This comes as a direct follow-up to A Neutrois Introduction to Society. I suggest you read that first to get on comfortable bearings. Here’s a quick recap:
Pronouns are just the tip of the iceberg – it’s what people can see, even though most of that chunk of ice is underwater. Why am I so concerned about pronouns, when the real issue is that of social identity?
The question then becomes, would I really, truly be comfortable socially identifying as male?
What this means is that the question of choosing a pronoun is just a cover for choosing an outward gender. I say “choosing” and “outward” because my gender is agender, regardless of what pronoun I choose. However, most people do not know and/or care what neutrois or agender is, and while I might take time to explain it to those closest to me, there are situations in which it is difficult, or actually impossible, to explain anything. Gender is perceived in an instantaneous decision taken with little cues and without permission by the other person. While inception remains a truly wondrous phenomenon, there are things I can do to enhance my perceived gender in one direction or another. Thus, the social gender, the gender that everyone sees, is important, and it is a choice. At least in my case.
There aren’t many pronouns availble – two if you want to get real precise. Currently some people go for the new “neutral” pronouns, like zhe/hir. I’m a realist, and realistically speaking it’s hard enough changing your pronoun, let alone introducing a third totally novel option. That and they’re weird and probably nobody will remember them or call me by that, plus I’m not sure how to even pronounce them. So my options are: remain female, or change pronouns to male.
Behind Door #1
By keeping the female pronouns, nothing changes. This means, no telling anyone, no awkward conversations with friends, family, coworkers; no continuous corrections of friends, family, coworkers, baristas who ask for your name, waiters who call you ma’am, or hand you the women’s bathroom key.
But, the dysphoria is still there. The fact that I don’t have to correct people or have awkward conversations with them does not relieve me of my uncomfortableness with being called this. This is a key point. Each day I grow increasingly frustrated at the use of the female pronouns directed at me, and this is more annoying because it’s something that I can change, and only I can change. So…
Behind Door #2
By changing my pronouns to male, it gets more complicated. It’s a change. I have to tell people, come out to them, oficially (not just by dropping random hints everywhere and making them confused). It’s probable I would have to correct people sometimes, but the bigger issue is having to tell them in the first place. I’m quite shy when it comes to awkward conversations, and this would be one of them. I’d also want to get a new name and have everyone call me this, which is a whole other rabbit hole.
However, I’d probably still get ma’ams from waiters and have the women’s bathroom key handed to me, so there would be that discrepancy I’d have to deal with. And everytime I’d see my full name, or in a million other situations, the bells would go off again, but now they would fill the space left behind by the evasion of the majority of dysphoric situations, resulting in a more resounding echo.
But, the real question is, would this make me more comfortable, overall? Presently, I get a small thrill whenever someone makes a boy reference at me, whether inadvertently or confusingly. But is it only because it means I have achieved my first goal of escaping the female label? Would I just get tired of being called ‘he’ all the time, when I’m not really a ‘he’? Would it become more awkward overall if everything else doesn’t match outwardly?
Behind Bonus Door #3
The third option I have considered is adopting a third neutral option. As I said, I don’t really believe in the “zhe/hir” pronouns, but I would not mind at all (would like even) using “they/them/it” as my preferred pronoun. A little weird, sure, but it’s a nice option to have. Moreover, the fact that are “they” is in plural form does not bother me. I take it as a reference to my inner complexity; an homage to all the components that comprise this one little person. Also, “it” is derrogatory only when used in an insulting context, otherwise it sounds very neutral to me.
But (and there’s always a but) similar (or worse) complications than those described above would surely ensue. How do you tell people, in their instantaneous gender-decision-labeling moment, that you are a “they”? You cannot. In all my most glorious ambiguity moments of causing confusing in others have I never, not once, been referred to as anything other than he or she. It’s also much more complex to simply transition or come out to, say, coworkers. Just compare: “I’m a boy, call me he. Cool.” vs “Don’t call me she, I’m not a girl. Call me they. Why, you ask? Let me explain…” In short, it’s a transition, and transition is change, and change does not come without effort.
