Breaking the gender binary can be a difficult conversation to have. No, but, like literally. Not only is it politically charged, there is a basic linguistic challenge in coming up with ways to reference individuals whose gender is either unknown or who do not self identify as either a “he” or a “she.”
The attempts at creating a third, gender neutral pronoun have been many, but, alas none of them has stuck. This is in part because of a lack of unity among those seeking to make the transition—ey don’t always agree with xemself—and in part because something as frequently used as a pronoun can be a difficult thing to change over a large and diverse population. Still! There is hope! Just like Ms. took a while to earn its place among the Mrs. and Miss-es of the world, anything is possible. Heck, just this year, students applying to Harvard could select between he, she, ze, e or they for their preferred pronoun.
Not bad for a school that didn’t go officially co-ed until 1977.
The problem with pronouns in the English language comes primarily in the first person singular, both subjectively and objectively speaking. We can all go to the store and feel great about it, but if only one of us goes to the store than he or she is faced with a problem. We have it, which we can all agree is less than politically correct in reference to a human being, but beyond that, it’s slim pickins for an individual whose gender is unknown or for an individual who identifies as neither female nor male.
We don’t really have one yet. Here’s what we’ve tried so far.
Anyone who has put off coming out to their parents at Thanksgiving dinner is aware of the “they” game. “I am dating someone so amazing! They live across the hall from me in the dorms!”
Though it is extremely effective in its gender neutrality as well as scoring points for being a common turn of phrase in the English language (gender neutral pronouns tend to stick out and scream QWEER-DO! which can be less than ideal when one’s goal is not to ruffle feathers) “they” is also plural, so sentences that use “they” to refer to a single gender neutral individual can be wildly confusing à la:
“Kris went to the park. They ate a sandwich.”
“Wait, who was with Kris at the park?”
“No one. They were by themselves.”
"Ze" and "Hir"
Ze (as a subject in lieu of “he” or “she”) and hir (as an object, in lieu of “him” or “her”) are the frontrunners in the race for gender neutral pronouns, but aren’t without problems of their own. Both pronouns have been accused of skewing too feminine phonetically, and “hir” is often mis-pronounced to make it sound more like “her” than it’s intended “here.” They are also clunky and often require more explanation than an individual may be willing to give.
Then there’s ne and nem, ey and em, ze and zir, xe and xem, and suddenly it feels like a game of Scrabble gone woefully awry.
Here are a couple of cheats I’ve picked up along the way that may not make it in to any gender neutral textbooks, but they certainly help in casual conversation when you aren’t totally sure what to say and don’t want to come off sounding like an as*hole.
A fantastic way to refer to any group of people, regardless of gender. It beats “men and women” in terms of its being inclusionary, and has a wonderful down-home feel to boot.
Example: A bunch of folks from Smith College are going to the Tegan and Sarah concert. Wanna go?
Bae, Boo, Main Squeeze or Significant Other
These are great ways to find out if someone is single without having to reference either gender or sexual orientation. “Are you seeing someone?” is much less assumptive than “do you have a boyfriend?” I have found the phrase “trans folks” to be particularly helpful when trying to reference multiple shades of the rainbow in one fell swoop, ie “we want to make sure universal health care is inclusionary of trans-folks.”
Gurls and Bois
My absolutely favorite way to deal with the conundrum is to scramble gender pronouns entirely, especially when you’re doing it for fun. “Gurl! What you talkin bout?” is a great way to respond to anyone who is talking smack, male, female, or anywhere in between. Boi generally references a female bodied individual who presents masculine or “boy-ish” but it’s also a fun way to refer to anyone who is being adorable. I vote for making all references to gender a casual thing. Gender isn’t just about checking a box in a college admissions form. It’s about being healthy, happy and human, so I say, the less seriously we can take our pronouns, the better.
So Now What?
First of all, just being willing to have a conversation about trans and gender queer inclusion is huge. Well done! Whatever change society decides upon isn’t going to happen overnight. “Ms.” was first proposed as an alternative to “Mrs.” or “Miss” in 1901 but didn’t officially catch on until the 70’s, and even then, no one knew how to pronounce it. The New York Times didn’t start using it until 1986, and they’re pretty liberal as far as news outlets go.
For now, I say, let’s all be open to change. We put bootylicious in the OED; we can certainly figure this one out if we put our (gender neutral) collective minds to it.
Trial and Error
The biggest key to success is being willing to acknowledge the possibility of change and put forth your best effort with pronouns of all shapes and sizes. You are going to make mistakes. We all are, whether that’s calling a short haired woman “sir” or not knowing how to reference RuPaul in a suit (for the record, she’s pretty chill about pronouns, so as long as you treat him with respect, you can call her whatever you want. Whether you are correcting or being corrected, let’s all remember to be respectful, open and nice.