Pronouns. I always thought pronouns were so straightforward. There are subject pronouns and object pronouns. There are singular pronouns and plural pronouns. And there are first person, second person, and third person pronouns. It’s all very neat and tidy. And when you pride yourself on your knowledge of grammar, you feel good about your firm grip on when it is appropriate to use each of these…that is, until you realize that sometimes even pronouns are not so straightforward.
The only real means we have to communicate effectively is language–and yet, language often falls woefully short of helping individuals to describe their experience. Many years ago I wrote a paper for a conference on that topic as it related to female sexuality. I argued, as I recall, that since we as a society did not truly acknowledge female sexual desire as a subjective experience, we didn’t have a way to really talk about female sexuality and formulate a true understanding of it.
Language is what we use not just to communicate, but to think about concepts in our own minds–and language, in turn, develops from our understanding of the world. So as our perspectives and knowledge change and develop, our language changes with it. However, often language lags behind a bit as we in society get used to new words and new usages for old words. So changes may be happening, but we still don’t quite have the words to describe what we’re seeing. And without those words, we don’t entirely have a way to understand it.
Gender is a clear area in which we can see these changes in language and understanding unfold before us. As with many topics that become in some way politicized, the language around gender changes more quickly than many of us can keep up with. While a few years ago, the term “transsexual” was widely used, it is no longer generally considered acceptable. “Transgender,” “genderqueer,” and “intersexual” are just a few of the terms that are used in various circles of those who talk about, study, and live gender issues. But most of my family, friends, and colleagues in other fields would not have a clear understanding of what all of those terms mean.
All of which brings me back to the issue of pronouns. There are individuals, many of whom would identify as “genderqueer¸” who do not feel that the gender binary describes their experience of gender. That is, they don’t feel that they are a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Indeed, this is an area where our language falls short. Such individuals do not have the words in English to adequately describe how they feel–except to say, essentially, what I just said: The language that says that we must be one or the other of two genders is insufficient and doesn’t work for them. All individuals who define themselves in this way are not saying they experience gender in the exact same way; they’re just saying that they’re experience is different from the way those who feel they fit comfortably into the gender binary experience it.
I realize that for many, these might be difficult concepts, and the idea that gender is socially constructed as opposed to biologically based might be hard to fathom. But I’ve been studying and teaching gender for a long time, so I’m OK with all of that. The part that I find difficult is, as I keep saying, pronouns. It is common on many college campuses, no doubt more so in certain parts of the country than in others, for professors to ask students at the beginning of the semester (and, probably less common, for students to ask other students in social situations) what their preferred pronoun is–that is, “What pronouns should we use in referring to you?” For most, the answer is: “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers.” But for those who identify as genderqueer, their answer is likely to be “they/them/their(s). There are other gender neutral pronouns being bandied about, but in my experience, most choose the third person plural pronouns–probably because they feel familiar. The other pronouns, like “zie/zim/zir/zis” are not a part of our language and, thus, sound weird and unfamiliar.
The problem is that the writer/writing professor/editor part of me is having a really tough time with a) referring to an individual using a plural pronoun and b) using a plural verb when referring to the actions of that individual. Also, I’m kind of at a loss as to how to teach my writing students about this. You would think that college freshman would know about noun-verb agreement. I think in theory they do, but many of them don’t practice it. So I have to teach them about it. They need to know what “proper” English is. Right? But there are instances when it’s not clear what I should tell them to do. For instance, when I write about a hypothetical situation involving an individual, I generally write something like, “When a parent talks to his or her child about sex….” Or, alternatively, I switch back and forth between male pronouns and female pronouns–or I avoid the whole thing by using plural pronouns and verbs. In other words, I use grammatical English. And as a writing teacher, I feel like that’s what I should teach my students. But as a gender professor–and someone who cares about these issues–I do believe that in writing that way and in forcing my students to write that way I’m not just accepting the notion of the gender binary as a truism, I’m endorsing it and essentially giving it sustenance–and I don’t want to do either of those.
I realize there’s not much to be done right now. I’m just sharing my struggles with you–whining a bit, I guess. I have to figure it out on my own. I certainly have to, at the very least, get used to using the third person plural pronouns in conversation when talking to and in reference to those who prefer to use them. It’s unseemly for a gender professor to keep slipping. However, I would like to make one small plea: It would be really awesome if we could speed things up a bit and just agree as a society on a new set of gender neutral pronouns. Once we start using them regularly, we’ll get used to them. We really will. And then in a few years, we can change them again.
 While some progress has been made since then, as I indicated in my last post, “The Honest of HBO’s “Togetherness,” we are apparently still so uncomfortable with the idea of women masturbating, there are not commonly used slang terms to depict the act.