// 8 April 2008

Lately I’ve been thinking about language, and how I use it in the context of My Life As A Trans Woman™. I’ve adjusted to some parts of the language but not to others. For example, I’m comfortable with pronouns: I’m a "she", not a "he". On the other hand, as an individual, I’m less comfortable with being labelled "transgender": I identify as female and there’s been no ‘crossing’ from one gender to another. Although it does make a useful umbrella term.

As I see it, there are two main problems associated with language. Sometimes it’s hard to find words which are appropriate to my experience – and sometimes the words other people use can be very hurtful, whether intentionally or just unthinkingly.

I routinely have to suffer the phrase, "I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman". I still get dreadfully upset when I hear, or read it. Apart from making me wonder if the person using it has worked through their own issues on gender identity and presentation, it also suggests to me that that person – by referring to me as "it" – may be feeling threatened by my existence. And that person’s way of dealing with that fear is to ungender me. It’s easier than actually applying a little rational thought or trying to empathise…

I was talking about this to a friend and she sees it in quite a different light. Her first language is Mandarin and she tells me that words like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ don’t carry anything like the weight, the meaning, the implicit sexism, that they do in English. So why can’t we do the same with English: make it a much more gender neutral language? Jess recently talked about how this might be achieved in Spanish link here, but in English?

According to this document, "[t]he practice of assigning masculine gender to neutral terms comes from the fact that every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centered, patriarchal society". And masculine pronouns "reflected the reality of male cultural dominance and the male-centered world view that resulted". So it is that many people understand ‘he’ refers only to men. This makes sense to me in a general sense, but being referred to as "it" is, in a perverse way, gender neutrality taken to extremes.

But if I am to look for gender neutral pronouns, then I think I would prefer them not to have such emotive resonance. And that preference seems to draw me inevitably towards neologisms such as s/he, sie (pronounced ‘see’) and ze or zie (pronounced ‘zee’). All of these replace she and he. I use s/he a lot now when writing, although I will admit that it’s taking me a while to start using sie and zie/ze. And I’m really struggling with hir (or zir) – this replaces him & her and rhymes with ‘here’. And that’s the problem: I say ‘hir’ but I hear ‘here’…

In the long run, I think it’s probably more important to call people what they want to be called – and, if in doubt, just ask! Truth is that I’m quite happy for female pronouns to be used about me. And it does rather point up the stupidity of trying to ungender me when the insult then becomes "I can’t tell if she’s a man or a woman". Nurtameen?

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 8 April 2008 at 6:40 pm

I’ve probably said it here before, but I really like the *idea* of ze/hir/etc. The problem is they are so little used that people tend to have no idea what you’re talking about. They work better in writing than in speech.

Not meaning to sidetrack the jist of what you’re saying, but there are occasions when being overly gender neutrally has a tendancy to disguise gendered discrimination/violence in society, as Jennifer Drew wrote about for us a few months ago.

To give a small example, as a journalist if I never referred to the gender of the people I quote and write about, then how can you detect whether or not I’m mostly quoting men or women? Does that matter?

It’s a bit like the term “colour-blind”, which tends to make people just not see and deny racism; gender neutrality may create a false impression of actual equality.

On the other side of things, in other circumstances it betrays sexism – such as the distinction between ‘actress’ and ‘actor’, etc (is the job so very different because of the gender of the person doing it, that we need different terms?!!). Changing sexist language to gender neutral language can cause actual shifts in attitudes in my view, and is important.

And you have the relentless gendering of everything in society, which is somewhat ameloirated with a dose of gender neutral language.

Feministy // Posted 8 April 2008 at 7:00 pm

Even feeling like one has to say “”I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman” strikes me as ridiculously infantile. I can remember saying this to my mother when I was about 6 and she drilled into me that it is simply good manners to address someone as the gender which they present as. Furthermore, I have never understood why it seems to matter so much what gender someone is. With a perfect stranger who I will never converse with, I must say that I really don’t care what gender they are, and society’s preoccupation with it just goes to show what a gendered world we still live in.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 April 2008 at 10:47 pm

The newfangled words are a bit strange to my ears and tongue – I guess my slight aversion is just from lack of them being around, I guess, although there’s something unholy about the letter z, but that’s just me. I see the reason for their being there, and support them, but don’t quite like them.

