Pronoun Progress

Posted on 14 April 2018

Clown Fish

In 1997 I had a particular interest in gender free pronouns. I was writing a creative work for my PhD in storytelling for digital media. I decided to base it on The Odyssey, since the structure of that work was relevant to my degree. In The Odyssey divinities are protrayed as sexual in nature, but capable of manifesting themselves in any form or gender. As such it was not accurate to describe them as “she” or “he”.

At the time people were experiencing an upwelling of interest in gender free pronouns. Online communication was taking off and it was found to be, and still is, dangerous at times for people who are not clearly male. Therefore, we had people who did not want to be defined by their gender when in conversation about ideas.

So, I considered all the possibilities I could track down for what a person might be called if they were non-binary, at a time when the non-binary gender concept was not well known. I even made a comparison chart. Looking at that chart twenty years later, I do not entirely agree with myself. However, now I have the benefit of experience.

I rejected zie/zir/zirs and ey/em/eir as non-gender forms of she/her/hers and he/him/his, due to their “unsoundliness”. I then put forward a solution that I felt was just easy enough on the ear to perhaps easily blend into the English language. This idea is not entirely without merit, if you are trying to convince people to let go of an old and ingrained language habit. However, people adapt. New generations can take up new ideas very quickly. Soundliness is not as important as fairness.

Recently, I have had to think about this issue again because we are at a juncture in time when people, the young in particular, are coming to grips with the fluidity of both gender and sexuality. To myself I don’t feel like a gender, I feel like Katherine Phelps. Katherine likes many things, some of which are defined as male and some female. I look in the mirror, I don’t see male or female. I just see Katherine. And whether or not I lean toward a preponderance of female designated things, that still doesn’t make me feel particularly female. Who I am attracted to, my sexuality, doesn’t feel like a gendered decision. Women like men, women like women, men like men, men like women, and people of all sorts like people of all sorts.

The solution people have currently embraced is using they/them/theirs in refering to individuals who are non-binary. I remember in the early 1980s being among those young women who were insisting on using the formation of “one…they” rather than “one…he”; as in “one doesn’t ride a bus in New York, they take a taxi.” An argument given in favor of this change was that “one…they” is a grammatical error in number, and “one…he” is an error in both gender and fairness. I took a more pedantic position. “One…they” was used commonly in English up until the writers of grammar books decided “one…he” was more logical, and changed the language to suit themselves. We need to remember that language is not God-given and written in stone. It is a collective creation. We need to learn how to create better.

I have some concerns about they/them/theirs. I feel I chose a similar route when I decided to use phe/per/pers as the pronouns associated with Greek celestial beings. It’s meant to be an easy solution, but has some of its own problems.

They/them/theirs is being used as the solution for a particular community. That community needs the solution. I am concerned that others also need a similar solution. I want to be heard for the contents of my mind and my heart, not discounted because I am being defined by my sexual function. Other languages have fit for purpose non-gender specific pronouns. We should too.

After some thought I have a new solution. I still believe we should have pronouns that indicate whether we (you, I, everyone) are talking about an individual, or we are talking about a collection of individuals. That is more genuinely useful information, especially in a democracy. However, I say we drop he/his/him and use only she/her/hers: declaring it the official singular pronoun.

If your top just blew off, then you are part of the problem that created this tangle.

Consider this quote:

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough, she answered “When there are nine. For most of the country’s history, there were nine and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange.”

For hundreds of years we have spoken about “mankind”, “manning” workstations, and “man’s” great achievements. We have been told that these words are inclusive. If they are truly inclusive, then surely we can accept an inclusive “she” for our singular pronoun. Perhaps with the use of “she” we can all reclaim those characteristics that have been deemed “less than” because they represent the disempowerment of women, such as: kindness, gentleness, nurturing, empathy, compassion. These characteristics are critical to the functioning of a successful society and have nothing to do with gender.

I know some cisgender men who will shrug their shoulders and say, “Sure, why not?” A few sounds shouldn’t be that big of a deal, especially if they represent a kinder and fairer world. To those of you who will see this as a threat: take a moment to consider whether you honestly feel happy, safe, and loved. If you find a moment of clarity where you recognise this is not the case, then start thinking about what you can do to offer goodwill toward others, such as changing a pronoun, because that’s how you will build a world where you can be happy, safe, and loved.

I am still fond of phe/per/pers. Right now we need to drop judgement of anything that has any “femaleness” about it. We need to reclaim all that has any “femaleness” around it. This is critical to our mutual survival.

In peace and kindness,


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