No, I am not transitioning my gender identity… I’m evolving to someone who is as familiar with gender pronouns as I am with my coffee order options at Starbucks.
If like me, you feel curious, confused, awkward or just enjoy seeing how language evolves and want to know more about the explosion of pronouns, then read on. If you have fatigue about political correctness, perhaps this blog will highlight why calling someone by their preferred pronoun is much more than just good manners; it can be a matter of maintaining mental health, even life or death.
Why do some people put two pronouns, e.g. Her/She or He/Him in their auto-signature rather than a single pronoun? Seems redundant. And what about people who use “they”? Are they more than one person? I couldn’t understand it, so I set about discovering who/why and this article is what I’ve found out so far. It’s a work in progress so feel free to chip in through the comments or message me directly.
My first discovery was I wasn’t being sharp enough on the base terms like sex and gender, so let’s start with a level-setting glossary. The following is based on a more extensive summary on the NPR.org webpage. They studied GLAAD and referenced resources from the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Trans Journalists Association, NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, Human Rights Campaign, InterAct and the American Psychological Association. Even so, these terms are fluid – this is a new world – and western centric.
Sex: male, female, or intersex (below) assigned at birth based on genitalia and chromosomes.
Gender: Social and legal status, a set of expectations from society about behaviours, characteristics, and thoughts.
Gender Identity: a person’s own perception of their gender. It’s based on what they understand the options for gender to be and how they label themselves. It’s fluid because we’ve allowed ourselves many more options than I had growing up and society is exploring the possibilities that have emerged.
Gender expression: is how a person presents their gender outwardly.
Cisgender: sometimes just cis, is someone whose gender matches their sex assigned at birth.
Non-binary: Binary means one of two states, like on/off but in this context, male OR female. Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities not exclusively male or female. Someone could feel they are a mix of both, or something outside of male or female. So, someone can be trans (below), or non-binary, or trans-non-binary.
Transgender: someone whose gender doesn’t match their birth assignment. Interestingly most studies are showing that about 90% of trans people are still binary e.g., a man identifying as a woman and not non-binary. For clarity a trans man was assigned female at birth and has chosen male, and a trans female is the reverse. Fun fact – Quinn (no other name), formally Rebecca Quinn became the first transgender, non-binary person to win an Olympic medal in 2021 as part of Canada’s woman’s soccer team.
Intersex: someone who has reproductive anatomy, chromosomes or hormones that don’t fit the typical male/female format, e.g., they have both female and male, or neither, or something else.
Sexual Orientation: is our emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to someone (regardless of their gender).
Pronoun: something like he or they we use in place of a proper noun like their name.
Now we have that straight (no pun intended) let’s answer the questions:
Why He/him etc.? Apparently, it started as a single pronoun, but people were often misheard. So, the community moved to the full he/him/his to be clearer. This has shortened over time to he/him.
Who are “they”? Isn’t that a plural pronoun? Yes and no. It’s not when we don’t know the gender of a person. Then we say, “they went to the shops.” People might choose “they” when they feel that neither designation (male or female) fully captures their gender identity.
How prevalent is this? I found it hard to locate clear survey results but Statistics Canada’s study of the 2019 census was in the middle of the pack at 0.24% of Canada’s population reporting as either trans or non-binary. The US a little lower. I saw some themes: it’s becoming more prevalent, there are many more trans men than trans women, and prevalence is 3 times greater in the under 35 years old group than those over 35. I noted that according to the Williams Institute 1.2 million Americans identify as non-binary (11% of the LGBTQ group). So, a small percentage, but that is still a lot of people.
Why does it matter? This is the important one for people with political-correctness fatigue. I struggled with this one, but then I’m a straight woman. My reference is either male or female. But as a woman, if someone started calling me ‘he’ I’d get fed up with it quickly. Realising that gave me a little insight, but the penny really dropped when I recalled a previous blog I wrote which reported a reduction of over 42,000 attempted teen suicides corelating with the establishment of same sex marriage being legalized.
We can’t underestimate how important to humans that our identity is not just acknowledged, but fully accepted. Using the right pronoun is much more than being polite. If you don’t think so, ask everyone you know to refer to you by the opposite of what you are for a month. A tragic and related example is that most of us in Canada are beginning to accept is the atrocities suffered by our indigenous peoples over the past 300 years at the hands of the majority of the population of Canada. One of the worst aspects was mainstream society, through Government and Church, attempting to eradicate or reprogram the identities of First Nations because they were an inconvenient minority – about 3%. Not much more than the trans and non-binary group, and less than the fuller LGBTQ+ group. Denying the First Nations identity has had tragic impacts over generations, and it seems to be true for LGBTQ+, too.
Can there be he/they? Yes. Ultimately the person in question is signalling to you how they feel about their gender is, i.e., their gender expression. If he/they feels right to them, then it is, and to hell with grammar.
What is ze/hir/hir? Ze, pronounced zee, is a gender-neutral pronoun. Melissa-Jane ate hir food because ze was hungry. Is it new? No, it’s been around since 1864 apparently, although it only appears in dictionaries since 1972. It’s not long since the prefix Ms. was introduced for women who wished for privacy around their marital status. I could see ze becoming a similar language device.
How do we know the preference of someone when we first meet? Navigating this might be difficult for a while. Some environments provide badges such as the one pictured above, but of course this isn’t sustainable, and might also be unwelcome in some scenarios. We are encouraged to start by offering our own preference, “Hi I’m MJ and I use the pronouns she/her.” Perhaps awkward at first, but a good way to get to know people. But as much as some crave the correct acknowledgement, others might not. Or their preference might be circumstantial. In a social setting yes, but in a work setting maybe they’re not ready yet. I worked for an international company that had an office in the Middle East. That country’s morality laws prosecuted non-cis, non-hetero people, even those travelling on business or working there on assignment. You could be hung for being gay. Be careful in this case what you put on your LinkedIn profile. There is a lot to work out as we get used to this new paradigm. Perhaps the place to start is everyone starting conversations with ze, listening, and acting on feedback.
I hope the above helped. I’m curious how people are feeling about this topic, so feel free to leave constructive and polite comments below. The summary I studied has much more, including how to get comfortable with these new pronouns in our lives. A Guide to Understanding Gender Identity and Pronouns : NPR