The International Version
Now, adding some spice to the situation, English is not my native language. Español is one of those gendered languages, where when you talk about yourself you have to talk in a certain gender. Thus, I would also have to change my speech patterns. BUT (and this is a capital BUT) it’s NOT an option to speak neutrally; you either have to be extremely eloquent, or sometimes sacrifice some coherence, to approximate gender neutral speech. You cannot even refer to yourself in third person without gendering yourself. Frankly I don’t even know if it’s possible, though trust me I’ve tried.
Thus, officially changing my pronoun to “they” would still not result in a complete transition. In Spanish, I will always be forced to choose – male or female. Not both, not neither. It’s inevitable, unavoidable.
In reality, (and I do live in reality) it’s impossible to rid myself of gender. If you still don’t understand my hesitation towards remaining undecided (as is my eternal state), go back read this all again. Hence my decision to make a choice.
For now, YOU can call me they or it, or that really awesome person over there. It’s a start.
25 thoughts on “A Neutrois Introduction to Pronouns”
I agree that the idea of having to correct people offline to using unheard of pronouns is such a difficult prospect to face. If they were more accepted I would pick one out, but that’s probably up there in improbability with my dream of non-binary-genders being legally recognized.
And I totally understand wanting to avoid awkward conversations. There’s a peril in that. And in switching, it’s so complicated, because it’s more than just getting people to use the words, and having that awkward conversation, but also how people expect you to act.
The pronoun issue often reminds me of 1984, and the newspeak idea. People will always have trouble understanding ideas which are not clearly represented in their language, and obviously changing that language is difficult or impossible. I long for languages like Finnish, with no gendered pronouns at all.
That said, I kind of like the awkwardness of gender-neutral pronouns, using them makes people feel a little bit of what I feel, and maybe, just maybe, that will make a difference.
One of the most interesting essays in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation was by an acquaintance of mine named Telyn Kucalik. They discuss the difference between how we identify and how we are perceived by others. They themselves use “they” and “them” (or “ey” and “em” in the book, which I think they have given up on), but since I don’t hang out with Telyn, I don’t know what their daily encounters are like.
I do know that it’s an effort for me to remember to use “they.” And they commented on how much energy it takes for a genderqueer person to exist in a gendered world. Same for neutrois, I imagine. Someone who is gender-normative doesn’t even think about it.
It’s unfortunate that English doesn’t have a personal neuter option, and not just for pronouns. There are also, as you say, “ma’am,” “miss,” and “sir.” People go there automatically based on what they perceive.
Thanks all for the great insight.
“it’s more than just getting people to use the words, but also how people expect you to act.”
Yes, although people already see me as gender neutral, they just don’t have the words for it. I imagine this would be much harder for someone who doesn’t “pass.”
German has the neutral pronoun “das.” All the more reason to brush up on my skills.
I’ll be sure to read the book.
“There are also, as you say, “ma’am,” “miss,” and “sir.” People go there automatically based on what they perceive.”
Yes! I have no idea why people have the *compulsion* to gender you. You can carry on a normal conversation, especially a short one with a waiter, without having to say this, but most will insist, even when they are confused. And you can still be polite without addressing someone as sir or miss.
Some people rail against the gender binary, but even though gender (behaviour) is mostly a social thing, it sits on top of another binary that is biological: sexual dimorphism. With few exceptions, people are either male or female. And we seem to have a need to figure out which other people are. I have to wonder if natural selection left us with this ability (the heuristic is usually right) and inclination.
pelf: Yeah, I actually think a lot of pelpoe are like that. They can’t tell you the parts of speech, but they can tell you that Me is sick and Bob taked the gun are both incorrect. It’s just that being a total language geek, hearing someone say that pronoun means proper noun made me cringe. I’m sure a geography nut would cringe if they asked me to pinpoint something and I put it on the other side of the continent, which, by the way, is highly plausible.
