Gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns on the rise

GA Voice - - Georgia News -

As trans­gen­der rights and is­sues fi­nally be­came part of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion in 2015, those in and out­side of the LGBT com­mu­nity be­gan to process new ways not only of think­ing, but also speak­ing. One of the ma­jor top­ics to emerge from that con­ver­sa­tion is gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns.

Peo­ple who use gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns don’t iden­tify specif­i­cally with ei­ther “he” or “she” pro­nouns. The most com­mon gen­der-neu­tral pro­noun us­age is they/them/their, al­though there are oth­ers, in­clud­ing ze and hir.

At­lanta res­i­dent Tay­lor Alxndr, 22, iden­ti­fies as agen­der, i.e. they don’t have a bi­nary male or fe­male gen­der iden­tity.

“It’s dif­fer­ent for ev­ery in­di­vid­ual per­son, but for me, be­ing agen­der, I don’t have a gen­der iden­tity and I want to stay as neu­tral as pos­si­ble. So they/them/their feels com­fort­able for me,” Alxndr told Ge­or­gia Voice. “I wouldn’t want to go to some­body who prefers ‘she’ and ‘her’ and call her ‘he.’ It’s just gen­er­ally about re­spect and re­spect­ing peo­ples’ bound­aries and how they feel com­fort­able.”

The fem­i­nist fight for ‘Ms.’

The rise of gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns in com­mon ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion isn’t the only lan­guage shift to oc­cur that cen­tered around equal rights in the United States.

In 1961, 22-year-old civil rights worker Sheila Michaels spot­ted the noun “Ms.” on a piece of mail her room­mate re­ceived. Hat­ing to have her iden­tity de­fined by mar­riage, Michaels be­gan a mis­sion to add the ti­tle to the lexicon as an al­ter­na­tive to “Miss” and “Mrs.”

Her work didn’t pay off un­til she ap­peared on a pro­gres­sive New York ra­dio sta­tion with other fem­i­nists nearly a decade later. Her plea for the hon­orific came as prepa­ra­tions were un­der­way to com­mem­o­rate the 50th an­niver­sary of women’s suf­frage in the United States. Fem­i­nist icon Glo­ria Steinem gave her stamp of ap­proval, and later in 1971 co-founded Ms. Mag­a­zine, which re­mains in

Jan­uary 8, 2016

At­lanta res­i­dent Tay­lor Alxndr, 22, says many peo­ple re­act with anger when they cor­rect them for not us­ing their proper pro­noun. (Cour­tesy photo) “I wouldn’t want to go to some­body who prefers ‘she’ and ‘her’ and call her ‘he.’ It’s just gen­er­ally about re­spect and re­spect­ing peo­ples’ bound­aries and how they feel com­fort­able.” pub­li­ca­tion to this day. It took some longer than oth­ers to em­brace the hon­orific, with the New York Times wait­ing un­til 1986 to em­ploy it, but it stuck.

The gram­mar po­lice and main­stream me­dia re­act

Gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns are part of the next con­ver­sa­tion about lan­guage and equal rights, nearly 50 years af­ter the fight for “Ms.” be­gan. A com­mon com­plaint from those new to gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns re­lates to gram­mar—how can some­one use “they” to re­fer to a sin­gle per­son, they ask.

“That whole ide­ol­ogy is kind of in­cor­rect in it­self,” Alxndr says of peo­ple who ob­jected to the us­age on gram­mat­i­cal grounds. “It was a lot of anger about not understand- ing why they had to use they/them/their. A lot of peo­ple didn’t understand that they couldn’t just de­cide what they wanted to call me. I was like, well you can learn all th­ese dif­fer­ent words and ter­mi­nolo­gies with so­cial me­dia and stuff, why can’t you just learn they/them/their?”

But the gram­mar po­lice have slowly backed off. The Wash­ing­ton Post has taken the lead on the is­sue among ma­jor me­dia pub­li­ca­tions, an­nounc­ing in a De­cem­ber memo to staffers that it would be­gin al­low­ing employees to use they/them/their as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun in their cov­er­age.

“It is usu­ally pos­si­ble, and prefer­able, to re­cast sen­tences as plu­ral to avoid both the sex­ist and an­ti­quated univer­sal de­fault to male pro­nouns and the awk­ward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All stu­dents must com­plete their home­work, not Each stu­dent must com­plete his or her home­work,” wrote Wash­ing­ton Post copy ed­i­tor Bill Walsh in the memo. “When such a re­write is im­pos­si­ble or hope­lessly awk­ward, how­ever, what is known as ‘the sin­gu­lar they’ is per­mis­si­ble: Ev­ery­one has their own opin­ion about the tra­di­tional gram­mar rule. The sin­gu­lar they is also use­ful in ref­er­ences to peo­ple who iden­tify as nei­ther male nor fe­male.”

The New York Times even used the pro­noun “Mx.” to re­fer to a gen­der-neu­tral source in a Nov. 2015 pro­file of a New York City book­shop and ac­tivist cen­ter. That’s the pro­noun the source used and the Times re­spected their wishes.

‘Use’ or ‘pre­fer’?


A sub­con­ver­sa­tion about peo­ple who use they/them/their pro­nouns is an­other lan­guage is­sue—do they “use” or “pre­fer” they/ them/their pro­nouns?

“I think there’s been a grad­ual shift from peo­ple that use ‘pre­fer’ in­stead of ‘use,’” Alxndr says. “I know a good few years ago ev­ery­body was us­ing ‘pre­fer’ but now I feel like the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple are us­ing ‘use’ be­cause when peo­ple say I ‘pre­fer’ th­ese pro­nouns, it has this im­pli­ca­tion that peo­ple have a choice in not us­ing those pro­nouns.”

Alxndr’s sen­ti­ments echo those of most peo­ple we spoke to about the topic, which re­calls the de­bate in re­cent years over whether to use the term “sex­ual pref­er­ence” or “sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.” To say les­bian, gay or bi­sex­ual peo­ple “pre­fer” to be that way in­di­cates it’s a choice, there­fore “sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion” is the more widely ac­cepted term.

Gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns will con­tinue to be a topic of dis­cus­sion when it comes to trans­gen­der rights as more peo­ple come out all along the gen­der spec­trum.

“I even have trans friends who still slip up and call me ‘he,’ but they rec­og­nize that it’s just some­thing they have to work on,” Alxndr says. “You don’t ex­pect peo­ple to au­to­mat­i­cally use ev­ery sin­gle ter­mi­nol­ogy cor­rectly but we do ex­pect peo­ple to just gen­er­ally re­spect us and if you do slip up, say ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to do that’ and carry on with the right pro­noun.”

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