Gender, Grammar, and Transcending Boundaries

Today I had lunch with a good friend who is gender queer. How’s that again? “Gender queer.” This is a term used increasingly by people who do not identify as either male or female. Yes, there are a good many such people now, especially among the young. And they, like transsexuals, tend to care about what pronouns are used in referring to them. Unlike transsexuals, however, they may reject both “he” and “she.” So what are we supposed to call them? Ah, there’s the rub. The appropriate pronoun does not exist in the English language. If it did, it would be a third person singular pronoun of indefinite gender. You would use it when referring to someone whose gender you either do not know or choose not to specify.

Since there ain’t no such animal, a lot of people have taken to using the third person plural pronoun, “they,” even when speaking of only one person. This is ungrammatical, but I do understand the reason for it. And now it is being picked up by gender queer people, including my luncheon companion. I said straight out that this will be tough for me.

Let me set the context for why it will be hard for me to refer to even a good friend whose comfort level I care deeply about as “they.” As I said, it is ungrammatical. And I have two degrees in English. Not only that, but my father and one of my older brothers were English teachers. Gosh, it’s genetic. I can’t help it. I practically grew up thinking the Eleventh Commandment was “Thou shalt use good grammar!” In fact, this compulsive bias of mine actually did come out in a religious setting recently. I was in a group at church and we were all asked to name a quality that we really admire in people. After several others had said ”justice,” or “kindness,” or “honesty,” or some other lofty virtue, I actually said “good grammar.” Well, everyone looked at me as though I had said “white skin” or something equally prejudiced. And now that I am thinking about it, I suppose it actually is a prejudice.

If I really scrutinize my pronoun prejudice in particular, I realize that the old English major in me who is so offended by the use of a plural pronoun as singular can actually make a reasonable case for it. Here goes. The lack of a third person pronoun of indefinite gender is a real problem in many contexts. Some attempts have been made to solve it by introducing a new pronoun into the language, but none of the words suggested have been widely accepted. Meanwhile, what has been widely accepted is the use of “they” as both singular and plural. Sure, it can cause a little confusion, but so can using “you” both ways, and that is standard English. Finally, even those of us who consider ourselves guardians of the language realize that it continually evolves in response to social pressures and other forces. So maybe it is time for us to peek out of our ivory tower long enough to notice that common usage has reached the point of critical mass on this issue. Maybe we should just give in and move on to nagging people about some other grammatical nicety. Until that one reaches…

Not that throwing in the towel on this one is going to be easy for me. But why not, considering both my intellectual awareness of linguistic evolution and my emotional link to people for whom personal pronouns are, well, especially personal I think it is because standards that we grow up with, that are as pervasive during our youth as air and water, are very powerful. They encircle us with boundaries that are extremely hard to transcend. This is something worth remembering when confronted by people whose own boundaries of gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, or anything else have been so much a part of their environment that they seem almost genetic.

Next time I see my gender queer friend, I should tell them that they inspired this blog post. And I could add that referring to them in these terms is not quite as hard as I expected.


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