Learning to Breathe: Pronouns

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I have come to dislike pronouns.

That’s not quite true. I like the concept of pronouns. I was well inducted into the School of Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla. I see that it’s important to be able to refer to a person without having to use, or even know, their name.

But English, like its Indo-European siblings, messed it up.

Pronouns are messed up because gender markers in those languages are messed up. We’re obsessed with including gender when we speak; if anything, English is one of the least obnoxious of its family.

In most Indo-European languages, such as German and French, gender is marked in a variety of ways, and is more inescapable. In English, we’ve pretty much reduced it down to the suffix -ess (-ix when we’re feeling fancy), a few handfuls of word pairs (son/daughter), and third person pronouns.

And to our credit, we’ve been working on those remnants for a while now. When I was a child, “stewardess” was largely replaced with “flight attendant” and “waitress” with “server”. The Emmy Awards recently announced that winners may choose an award reading “Best Performer”.

As for word pairs, most have a well-established gender neutral equivalent, but Sir/Ma’am — the cultural gold standard for showing respect to a stranger — doesn’t. Other common gaps are equivalents for nephew/niece (“nibling” is common) and aunt/uncle (“Entle” and “Auncle” are common). Meanwhile, many adults bristle at being called “child” instead of “son” or “daughter”, because “child” has to do double duty there and as the gender neutral of “boy/girl”.

“Mx.” is probably the most successful neologism for gender neutral speech, as an equivalent of “Mr.” and “Ms.”. Otherwise, though, attempts to fill the gaps have had struggles.

Which brings me back to pronouns. And, more properly, my pronouns.

Long before I started earnestly accepting my status as nonbinary, I had the position that I didn’t really care that much about which pronouns people used for me.

But as I finally picked up my satchel and started down the road that had been beckoning me for years, I struggled with the motivations behind my decisions.

Cultural systems that favor one state of being over another typically demand marginalized people cater to the comfort of the dominant. Specific to being transgender, we are asked to “understand” the grieving process of the cis, to “be patient” with misgendering, to present ourselves in way that allow cis people to leave their own biases as intact as possible, to our own detriment.

Transgender people in our culture do not experience discomfort as a single entity. It is a hydra: Even as we struggle to accept our own worth in a culture designed to invalidate us, even as we question the betrayal of our birth bodies to our identity, we must choose how much to demand respect from others.

To make matters worse, there is also a natural urge to conform to the expectations of fellow transgender people. This is more of an instinct than a necessity: As we transgender people gain our voice, we are more willing to allow variation within our own ranks. While there are still arguments about what it means to be a “real” transgender person, that attitude is fading rapidly.

So as I began the public portion of my nonbinary journey, I found myself with several decisions to make: Do I choose a new name? What titles should I use? How do I deal with “sir”? And: What are my pronouns?

This could have been simple.

Centuries ago, we started using “they” in the singular to refer to someone whose gender we didn’t know. This was even before we started using “you” in the singular.

In another universe, that inertia never stopped: “They” became firmly established as the gender-neutral singular form, just as “you” is fully ambiguous with regards to number.

But in this universe, the prescriptivist grammarians got in the way. “‘They’ is plural!”, they exhorted. In a short period of time (less than a century, really), singular “they” was relegated to slang and sloppiness.

When I was a child in the 1970s, the rule was to use “he” as the generic. “Every student should bring his pencil.” Rightly, this did not survive the feminist wave that also brought us Ms.

When I was a teen in the early 1980s, the rule was to use “he/she” or “he or she” as the generic. This survives in formal writing, particularly legal documents. Nonbinary erasure aside, it’s awkward. And “he/she” emerged as a slur for transgender people, particularly women who didn’t “pass” as such.

When I was in college at the 1980s/90s cusp, the rule was to use “he” and “she” randomly, except that studies showed that the choices were rarely random: Doctors and lawyers were “randomly” “he” far too often, and nurses and teachers were “randomly” “she”. And, again, this erases nonbinary people.

It’s been only in this century, and especially in the last few years, that style guides have grudgingly accepted “they” in the singular. But now, after a half-century-long lifetime of arguments and language evolution, I’m exhausted.

“They” is the nonbinary default. It’s a way to declare one’s nonbinary status without being too overt about it, especially since (1) not all nonbinary people use it and (2) some binary gender people use it.

