There was a time when I thought I had a handle on gender, but things change: it’s no longer constrained by only two choices. And then I thought I understood the variations on the theme of sexual preferences. I even learned their names. Now I’ve discovered that no less an authority than the New York Times has decided to recognize that the use of ‘they’ might, at times, be acceptable in referring to a person without disclosing the sex (and therefore prejudicing the choice)–as in, say, ‘When the leader of the delegation announced the agenda, they did so in English.’
I thought I was keeping up. I thought I finally understood the intricacies of gender politics, but I realize that I am still challenged. I am still floundering in the choppy waters of an incoming tide. I’m going to have to stop reading the BBC news online: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34901704
Okay, I realize that having to use the ‘he/she’ device in the interests of universality (biversality?) makes for some tough slogging for the reader and makes an article, or a story, almost unreadable. But, in my naiveté, I assumed this was just a way of being inclusive: a way of recognizing that past generations had assumed the use of ‘he’ as a universal designation was a convention that was not meant as an exclusion –more like an unthinking shortcut that nobody had challenged.
So I have to say that I was certainly not expecting ‘they’ to evolve so rapidly into the demand for non-binary pronouns; the concept of American universities embracing signs like ‘Ask Me About My Pronouns’ caught me completely off guard. As the BBC article attests, ‘The alternatives to “he” and “she” are myriad.’ Indeed, ‘A linguist at the University of Illinois, Dennis Baron, has catalogued dozens of proposed gender-neutral pronouns, many – including “ip,” “nis,” and “hiser” – dating back to the 19th Century.’ Who would have thought…?
Fortunately –for me, at any rate- ‘[…] Baron calls the gender-neutral pronoun an epic fail and reckons that new pronouns such as “ze” may not survive. But both he and Sally McConnell-Ginet, a Cornell University linguistics professor who researches the link between gender, sexuality, and language, think the singular “they” – as used for example by Kit Wilson – has a chance of success.’
But languages change; preferences and acceptabilities mutate: ‘…English has a precedent for a plural pronoun coming to be used in the singular – the pronoun “you”. Until the 17th Century a single person was addressed with “thou” and “thee”. Later “you” became perfectly acceptable in both plural and singular.’ And then of course, the obverse ‘you-all’ (or the highly recognizable ‘y’all’ in some southern U.S. states’ dialects) -a merging of singular and second-person pronouns.
Now I suspect that much of my confusion at all of this probably stems from my perspective at the night-robed end of the age spectrum. From this spot, there is a tendency to view change as either unnecessary, or spurious -change for the sake of change. I admit my hesitation to embrace the need for even more twigs on the already-gnarled and pot-bound grammatical family tree which is nonetheless in desperate need of pruning. Perhaps it requires another pot entirely. Maybe that is what is intended.
I suppose I should have been prepared, though; I think I had a foretaste of it several years ago in my office.
Lynne and Elin were so alike, they could have been twins. Both sat entwined like ivy in a shadowed corner of the waiting room. They weren’t conspicuous or inappropriate, just, well, close. As I busied myself at the front desk with some forms I had to print, I noticed others waiting nearby stealing glances at them while pretending to be absorbed in some magazine or other. Both with short dark hair, identically-coloured light blue shirts, unbuttoned at the neck, and loose black jeans they scattered no useful gendered clues to the increasingly curious audience.
They both shook my hand when I approached, and both quietly accompanied me down the corridor to my office. I encourage patients to invite their partners to come with them to the consultation, but in a gynaecological practice, embarrassment –or a desire for privacy- often limits the participation of one of them. But not with these two. It was like inviting the flower without the stem.
Even when they seated themselves in front of my desk, I was still uncertain of their identities. Who was Lynne, and who was Elin was only part of the puzzle. I suspected that Elin might be a male partner, but when I heard him/her speak, I couldn’t be certain. Then I entertained the possibility that they were indeed twins –although more likely not identical ones- and that, like many twins, they did things together, whatever their gender.
