The pronouns I use, and that other people use to refer to me, are not “he” or “she” but “they”, “them” and “their”. These pronouns feel as neutral as I do; any others feel like sandpaper against my skin. Friends say, for example, “Tyler? They love to sing, and I love hearing their voice.” Many people tell me that my pronouns are grammatically incorrect; however, they use “they” as a singular pronoun on a daily basis without thinking twice about it. When telling a story, Person A will say, “I met up with a friend from college last night!” Person B will respond, “Oh, cool! What’s their name?” In this scenario, Person B does not know the gender of Person A’s friend, therefore defaults to a gender-neutral pronoun. This is the only appropriate way to refer to me.
This is from Tyler Ford’s piece at The Guardian. It reflects a deeper dynamic of the English pronoun that can’t seem to keep up with human feelings and identity. Is this reflective of a deeper, rooted rhetoric of English-speakers overall? And if so, shouldn’t we be proactive in using different pronouns to help accommodate trans- and agendered people? Are cisgendered people – the “common” people – afraid to lose some identity in the process?
Transgendered people are, like everyone else, one a sliding scale of self-identity and sexuality that ranges from an absence of identity or sexuality to hyper-specifics. Tyler Ford, who was born female, found herself (at the time), looking upon another woman but struggled when the word “lesbian” entered her mind. She then came out as a transgendered man to family, and started taking hormone treatments. After a while, he (at the time) struggled with identity as he took the hormone treatments, and stopped, in limbo.
I didn’t feel like a man; I didn’t even know what feeling like a man meant. My breaking point came when I sat in my closet for two hours, talking to the camera in my laptop about feeling lost. This video was solely for catharsis, and for my own eyes. During that two-hour session, I came out to myself as a non-binary person: someone who does not identify with either binary gender (man or woman).
Tyler went from a binary transgendered life to non-binary. Just as I struggled to ascertain where Tyler stood on the scale of gender identity (as I console myself, thinking I try to understand what they went through – Tyler the person – yet realize I really have no idea what they are going through), the English language and it’s adherents struggle to come up with a linguistic, concrete set of pronouns that satisfies the identity spectrum. As mentioned before, Tyler prefers human and person and the pronouns they, them and their.
We lack a true epicene pronoun other than they. Many languages continue to follow masculine and feminine formats, often using the masculine form to denote a group of both (even more patriarchal than English); others have pronouns to denote groups of the feminine. In anticipation for directing the Creative Writing Summer Camp at NIU a couple of months ago, I was given a batch of tags that said zie/hir that campers could use to be identified as transgendered without having to introduce that fact every time they interacted with cisgendered students. There is a great writeup on the development of trans-pronouns at the genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com, which also details Spivak pronouns:
Over the centuries, hundreds of new words, or neologisms, have been proposed, with the vast majority being abandoned by all but their creators. There are a few exceptions: the pronoun “co” used by residents of the Twin Oaks Intentional Community, “zie/hir” and its derivatives used by people in the transgender/genderqueer community, and Spivak pronouns (ey/em/eir) used in the genderqueer community as well as in some text-based online games and computer textbooks. There is some valid argument by linguists that it’d be extremely difficult for the English language to pick up new pronouns at all, but in the Internet age, sometimes your only clue toward someone’s gender is a username, and, like the long-awaited adoption of the honorific “Ms.”, the need for a gender-free pronoun may overcome the barrier of language limits. (I originally found the comparison of epicene pronouns and “Ms.” in an essay by Jed Hartman.)
The blog breaks down the various nominees for the third-person pronoun for the transgendered—you should visit it to see how it ranks the pronouns according to pronunciation and ease of use. It includes:
Ze/Hir and its derivatives
Of course, there is opposition from both English lovers that do not want a fractioning of the language, and those who don’t identify with or understand the transgendered and non-binary. English is only as good as its use, lest the words and their syntax be considered dead, which leads me to ask if it is time to mainstream the use of third person pronouns. We are already two generations of identity behind (three or four if you count Ms.), and people who cannot express their identity – no matter what your personal philosophy may be – have difficulty in our culture. The very least we can do is adopt a little language for the sake of inclusiveness. If we can adopt twerk we can figure out a way to adopt pronouns for our fellow humans. They are us, and we are they.