“T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns

One thing I have learned, beyond any room for doubt in my own mind, is that biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation (in terms of attracted – to – male, or attracted  – to – female) do not co-incide. Nor is any of them a simple binary division. Most people are to some degree bisexual in orientation – although most suppress one or other side of their preference, choosing to date exclusively men or women. We all have both a masculine and a feminine side, but  encouraged by social pressures, many people choose not to express that part of themselves which is contrary to their biological sex. And contrary to popular belief, even biological sex is not a simple matter of either’/or male or female. A significant proportion of people are biologically one of a range of intersex variations, and may not even be aware of it, without specific medical testing.

Yet much of popular thinking, and particularly common speech, rests on binary assumptions. Public rest rooms and prisons, as well as all manner of application forms and documents depend on simple binary divisions. “Male” and “female” are provided for, “neither” and “both” just don’t cut it. This creates some tremendous paradoxes, which would be funny if they were not so tragic for the real people affected. I have written before of the case of Selwyn/ Sally Gross, who was raised as male and became a Catholic priest and theologian – but found after medical testing that in fact she was primarily female. After transitioning to conform with her dominant female sex, she was suddenly no longer acceptable for the priesthood. By the church’s own logic, someone who was incorrectly female assigned at birth, then later transitioned to live in conformity with a predominantly male biology, should be accepted as male, and so suitable for priesthood. Would church authorities agree? I suspect not. It is more likely that in practice, they want not just men, but “100%” males (if such a thing truly exists, which I am beginning to doubt).

At a practical level, some small progress in being made, in addressing some of these issues. A handful of countries are providing for male/female/other on official forms or passports, some (very slow) progress is being made in some areas with trans – friendly provision of services and facilities,  some brave souls are simply refusing to identify as either male or female.

Language is more intractable, less susceptible to change by simple political process. I want to share with you two pieces I have come across over the past two days, that have forced me to stop, and think more deeply.

The first, by Tricia Romano at The Daily Beast, was part of a broader reflection on the use of the T***** word, and its offensiveness – which I’m not going to get into here. The bit that is directly relevant to the dangerous binary divide, concerned the use of pronouns.

Discussions about pronoun usage and binary gender (simply: defining all gender as male or female) that used to take place only within the trans community are being launched into the mainstream. The terms “cisgendered” and “bio”—used to describe people who are biologically male or female and whose gender matches their biological sex organs—and the pronouns ze, zir,hir, used in place of “he” and “she” to address trans people who reject binary gender definitions, have been increasingly more present in mainstream debates.

Last year, when New York magazine profiled Justin Vivian Bond, who had just come out as a trans person, the magazine outraged Bond because it didn’t use Bond’s preferred pronoun, “v,” and referred to Bond repeatedly as “he.”

Bond—who gained fame as a formerly male-identified performer in the Broadway show Kiki and Herb—wrote at length in a blog post, excoriating the writer, who is gay, and the magazine, saying: “What I was offended by was the tone and what I consider to be extremely aggressive gender policing throughout the story. Within the first three sentences I was referred to as ‘he’ seven times.”

-extract from The Anger Over “Tranny”, at The Daily Beast

My initial response was one of confusion at Bond’s anger that the profile insisted on using the pronoun “he” and not hir preferred pronoun, “v”. Well, come on. I agree completely that the forced polarity into an absolute male / female split is artificial, but the first task of a writer is to be understood. The other gender neutral pronouns ze, zir and hir are confusing enough, but at least I’ve heard of them. How many regular readers of New York magazine would make any sense of their use, let alone “v”, which I’ve never come across before?  I can understand Bond’s desire to be referred to in gender neutral terms, but not the anger when the language as it stands doesn’t comply. The French language police have been trying for decades to exclude Anglicisms from colloquial French, with no success whatever. Adapting English to the complexities of gender and sexual diversity will take generations of careful use, not temper tantrums.

Then, this morning I came across the wonderfully named “T and Conversation” series by  at “In Our Words“. Professor Xx is a ftm medical doctor, who series takes the form of a standard medical question and answer advice column. The title is generic, referring to conversations about “T” issues, but is particularly appropriate for the opening post in the series, which discusses the importance of pronouns when talking about T people. The main thrust of the argument is that  we should ask people what pronouns they prefer (and not only those who we believe to be trans, but everybody, including colleagues in a very conventional work environment ). Here’s the bit about gender – neutral pronouns, which led me to think I need to reflect some more:

As to gender neutral pronouns: using them is simply about respecting another person’s identity, so you really need to do it if that’s what they request.  Language can never change if we are unwilling to adopt those changes because they “sound weird” or draw attention to themselves.  If someone doesn’t know what gender neutral pronouns are, tell them.  If they don’t understand, explain.  And if they’re a jerk about it, well, now you know a little bit more about that person’s value system.  As to using “they/their/them” as a singular pronoun – that’s actually proper English.  It was originally created to be used as a singular pronoun (more likely at the time for cases when a gender wasn’t indicated or important), so feel free to use it with impunity.

T and Conversation: Asking About Pronoun Preferences

and a neat little anecdote, illustrating the sheer value of displaying sensitivity:

I did have college professors who had all of the students identify their pronoun preference on the first day of class.  Students would often giggle about it, but it helped me to feel more welcome in the classroom, even if I wasn’t out as trans yet.  So by asking you may be making someone else feel more comfortable, even if you never know it, and even if they don’t tell you which pronouns they actually prefer.

T and Conversation: Asking About Pronoun Preferences

I’m still not sure if  “v” is a realistic pronoun for common usage, but I can now better understand Bond’s anger.

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