Almost every day, we’re asked to show some form of ID.
We flash cards identifying us by our name or where we work. In conversation, we may share our hometown or astrological sign, if that helps someone make sense of us.
Now, more people are bringing their pronouns into the discussion. On the premise that gender is more fluid than we’ve thought, they note which pronouns best describe them, regardless of what appearances might suggest.
The most common gender pronouns remain “he/him” or “she/her.” Identity, however, may not be driven by biology, but by psychology, as when a Melvin identifies more as a Melissa.
For those who consider themselves both male and female, or as neither — the term is non-binary — preferred pronouns could be “they,” or invented words such as “ze” or “hir.”
In many ways, we already do this.
We use “they” and “them,” when we don’t know someone’s gender, as in, “When the Über driver shows up, tell them I’ll be right out.”
That’s just verbal shorthand. This latest effort to change the language is aligned with a social movement, said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan and member of the American Dialect Society.
Earlier this year, the society chose as its Word of the Year the singular “they,” whether used when gender isn’t known, or by someone who identifies outside the male-female binary.
Such recognition was a long time in coming. For years, non-binary people referred to themselves as “they,” but this linguistic variance rarely broke the surface of mainstream discourse.
That we’re hearing it now, Curzan said, is the latest example of language changes evolving from courtesy.
“Fundamentally, this is an issue of respect,” she said. “If a group asks to be called by a particular pronoun, it is respectful to use what they prefer. That’s true when women say they would like to be called women and not ladies, or when someone in the African-American community wants to use African-American. There’s no disagreement on that.”
Curzan drew this parallel:
“When someone says, ‘My name is Robert, but call me Bob,’ we don’t say, ‘Sorry, but I’m going to call you Robert.’ ”
Patricia Mitchell’s e-mails used to end with the usual job title and phone number. Then she added this line: Gender pronouns: she/her.
“I’ve never had to question my gender, which is a privilege,” said Mitchell, executive assistant to the director at the Guthrie Theater. “I don’t have to explain myself. Why do they have to explain themselves? I just want to show I’m an ally on this.”
At the Guthrie, a meeting’s circle-the-table introductions might also seek PGPs, or preferred gender pronouns. This takes some newcomers by surprise.
“It’s basically like learning a new language, a new vocabulary,” Mitchell said. “They’re asking, ‘Why is this even a thing?’ But if nothing else, they’ll just walk in the world more aware of the issue — which is a beautiful thing in itself.”
At Carleton College in Northfield, class introductions often include students and staff sharing the gender pronouns they use, due to efforts by the Sexuality and Gender Activism club, or SaGA.
“The general feeling is of being very welcoming and open and accommodating people,” said Abby Sharer, a sophomore in the club whose gender pronouns are she/her. “I really don’t think there’s been an instance of someone being openly hostile.”
She understands that people can feel awkward when sharing their pronouns for the first time, but it gets easier. Think: “Hey, I’m Abby, I’m from New Jersey, I’m a sophomore Spanish and psychology double major and my pronouns are she/her.”
Sharer fields inquiries from other schools, adding that SaGA is learning along the way. For instance, they’ve stopped asking for preferred gender pronouns, “because ‘preferred’ implies that they’re not really essential,” she said. “Now we’re just asking, ‘What are your pronouns?’ ”
When Ms. turned heads
The discussion is reminiscent of how the term “Ms.” was received in the 1970s. Proponents wanted a courtesy title that would obscure a woman’s marital status as deftly as Mr. did for men — the operative question being: Why do you need to know?
Opponents thought Ms. was silly, or pushy.
But it slowly caught on, spurred by Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine, although the New York Times didn’t authorize its use until 15 years later.
One indication of how quickly change can happen these days came late last year when the Times used a new courtesy title, Mx., when quoting a bookstore employee named Senia Hardwick. It clearly wasn’t the Times’ idea, describing Hardwick as someone “who prefers not to be assigned a gender — and also insists on the gender-neutral Mx. in place of Ms. or Mr.”
Because the newspaper still insists on courtesy titles, a rarity in itself, the request was honored, although the public editor has said continued use is on a case-by-case basis.
That Mx. may seem startingly new today is testament to how the use of courtesy titles has dwindled. But it also shows how some people are rethinking gender.
Last year, the Washington Post allowed using “they” to refer to “people who identify as neither male nor female.”
Harvard University, American University, the University of Vermont and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee allow students to classify themselves as something other than male or female.
Two years ago, Facebook expanded its gender identity options for new users to more than 50, including gender fluid (with a gender identity that is shifting), bigender (a person who identifies as having two distinct genders) and agender (a person without an identifying gender).
Habit as the great leveler
Language changes. The past’s “sire” and “dame” now are “dude” and “babe.”
Change may be driven by culture, technology, social movements or convenience. Habit has a way of sanding down initial awkwardness.
Consider how the English language has moved away from what Curzan called “the generic ‘he.’ ”
For a long time, she said, the language defaulted to male terms, as in, “Everyone wants his life to be happy.” Over time, “they” variants stepped in, as in “Everyone wants their lives to be happy.”
She added that nonsexist language reform has been markedly successful in making job terms more gender-neutral, noting a not so distant past when there were firemen, stewardesses, policemen and chairmen. Today, we refer to firefighters, flight attendants, police officers and committee chairs without missing a beat.
They could be men. They could be women. They could be theys.
If it’s relevant, they may let you know.