For people writing checklist forms, it’s an easy catchall: The three genders are he, she, and they.

Please note: Nonbinary is not a “third gender”. I think what draws some early-transition nonbinary people to the notion of Two Spirit is that the name embodies how we feel: Some aspects of maleness, some of femaleness, mixed with other stuff. As a community, we’ve gotten good at warning people who aren’t of American indigenous descent away from the term, but I can see the attraction to the term.

For the significant majority of the population who are happy with “he” or “she”, though, it’s confusing as to why they should have to provide a bunch of category choices for a small portion of the population. So we get “they”, whether we like it or not.

I struggle with “they”. I’ve gotten too many ELA lectures about how “they” is always plural. I know it can be singular. I don’t need Yet Another Explanation about how it can be singular. I’ve written explanations about how it can be singular. I still struggle with it having to be plural.

But early in my transition, I went with “they” as my pronoun because it’s the current cultural default.

However, I still get “he” all the time, and I rarely object to it. I needed to explore the why.

I still get “Sir” and “Mr.” all the time, too. Those are easy for me: No. I will often tolerate them because I’m too tired to argue or too nervous to stand up for myself. Since I’m a teacher, I also think it’s inappropriate and unprofessional for me to argue with students and caregivers who are trying to be respectful.

Pronouns are a different matter, though. For one thing, they’re not directed at me. Pronouns are very often used when the person they refer to isn’t even around to hear them.

For another, we English speakers have so thoroughly mucked them up.

In addition to “they”, we do have a clearly gender neutral singular pronoun: “it”. But that one is supposed to only be used for inanimate objects and creatures we don’t care about. It’s beyond dehumanizing: Insects are “it”, while dogs and cats have gender.

In response to “they” being plural, some nonbinary people use neopronouns. For a while, it looked like “zie/zir” would take root as the standard default, not “they/them”. But once the door to neopronouns was opened, it was flung wide, and now there are lists of dozens of common options, and there are probably hundreds in use. “Zie” doesn’t even have a consistent spelling now: “ze” is also used.

Meanwhile, there are people who don’t use pronouns at all: Just use their name. Every time. Or exploit subject deletion, a process that’s common in other languages: “I saw Clio the other day. Doing some shopping. I asked Clio how Clio was. Said Clio was doing great.”

My brain kept going back to: I really don’t care.

And my brain offered the rebuttal: That’s because you have low self-esteem and you’re trying to please people.

Back and forth I went: I don’t care. No, you do care, but you’re too wimpy to assert yourself. No, I really, honestly, don’t care.¹

I might care if we hadn’t made this all such a hot mess. If the prescriptivists hadn’t dug in their arbitrary heels, acting like English is some sort of logical, sacrosanct behemoth set in stone and not the result of centuries of duct tape and free spirits. If “they” had followed the same route as “you”.

But it didn’t.

I was headed back to where I was before I had even started down the road: I really don’t care.

Then the other day, I saw this TikTok, and it affirmed where I’d already been heading: I really don’t care. Furthermore, I personally want to not have this as a point of power that the cis have over me.

I needed to get to the point of breathing on my own to know that I was making a decision for myself, not because I was trying to make cis people comfortable.

So I’ve changed my pronouns to “they/any”.

What this means is that, if you really don’t know what to use but you want to validate my nonbinary status, “they” is fine.

But feel free to use “she” or “he”. Or “it”. Or a neopronoun. Or my name. Or switch it up. Whatever feels right to you at the time.

If there’s a neopronoun you’re thinking of using for yourself, feel free to use it for me to see how it sounds. That might feel less weird than talking about yourself in the third person. “Clio is cool. I saw ver at the bar last night, and ve talked about vis cat.” Honestly, I’d be flattered to be used as part of your own exploration.

And sometimes it’s validating to me to be seen as a woman, for that matter. A man… eh, not so much, so if you want to have a pronoun to avoid, avoid “he”; if you want to have a traditional singular pronoun that won’t make your English teacher cry, use “she”. Seriously, though, “he” is fine, too.

So: You do you. I’ll do me. It’s all good.

[1] The savvy psychological sort might notice that the “I don’t care” side is in the first person and the “yes you do” side is in the second person, and yes, I noticed.

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