Various groups of people have been trying to create and popularize gender neutral pronouns in the English language for quite some time. Ze/hir, hu/hus, and many other neologisms have been tried – but none have ever caught on outside of the transgender communities. Their primary function has been to irritate and confuse our cisgender allies, and make people who are normally our allies avoid talking about transgender issues for fear of forgetting to use these pronouns or using them incorrectly.
In an ideal world we would have gender neutral pronouns that are used naturally by everyone, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where changes in language don’t come from someone instituting them and then getting upset when people make mistakes. They come from slang (hobo), from other languages, large groups of people thinking a neologism is funny (santorum), and from branding (to Google).
When I teach about transgender issues someone often asks me about gender neutral pronouns. They do this cautiously, uncertain of how to ask the question, and often even forgetting the words they were told to use. The most common story I hear is that they have met a transgender person, who asked them to use gender neutral pronouns, and then got annoyed or upset when they made a mistake.
Look again at the last two sentences. What is the gender of the person asking me this question? Give up? That’s because I used a perfectly legitimate singular gender neutral pronoun. “They” may be a little clumsy at first, but it’s a word we already use for this purpose in the English language. We use it when the gender of the individual is unknown, or when it changes depending on circumstance (as in this case). While most people are unfamiliar with using it to refer to an individual who they know personally, it’s a MUCH easier transition to make. It works.
However, this morning I read an interesting new development. Apparently schoolchildren in Baltimore are using “yo” as a gender neutral pronoun. I love this – it’s happening spontaneously, coming from inside of the community using it, and has not been pushed on them by anyone. While it is unlikely to catch on, it does show that this can happen naturally and may do so again in the future.
(7:32 pm Central) Edit: This post was made in frustration and I want to make an apology. I’m going to work on thinking a lot more about this issue, and I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I do still think the thing in the last paragraph is pretty cool, but other than that part I need to do a lot more thinking on this issue, and less writing.