It was Lynne who had been referred, however, so trying to be respectful of their homogeneous appearance, I stared intently at my computer screen to avoid their eyes, and asked which one of them was Lynne.
A knowing smile passed between them, and the one on the left put up his/her hand like she/he was in a class. “I’m Lynne, doctor,” she said, looking amused. “And this is my partner Elin,” she added, looking proudly at him/her and then reached for their hand.
I was speechless for a moment, but I tried to hide it with a smile and then a nod in his/her/their direction. “I see,” I finally managed and then, looking at Lynne, promptly crossed some sort of a line when I continued with, “I glad you invited her to be with you.” I said it to be polite and inclusive, but I suppose I also said it as a way to establish Elin’s gender. They both stiffened immediately.
“Elin does not recognize gender identity, doctor,” Lynne said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
“Nor does Lynne,” Elin tossed at me.
“I don’t want to be limited in who I am,” Lynne chimed in. She wasn’t trying to be provocative I don’t think, but I know she realized the effect it would have on me, because her eyes hardened and her forehead wrinkled like a professor introducing a new concept to a fidgeting, skeptical class. “Sometimes I’m both, and sometimes neither… I am what I am in the moment.” She said that with such fervour that one eye actually closed with the effort.
I think she was daring me to question the possibility of a modern-day Janus -the two-faced god of transitions. Instead, I was intrigued and I could see it surprised both of them.
I nodded in acceptance, smiling to myself all the while. I’d never considered the idea before, and I found it fascinating. “So, if I may acknowledge my naiveté in such things, may I ask how you would refer to Elin –in conversation, for example? Which pronoun would you use –masculine or feminine, or…?” I left it open so she/they could offer her/their preferences.
“Well,” Lynne started after a long look at Elin, “we considered ‘ze’ as kind of a neutral pronoun at first, but it sounded sort of… weird. Then we tried ‘ey’ –sort of a slurred mixture of the conventional choices- but everybody seemed to think we had just mispronounced ‘she’ or ‘he’ and tried to clarify it for us.” Lynne shrugged and squeezed Elin’s hand. “I hate binaries,” she added as a sort of postscript.
“So we’ve decided just to use our names instead of other gender-obfuscating pronouns,” Elin said and smiled, satisfied that using the word ‘obfuscating’ somehow deposited the problem behind them. “I mean, if you think about it, even the concept of ‘binary’ suggests that there are only two choices: male and female. We know that is no longer the case,” he/she/they/ey/ze concluded. And I suppose for them (I am allowed to use ‘them’ apparently), it wasn’t.
Lynne suddenly looked at her/their watch and glanced at Elin. “I’m so sorry doctor, but we have to catch a bus to the airport to meet Elin’s mother. I didn’t realize the appointment would take so long…” It was obviously a lame excuse – an escape mechanism, they’d probably used before, but I let it pass. Whatever Lynne’s gynaecological problem, she/Lynne/they felt it could clearly wait for another visit.
Actually, I didn’t think it had taken any time at all –I hadn’t even asked her/them/Lynne why she/they/Lynne thought she/Lynne/they been referred. But I guess pronouns are slow-moving beasts, so I just smiled and asked her/them/Lynne if she’d/Lynn’d/they’d like to schedule another appointment at a time when Lynne/they/Elin could stick around a little longer. I didn’t say it like that, of course –it would have taken far too long and they/Lynne/Elin were obviously in a hurry.
Lynne/Elin/They smiled at me when they/Elin/Lynne left so Elin/they/Lynne obviously didn’t feel they/Lynne/Elin were not heard. And I, at least, felt I’d taken the pulse of a new and perhaps metastasizing condition; I had learned something new about the world. I have two regrets however. One of them is that I never saw them/Lynne/Elin again so I couldn’t pursue my gender education any further; but mainly, I never was able to discover whether Elin was male or female… not that it would matter to either of them, I guess.