From what Ariel said above, from a natural selection point of view, it makes perfect sense that gender is one of the first things we notice and decide upon about a person. In a simplistic view, natural selection is all about spreading your genes, which requires finding a mate (opposite sex one) which requires identifying the sex of potential mates.
What is a mystery is not how most languages have male/female, but how some languages did manage to evolve other options.
That said, it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t or can’t unlearn this, because natural does not always equal good.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. I’m a Finnish neutrois (I suppose), and I’m quite happy with our gender-non-specific pronouns. The division regarding singular third-person pronoun is about whether “person” is human or animal/inanimate, not about the gender.
Funny thing is that nobody usually uses that human-form (hän) in spoken Finnish nowadays, but the animal-form “se”. When (almost) rest of the world fights whether someone is a girl or a boy when talking, here it is “rock or human, why there should be a difference when talking?” 🙂
Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t mtaetr and those who mtaetr don’t mind. I so wish that was true, the person who mtters most in my life cannot deal with who I am, 4 years ago I came out to my son, lately it has been taking a toll on me, I miss him so much, it hurts.
The thing with English though is that new words are created every day. I often use the pronouns “e” in substitute for he/she and “em” for him/her – the goal is to just pick a pair and spread it around. Then it will get into the dictionary and wal-la, a legitimate word. Then the future generations of people who actually want kids need to pound it into peoples heads.
And ironically, there should be no question of a religious debate… for a question of marriage, man and wife part at death anyway because the human soul has no gender at all. If you believe in reincarnation, its natural to move from one gender to another. And in nearly every religion, there is the “harmony of 3” (if you analyze enough stuff, there is always the trio pattern) – meaning the fact that there is not a “third gender” completely ruins this concept…even with love and hate, there is the neutral “indifferent”
That’s really beautiful.
Personally I use “it” for myself, “they” for other neutrois (unless they specifically say they prefer “it” – a lot of them find that inherently degrading), and think the various Spivak pronouns and their variants sound utterly silly. When other people refer to me I prefer “it” or “they,” feel like “she” is a lie, and like “he” is abhorrent.
I can see why some people would find “it” denigrating (although it largely depends on context and tone), but I personally like “it.” I prefer “they” because it’s what I use for other people already, so it flows more naturally for me. However the other day someone asked me what my pronoun was, I said “they” and my brother, who has never heard of this before, started trying to call me “they” but he was messing up the single/plural (he’d say “they [pause]… is…” ). It was funny watching him fumble! But it also made me realize that while it flows for me it might be confusing to other people who aren’t used to thinking that way.
I personally use ze/hir (pronounced “zee” & “heer”), but I use “they” for a hypothetical person or for someone whose pronouns I’m not aware of. I’ve toyed with using “it”, but I don’t think that would ever sit right for me personally. I haven’t ever been asked for my pronouns offline and don’t have the courage to correct people, so this preference isn’t really respected except online.
As far as being read as male/using male-associated pronouns, I don’t think I could use the pronouns as my preference, but I have been mistaken for a man a couple of times & it’s not as dissonance-inducing as being read as female. I think this is possibly because 1) the parts that that cause me dysphoria are female-associated, so it feels worse when I think what I’m trying to minimize is being noticed 2) my style sometimes leans more towards the masculine side of things.
Yeah, as much as I would like to use “it” people find it very awkward to say.
That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to make sense of – I think you put it very clearly. It just doesn’t sound *as* wrong, so I don’t mind it (and given a choice of the default two, I probably prefer it).
Interesting post. I came to visit your blog after you came to visit mine.
It’s interesting how language can have so many meanings to so many people. To me, calling someone ‘it’ reduces them to the status of an inanimate object or a subhuman being. That’s not to say that I think of you that way as a result of your post. But the interesting thing is that to you ‘it’ is preferable to a gendered pronoun while for me, in my existence in my life, ‘it’ is one of the biggest insults a person can make.
