Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Rule No. 1: Don’t assume you know someone’s gender just by looking at them.
Earlier this month, Harvard University made a buzz after allowing students to select gender-neutral options like “ze,” “e,” and “they” on registration forms. In doing so, it joined a wave of other major colleges in acknowledging that gender identity, and the pronouns that go with it, is more fluid than how previous generations understood it.
Among academic institutions, the University of Vermont led the change last year when it became the first school to allow students to select their own identifiers. Students chose their preferred first names and pronouns, which were then added to the campus-wide information system and distributed to professors, according to The New York Times. It was a welcome change for students like Rocko Gieselman, who is gender fluid and was born female bodied. Gieselman explained to the Times:
“Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, ‘Who are you talking to?’”
While younger generations and progressive companies like Facebook are more likely to embrace the fact that gender is not dichotomous, older generations and slow-changing institutions—such as K-12 schools and prisons—still have catching up to do. For those who don’t identify with the gender marker assigned to them at birth and don’t want to be pinned down by binary labels, the moves made by Harvard and UVM are a good first step.
With lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) folks fighting for more social and legal recognition, the restrictive options of “he” and “she” don’t cut it anymore. The singular “they” is one gender-neutral option, but some people just can’t get used to how grammatically unfamiliar it sounds in sentences like “Riley thought they would be late.” (Yet Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Geoffrey Chaucer—touted as the father of English literature—were all fans of the singular “they.”)
“’They’ and ‘them’ are great alternatives, but they’re not necessarily enough,” says Sam Dylan Finch, an LGBTQ activist and writer who identifies as transgender. Over the past century, there have been hundreds of other proposed options. Only a few have become common, like the ones in this table, put together by the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog:
|Nominative (subject)||Objective (object)||Possessive determiner||Possessive Pronoun||Reflexive|
|Ne||Ne laughed||I called nem||Nir eyes gleam||That is nirs||Ne likes nemself|
|Ve||Ve laughed||I called ver||Vis eyes gleam||That is vis||Ve likes verself|
|Spivak||Ey laughed||I called em||Eir eyes gleam||That is eirs||Ey likes
|Ze (or zie) and hir||Ze laughed||I called hir||Hir eyes gleam||That is hirs||Ze likes hirself|
|Ze (or zie) and zir||Ze laughed||I called zir||Zir eyes gleam||That is zirs||Ze likes zirself|
|Xe||Xe laughed||I called xem||Xyr eyes gleam||That is xyrs||Xe likes xemself|
“It’s different for everyone,” Finch says. “For two years I used ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.” (Finch now primarily identifies as “he” and “him.”)
Sometimes the decision can be heavily affected by social pressures, he adds. “Unfortunately, because of a lot of the transphobic pushback, a lot of people will abandon pronouns that they otherwise like to use,” Finch notes. For example, when University of Tennessee encouraged the use of gender-neutral language, conservatives dismissed the move as unproductive and lacking in “common sense.”
But Finch doesn’t get the backlash against introducing new pronouns. “Language is always evolving,” he says. “We don’t necessarily have as much argument when we decide to create new language around the internet, or when new things are invented.” Finch has a point: If new words like manspreading, hangry, and awesomesauce make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, why can’t pronouns? As long as humans and gender identities evolve, he adds, so will languages.
Those who aren’t familiar with gender-neutral pronouns might wonder: How do you determine which ones to use if you’ve just met someone and don’t know how they identify their gender? I posed the question to Finch and Dani Heffernan, senior media strategist at the LGBT group GLAAD. They offered a few suggestions to CityLab:
Ask yourself why you need to know. The person might not want to disclose whether they are trans or non-binary—particularly in a group setting, says Heffernan. That decision should be left up to that individual. By asking, you risk singling the person out and putting them in danger. Heffernan suggests simply listening and “paying attention to what pronouns people use to refer to that person.”
Start with an introduction. If context clues don’t give you an answer and you still would like to know how to best refer to the person you’re speaking with, both Heffernan and Finch say it’s best to introduce yourself and your own preferred pronouns. It’s an invite for the other person to do the same. “I wish more people would do this, to be like ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him,’ how about you?’” Finch says. “If you start the conversation with yourself, you’re not putting someone on the spot.”
Don’t ever assume. “Appearance and gender expression are different from gender identity,” says Finch. Heffernan offers a tip: “Instead of saying ‘the man in the back,’ you might say, ‘the person in the blue shirt,’ and not make assumptions about someone’s gender identity.”
But it’s OK to make a mistake. That is, as long as you make an earnest effort to correct yourself and be respectful to the person you’ve met. “They’re pronouns. They’re important, but it’s also good to remember that you are allowed to make mistakes,” Finch says. “It is a very unconscious process.” He admits that even he’s been guilty of assuming someone’s gender. Just make the correction and move on, says Heffernan. Don’t make your error a big deal; that will only make both parties uncomfortable.
Above all, take someone’s preferred gender identity seriously. Of course, people are complicated; a pronoun is not the only thing that defines them. But as Washington Post Civilities columnist Steve Petrow puts it, “Language is about respect.”