Gender Inclusive Pronouns: Beyond the Feminist Issue

Posted April 1, 2015 by CGrimard

The use of pronouns is something that individuals tend to take for granted.  In today’s colonized-North American[1]-culture, common pronouns used by the majority of individuals represent the gender-binary. The gender binary is the classification of gender, gender expressive, and sex categories into two opposite and disconnected forms of "man" and "woman," “masculine” and “feminine,” and "penis" and "vagina."[2]  In regards to pronouns it refers to the use of he/him/his or she/her/hers.   However, this is very exclusive language that often relies on stereotypes and judgement.  Many individuals do not use pronouns that exist within the gender-binary; some of these individuals may be cisgender, but a larger portion represents the transgender (or trans*) community.  Cisgender refers to an individual that identifies with the gender/sex they were assigned with at birth[3] whereas a trans* individual is someone who believes they are, or should be a gender that is not the one they were assigned at birth.[4]  Gender inclusive language is an issue that has been long faced by many different communities.  Not using someone’s correct pronouns can be very damaging, hurtful, and insulting. They/them/their/theirs is the popular go-to for using gender inclusive language, but this was not always the case.

The process of developing respectable and appropriate pronouns for individuals has not been a recent movement. Pronouns have been constantly changing throughout history.  From 1154-1485, several different forms of pronouns of use within Old and Middle English consisted of ic, bu, heo, hit, we, ge, hie, wereme, hine, mec, him, hire, and many more.[5]  The 12th century was the earliest to document use of the pronoun “they.”[6]   The late 16th century was first to see use of the pronouns “it’s.”[7]  “He” became another gender inclusive pronoun of use beginning within the 18th century;[8],[9]  this was due to grammarians believing “they” was seemingly plural.[10]  Within the 19th century, pronouns such as ip, co, xie, per, en, ne, thon, le, hiser, ey, ho po, heshe, ze,[11] heesh, bun, bunself, ey, and xe[12],[13] had been introduced for non-binary representation.  In the late 20th century, feminists involved in the second women’s movement began to demand change of the use of “he” and “man” as overall gender inclusive terms.[14] ,[15],[16]  This was a use of language that constructed men to be of greater value in comparison to women.[17]  En, thon, hir, hesh, hirm, sheehy, sap, herm, heris, co, and many more new pronouns were suggested as a replacement to this “man-made” language.[18] ,[19]  

Gender inclusive language also poses another social issue for those who use pronouns outside the gender binary.  Many trans* individuals are subjected to ignorance, discrimination, judgement, negativity, and violence due to identifying with their pronouns of use.   Not using someone’s correct pronouns can be very damaging and hurtful to an individual’s identity.[20] 

As a working ally to the trans* community and other individuals that use pronouns outside of the gender binary, there are many things that can be done:

  1. Avoid making judgements!  Ask someone what their pronouns are and use those pronouns;
    1. Ask or figure out how to use those pronouns correctly in sentences and speech;
    2. Ask someone what their pronouns are again if you are unsure or forget;
    3. Be understanding, and open to their perspectives.  Do not try to tell a person they are wrong or confused; you cannot decide who someone is, only they can;
    4. Ask this person if they are “out” and question if there are people, groups, or spaces where their pronouns may be different for safety or comfort reasons;
    5. Ask if you, as an ally, can correct other individuals when the person’s pronoun is wrong or misused.  Once again, asking if there are people that should not be corrected due to safety or comfort reasons;
    6. *Side note: These are someone’s pronoun’s, they are not their “preferred” pronouns.  The use of “preferred” denotes a choice and ignores the fact that someone may identify with a set of pronouns out of a need for them, not a preference;
    7. Use a gender inclusive pronoun (they/them/their/theirs) until you ask for a person’s pronoun(s);[21]
    8. Avoid using a pronoun by repeating the noun it replaces;[22]
    9. Rephrase sentences to avoid the need for a pronoun.[23]

For more on gender-inclusive pronouns, check out these links:

Brief History:

http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/epicene.htm

Pronouns:

http://askanonbinary.tumblr.com/pronouns


[1] Colonized, North America is used as a descriptor in the sentence as many Indigenous languages relied on different forms of identifiers as opposed to gendered pronouns.  Some of these took the form in language forms such as obviation or identifying something as inanimate or animate.  For more information see;

McCulloch, Gretchen.  (2014).  A linguist on the story of gendered pronouns.  Retrieved from http://the-toast.net/2014/06/02/a-linguist-gendered-pronouns/3/ ,  OR

Ministry of Education. (2002).  Native Languages: A Support Document for the Teaching of Language Patterns (3.4: Gender).  Queen’s Printer for Ontario.  Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/curricul/ojibwe.pdf

[2] Gender Binary. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_binary

[5] Santos, St. Ridley. (2013).  Let’s talk about the history of gender and pronouns (and gender-neutral pronouns) in English.  Retrieved from http://saintridley.kinja.com/lets-talk-about-the-history-of-gender-and-pronouns-an-1365242291

[6] McCulloch, Gretchen. (2014).

[7] Santos, St. Ridley. (2013).

[8] McCulloch, Gretchen. (2014).

[9] Bustillos, Maria.  (2011).  Our desperate, 250-year long search for a gender-neutral pronoun.  Retrieved from http://www.theawl.com/2011/01/our-desperate-250-year-long-search-for-a-gender-neutral-pronoun

[10] McCulloch, Gretchen. (2014).

[11] Baron, Dennis.  (2010).  The gender-neutral pronoun: After 150 years still an epic fail.  Retrieved from http://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/31097

[12] McCulloch, Gretchen. (2014).

[13] Baron, Dennis.  (2010). 

[14] McCulloch, Gretchen. (2014).

[15] Bustillos, Maria.  (2011). 

[16] Flanigan, J. (2013). The use and evolution of gender neutral language in an intentional community. Women & Language, 36(1), 27-41.

[17] Flanigan, J. (2013).

[18] Bustillos, Maria.  (2011). 

[19] Flanigan, J. (2013).

[20] Kacere, Laura. (2013).  5 ways using correct gender pronouns will make you a better trans* ally.  Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/correct-gender-pronouns-to-be-trans-ally/

[21] (2002).  Gender neutral pronouns.  Retrieved from http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/genpr.htm

[22] (2002).  Gender neutral pronouns. 

[23] (2002).  Gender neutral pronouns.

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