Helen G // 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?