I do, however, support use of them, and naturally beleive that a person should be addressed in whatever manner they feel most comfortable. so if somebody asked me to address them as zie from then on, I would.

When I’m referring to a person of unspecified gender, I have this habit of using the words ‘their/they’. I’ve been using it like that since I was small, because even when I was young, I somehow felt there was a need to put a word to some unspecified person (in whatever sense you are talking about them), and she and he obviously don’t suffice if you don’t know what box they fit in (for example, you’re relating a story about comebody’s cousin, but have never met them and don’t know which gender they are) only learned much later that it was ungrammatical, and that kind of bothers me as a grammar purist, but I quite like it.

“I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman” That’s so mean, surely people would think it too rude to SAY it out loud (even if, alas, they think it)?!? That’s terrible. I can’t imagine how such people could be so insensitive. and I agree with Feministy – Who he hell matters what they identify as? It’s their business, and people who demand justification for something that is none of theirs deserves to be asked very personal questions in return, to understand the judgement and scrutiny they put others under.

Actually, I hate people who insist that ‘he’ is a perfectly fine way to refer to a general person, and ‘man’ to refer to our species, insisting it isn’t sexist because we’ve used it for ages, and everybody knows it means people, right? Wrong.

‘People’ means people. ‘he or she’ is perfectly easy to use (I find it comes naturally to me to not exclude half the possibilites when taking about people, but then again, I’m not a privileged sexist idiot). They would be insulted, and claim to feel excluded if only the word ‘she’ is used, so why the hell should we accept anything less than what they want- representation?

‘Mankind’ also bothers me when used to refer to all people. I like ‘humankind’. I don’t mind ‘womankind’ when referring to women in some vaguely poetic sense. I don’t mind words like ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ or ‘he’ when they are used to describe people who identify as men, but I absolutely loathe it when they are used to encapsulate women as well. Talk about literally erasing our identities and presence.

Chloe // Posted 9 April 2008 at 10:05 pm

In secondary school I had very short hair, which, coupled with my flat chest and lack of makeup, would often result in other students asking me outright what my gender was. At the time I would laugh it off, but it was hurtful as I didn’t see myself as any less feminine than any of the other girls.

I agree with Feministy and Anne that a somebody’s gender is nobody’s business but their own, and I can’t understand why some people feel it is somehow their ‘right’ to ask people personal questions or to comment on someone else’s appearance just because that person is not cis/a gender stereotype.

BrevisMus // Posted 12 April 2008 at 10:19 pm

“only learned much later that it was ungrammatical, and that kind of bothers me as a grammar purist, but I quite like it.”

‘You’ is also technically ungrammatical when referring to a singular person – the singular is ‘thee/thou’, but we’re all happy with using ‘you’. Same goes for ‘I will’ – that’s just plain wrong (unless used for emphasis), the first person is ‘I/we shall’ – but one would be fighting a losing battle trying to make sure everyone uses the correct form of shall or will.

I wonder if the only reason why people have such a problem with ‘they’ is precisely because it’s replacing gendered pronouns? I know that using ‘they’ sounds very odd when talking about a person whose gender is known (‘give this paper to that lady, they have a red coat on’), but it’s very common in spoken English to use ‘they’ for a generic pronoun (‘give this paper to that person, they have a red coat on’), & I’m hoping it will become more acceptable in written English soon.

I think it’s going to be easier to get ‘they’ used than more artificial terms such as ‘zie’.

Legible Susan // Posted 13 April 2008 at 12:38 pm

A gender-neutral pronoun would be useful for lots of other purposes, as well as people of unusual genders, if only we could agree on which one.

I’d use “they”, or maybe some variant with a different consonant at the start, but keep the way it conjugates (they, them, their etc.), because everybody knows how to pronounce it. “Zie” looks as if it’s pronounced like the German Sie, which I think means “you” – that’s just confusing.

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