Posted by: aronmwrites | May 14, 2008

Gender neutral pronouns in strange places

Discussions of gender neutral pronouns seem to pop up in the oddest places lately.  From NPR’s little number on Baltimore kids using “yo” as a third pronoun to The Economist‘s commentary on “sex-neutral pronouns and politics”, people seem to increasingly be hitting on the idea – and frequently not in relation to the trans community, which is what surprises me.  (Although there is always the draw to comment on how “freaky” gender different folks are by talking about gender-neutral pronouns; see Americans for Truth’s complaintsabout the “transgender etiquette” section of the Creating Change conference booklet for example.)  Who would have thought you’d see “sex-neutral pronouns” in a headline on The Economist‘s weblog on Amerian democracy?

Consider Hillary Clinton’s latest gaffe in West Virginia when she picked the “wrong” pronoun to describe the next president (Economist bloggers amusingly suggested that “he” could be taken to mean “s/he”, or that “traditional prescriptivist grammar has [Hillary’s] back”):

“All the kitchen table issues that everybody talks to me about are ones that the next president can actually do something about, if he actually cares about it.” Realising her faux pas, she added: “More likely if she cares about it!”

Or better yet, John Edwards misstep as described in The Economist’s Democracy in America:

THE other day, John Edwards may or may not have slipped up when he said “I just voted for ‘im” or “I just voted for ’em”, while trying to avoid revealing whom he had voted for in the Democractic primary.  Mr. Edwards may have slipped up and said that he voted for Barack Obama (“im”) or used a sex-neutral “them” (“em”), as traditionalist grammarians usually forbid, but modern linguists and most ordinary speakers accept.

Too bad Economist bloggers seem to be unaware of the systems that have developed for gender neutral pronouns outside the “they/them” model.

Aside from the amusement factor of seeing one of the candidates use gender neutral pronouns in a sticky situation (“I just voted for zir” instead of “I just voted for ’em/’im”) and having the press go bonkers, it just makes good sense.  Keep the grammarians happy – so long as one of the gender neutral models was added as a third pronoun set – and allow the gender neutral but plural “they/them” to remain plural.  Plus, you’d get the joy of seeing Bill O’Reilly flip his shit again like he did recently when the teleprompter died during his show.  Imagine: “Radical liberal leftist Presidential candidate _____ ignores the biological reality of gender . . . blah blah blah . . . American morality hangs in the balance . . . blah blah blah . . .” It’d be hilarious.

Really though, this all just goes to show how little the various gender neutral pronoun systems have migrated into mainstream America.  Or even LGBT America (teh queers generally seem to be another story, in my experience).  I continue to have mixed feelings on this.  So long as no one is familiar with gender neutral pronouns, it makes it incredibly difficult to use them for oneself or others in speech on a daily basis.  But at the same time, once they become well known, their power is lost.  Think “queer” becoming known as a synonym for “gay/lesbian”, or “transgender” for “trans(s)exual”.  I’d be perfectly happy to use gender neutral pronouns for myself on a daily basis, but having tried it, interactions with strangers were just too cumbersome.  But with my feelings on id-ing within “transgender” becoming more mixed by the day (more on that sooner or later), I don’t know if I want to see gender neutral pronouns go down the same mainstream path.  I guess only time will tell.    

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