cis get misgendered through the use of language, I see the disappointment in their faces. I use gender neutral language for them. My preference of gender neutral language is an attempt to reinforce the unnecessary gender descriptors. If using gender neutral language is a propelled attempt to normalize queerness, I want nothing but. The use of gender neutral language is difficult, especially due to the way many of us were socialized to communicate. We are so quick to assign gender to people we do not know and to say “she” or “him” that saying “they/them” is something we must condition ourselves to do.
It’s not a preference, it’s a pronoun
Many people are becoming more aware of nonconforming pronouns, but calling them a “preferred pronouns” is problematic. If someone is genderqueer, their pronoun is as much xe or em as a cisgendered man would be he/him. It is not assumed that a cis person prefer cis pronouns, rather those pronouns are considered to belong to him.
In the realm of customer service, gender neutral language may seem like a social roadblock. Service workers are expected to address customers in a polite fashion, and to hegemonic social standards, what is polite is complementary to cisnormativity. Saying something like “hey you!” May not be considered polite in a supervisor’s eyes, but addressing someone as “sir” when they do not identity as male can be triggering. Below are infographics that help maneuver away from gendered language.
While some of these may seem awkward, remember that language is fluid. We have evolved from speaking in ye olde English, so calling someone “partner” can’t be too hard, can it? Maybe this is just the southerner in me wanting to popularize “y’all”.
Julia Serano: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. p. 105-108