Thanks for the food for thought. It’s been an interesting read. I don’t necessarily agree with the choice of opting out of both genders but I can respect it.
Thanks for stopping by Andrew.
A word’s meaning always depends on context, be that “it” or any other word or phrase used to empower or disenfranchise and oppress.
To clarify as well, I don’t choose to opt out of both genders, it just happens to be the way I feel, my identity. When thinking of myself as a “woman” it feels as wrong as to think of myself as a “man” – akin to the feeling an FTM or MTF feels when they think of themselves as their assigned birth gender. Ideally this would be respected and I could live my life as gender-neutral. In reality, it’s impossible to do this entirely, because we live in a gendered world.
Hopefully you will read more and come to understand it better!
I do understand in many ways Maddox 🙂 And certainly respect it. I guess it’s like I identify as FTM not as male or female. And I get quite upset when people try to force me to identify as a man.
I’m glad you clarified because perhaps I misunderstood some of your writings (such is the written word).
I generally don’t follow much in the way of GLBT discourse because it’s not something that interests me hugely (just as discourse about football or basketball doesn’t excite me). I don’t connect with GLBT discourse because it’s so distant from the reality of my life and how I choose to live it. Some people find that difficult to accept because I came out as a lesbian when I was 13-14 years old in 1993 and then transitioned from f-to-m at 18-19 years old in 1998. Being trans has always just been a natural and normal part of my life that’s is just something I live and struggle with. So I like to spend my time talking about boring things like running, adventure racing, triathlon, hiking, camping and motorbike touring 😉 .
I guess it’s rather like the fact that not all women are interested in feminist discourse. And not all Christians go to church every Sunday.
So I might pop by from time to time to have a read but can’t make any promises. It’s a bit like how I love Max Wolf Valerio’s and David E Weekly’s books because they are stories about people but I really don’t like Jamison Green and Jason Cromwell’s books because they are more theoretical (though I am a big fan of Jamison Green and the work he’s done for the trans community).
Totally understand, so double thanks for reading AND commenting. Hey, training for triathlons is intense enough.
I personally don’t find rhetoric and philosophical theory compelling either; my focus lies in individual experiences and tangible change.
Hey maddox, I’ve been perusing the various posts here and have been really enjoying learning about all this stuff. I came across this article the other day maybe on Reddit? and thought it was really interesting– you may have already seen it but the article discusses the use of “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun. It seems like it’d be weird to try to use it universally but there’s definitely many circumstances in which it sounds awesome. 🙂 i.e. “yo writes an awesome blog.”
Well, in Romance languages, the grammatical masculine is usually a bit more closely related to the neuter when there is a neuter. Don’t know if this helps any.
Personally, I notice that a part of me really balks at the idea of calling a person ‘it’. ‘It’ has always carried a non-human, less-than connotation for me, so it’s hard to imagine how a person would want to adopt it – but here we are. As a person who strives to support trans* and genderqueer folks, I would never question a person who requested this of me (they know better what they need than I do). It would be difficult to get over that mental hiccup because it goes against things I’ve tried to learn and unlearn about respecting my fellow humans – but then that’s part of the challenge of allyship, it’s always changing and you have to ask and respect the answers you get. The hardship of that mental hiccup is a lot less than the barriers faced by a person who might ask me to use unexpected pronouns.
I’m really glad I read your post today because I learned something new. I think it’s so awesome that you’re able to share your experiences and thoughts with the internet, your blog is a great resource that I like to reference when spreading the word about non-binary identities.
Thanks for being an awesome human!
Hola! Este post es antiguo, así que supongo que mi apunte ya no hace falta, pero…En español usamos “elle” y los adjetivos acaban en “e”. Yo llevo un año hablando así: “soy ese chique extrañe” XD
PDT: Genial tu blog, una pena que lo tenga que leer con el traductor de google!