She, He, Ze or Te, that is the question.
I’ve just read (well, actually, skipped over reading most of) yet another story of some celebrity about whom I know little and care less who has come out as bisexual / transgender / asexual / lesbian / demisexual / gay / pansexual / cisgender / “I only have sex with Martians. Green Martians, not purple ones”, or some other variation on the apparently-boundless spectrum of human gender and sexuality. Well, here is me coming out with my reaction: Who the (multiple bad words deleted) cares?!
Why is announcing this information to the entire planet not considered to be simply in bad taste, let alone the uttermost extremity on the far intergalactic end of the narcissism spectrum? Why is it anyone’s business, except for the individual’s own partner? (Or partners, to be more likely accurate.) Normalizing variations of human sexuality can no longer be considered an excuse for these vainglorious announcements, since “normal” comprises an extensive range these days, while those who do not accept such differences are never going to do so, anyway.
This most recent declaration included the expository remark that the individual in question wished to be known by the pronouns them or they. And THAT, as much as anything, set my teeth on edge.
I fully understand and agree that those who’ve concluded they fall into a previously-unremarked gender category may feel disconcerted by referring to themselves using the gendered pronouns she or he. But, frankly, in light of these unremitting public revelations, we badly need a new, genderless pronoun added to the English language.
Language, not just spoken language but written language, changes. In the longer-ago-than-I-care-to-remember era in which I grew up, the only pronoun of general reference was “he”. It didn’t matter than an entire magazine issue might be geared toward the female of the species; “he” was the pronoun of indeterminate reference used within its pages. This was galling and irritating to all females everywhere; it was simply wrong. I even endured one minister, God help me–pun intended, by the way–who insisted that we were all, male and female together He created them, Sons of God. That’s right. Sons. Only Sons. No Daughters. Not even Children. Just Sons. (Here insert the sound of grating teeth…)
Eventually—I believe it may have been sometime shortly after the introduction of the prefix Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs.–one began seeing writing which used the phrase “he or she”. Yes, always, always that damnable “he” first! Or occasionally even “s/he”. (As an aside, this could lead me spinning off into a discussion of why it is always the male noun now used when gendered nouns were once the norm; i.e., always actor, rather than actress—why is it always the male noun that becomes the norm? But I suppose that’s a grumpy discussion for another blog post.)
In any case, despite these permutations, the pronouns of multiple reference were always “they” or “them”. A student who misused the words they or them in writing that school essay was likely to see a blatant red circle on the sentence and a lowered grade. Worse yet, students who had, as I did, the misfortune to attend a parochial elementary school were apt to have the Ruler of Death smacked across cringing knuckles.
Consequently, I will never be able to view the pronouns they or them as anything but pronouns of multiple reference. An individual referring to her or his (Ha! Take that, Wielders of the Ruler of Death!) person using they or them will forever indicate to me that the speaker suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just grammatically incorrect; it’s downright confusing.
The simple fact is that, if we are to accept, acknowledge and adhere to our new understanding of the fluidity of human gender while using the common pronouns of personal reference, then we need new pronouns. The English language is endlessly malleable. New words are added at an alarming rate. We have, after all, come up with new words to describe these many variations of human sexuality. The word transgender; the uneuphonious cisgender, which I personally so dislike (more about that in a future blog post) —those words were not commonly used until at least the 1960s, or even much later. Why, then, not new pronouns? Why not words which genuinely eschew gender, and simply reference humanity?
I have seen Ze or Zhey used, as well as Te or Tey. (I suppose it should actually be Ze or Zhey or Zheir or Zhem, or Te or Tey or Teir or Tem.) I have no preference for either form, and a consensus could probably only be reached by whatever words see the most use—sort of like the antique VHS/Betamax debate. And while learning to use brand-new words instead of trying to hammer old puzzle pieces into the picture in an attempt to make them fit might be disconcerting to many, it is actually the appropriate thing to do. One should genuinely bend with the winds of change, rather than try to break in a word that’s already seen gender-filled usage for generations.
Until that happens, though—until the English grammar texts and the grave arbiters of language correctness settle on a pronoun of indeterminate gender reference, I shall continue to use my preferred “she or he”, if only to avoid the Universal Ruler of Death. I have very tender knuckles.
Liked this essay? Then you might also enjoy “Who or Whom? That is the Question!”, from April 17, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.