Question: gender-neutral pronouns

Sissy Boy asks…

I am curious to know about other people’s experiences choosing to go by gender-neutral or genderqueer pronouns. I’ve considered going by ze/hir for several years now, but I can’t decide if it feels right. Some days I feel like a boy, some days I feel like a girl, and other days i feel queer. I don’t know how best to convey these fluctuating feelings…

Please post your response in the comments below.

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Posted by on May 10th, 2010 at 10:55 am

Category: questions 29 comments »

29 Responses to “Question: gender-neutral pronouns”

  1. Sarah-Sophia

    I feel that if I dress like a girl that day then call me by girl pronouns. If I present as a boy call me by those pronouns. If I am looking androgynous, call me whatever you want really.


  2. Lyn Aven

    Welcome to my world! I, for one, just switch pronouns to match my current identity. (Right now, I’m a guy.) I also tag my forum posts on gender-savvy websites with my current identity to clue other people in.


  3. --V--

    Part of the problem I have with those type of pronouns is that they seem to imply a kind of androgyny. This seems to be something of what you’re describing as well: your gender varies, and ideally the pronoun should express that too.

    I think that I would be happiest if people just try and use a pronoun appropriate to my external representation of gender on a given day. If I’m going extremely femme or butch or somewhere in between, roll with that, and address me accordingly.


  4. Lanthir

    I think I’d just like it if people would mix up what pronouns they use with me more. Not even neccesarily in a manner congruent with my percieved gender representation at any point; I’d be cool with being called “he” in my yellow sundress, or “she” in my blazer and tie.


  5. Mym

    People don’t tend to react well to switching pronouns day-to-day based on presentation; they’ll often be confused (“what are you today?”) or resentful (“just pick one!”) and won’t often understand.

    I use spivak for myself, but it’s hard to get other people to use neutral pronouns when they’re not familiar with them (I’ve had someone well-meaning ask me how to pronounce ‘hir’ and I had to say that I’ve never known) so I am currently just accepting both genders as well, even as one becomes more painful (for dragging me back into the old act, which will hopefully fade as I get away from that).


  6. Lyn Aven

    @Mym: It depends on your friends. Most people I’ve met don’t have a problem with matching pronouns to presentation for the most part. There are, of course, exceptions, but usually that’s a matter of habit, not discourtesy. (The confused “what are you today?” comment is true — I get this fairly often — but I don’t consider it negative, as the asker is at least trying to respect you. Besides, it generally only comes if your presentation doesn’t make it clear on its own.) The people who intentionally won’t give you the courtesy of switching pronouns are unlikely to give you the courtesy of using gender-neutral pronouns either, especially the neologisms (which is to say, anything but “they” or “it”), or even the pronoun that doesn’t match your biological sex.

    “Hir,” by the way, is pronounced to sound like “here,” and the corresponding “sie” is “zee.” However, those aren’t the Spivak pronouns — the Spivak pronouns are ey/em/eir (formerly e/em/eir).


  7. Jay

    I’ve generally stuck with the feminine pronouns, because I don’t often mind either way but I had the odd experience online in a chatroom the other day where I used ‘hir’ instead of ‘her’ – on purpose, because I just get uncomfortable using specifically feminine pronouns in typing/writing at times. Since they can’t see me, I feel like I’m limiting myself. I dunno.

    On a more helpful note, though, I’d say use the pronouns you’re largely presenting as?


  8. Milo

    You know, as being male-bodied sometimes it feels like I’m sort of just settling when I never correct people from using male-pronouns. However, the inner linguist doesn’t really mind. While it would love to go by ‘she’ or ‘ze’ on some days I feel like in the end, language is what it is, and in the end it’s really just a semantic thing. Take Finnish, Mandarin, a lot of other language and there is no distinction in gender in pronouns. And after all, English only does make a distinction in the singular 3rd person. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we have got to work with today. As language changes with culture, maybe on some future date we will have gender-neutral pronouns. But for now, we’ve got to work with it.


  9. Nicholas

    If it doesn’t feel right, don’t force yourself imo. I’ll always use male pronouns for myself because that’s what I grew up using. It isn’t unlike having cereal for breakfast instead of congee if you’re from the U.S. instead of China. But at the same time, I don’t allow the use of male pronouns to create expectations of me or limit who I can be in any way.

    What I don’t like about gender-neutral pronouns is the whole pointy-political side of it. Instead of demonstrating what a “man” or a “woman” can be, people want to up and leave everyone behind then make demands to “be treated the same” as the group they left behind. Everyone is different, so why choose to describe yourself “less” by avoiding male/female pronouns? Sure, I can understand intersex folk needing pronouns to fully participate in this system, but genderfunderful people can use sex-based pronouns to communicate otherwise hidden information, while maintaining a “contrary” appearance. I’m just opting for more open communication, because I don’t like to mislead people in any way. I don’t like it when people purposefully hide things from me, so I make sure not to hide things from other people. It’s only fair in my eyes.


  10. Lyn Aven

    @Jay: I’ve occasionally used ey/em/eir to refer to myself, especially when even I’m not sure of my own identity.

    In general, though, I’ll default to masculine pronouns (I’m biologically male) when I’m feeling androgynous or neuter.


  11. Milo

    @Nicholas: Actually, one could interpret wanting to use gender neutral pronouns as incredibly individualistic. Whether or not this is a bad thing, I don’t know. Just take it for what it is I guess. Nonetheless, one is basically wanting the language that millions of people use to change just for them. Trans people switching pronouns makes sense, obviously, as does using gender-neutral pronouns in writing to make a point. Even if a group of friends are fine with using them, that’s one thing too.

    However, when one actively tries to force a language to change, that’s sort of being selfish. It’s true that I suppose there’s no place for us androgynous people here in English, but then again, the language wasn’t being sexist or only thinking in dualistic terms when it was invented. In fact, Latin and Proto-Germanic all had 3 genders. And the earliest stages of Indo-European (going back even farther) only distinguished the animate from the inanimate. Thus, our language is an ancient language that was created under systems and cultures far different from our own, and that simply is as it is.


  12. Nicholas

    @Milo: People on either side of sex-based and gender-neutral pronouns can argue that they’re both very useful for personal identification. I’d like it if they were used together to get a better idea of a person. I mean, we already use age, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and sex to describe a person–adding gender wouldn’t really make the already-long list that much more cumbersome.

    What I do disagree with is people dropping the sex part, or changing it. As I said before, I’m all for openness and clear channels of communication. I see sex as more of a general “biological capacity” descriptor of a person. I disagree with transfolk changing their legal sex, because to me, what really separates a woman from a man is generally, the natal sex. I’m a big believer of someone being their own person, the whole “you can be anything you want to be” statement. But, someone’s natal sex affords them a certain “biological capacity” different from those outside of their natal sex. A biological male or female seeking a relationship that eventually ends up in a family shouldn’t be forced to work through to find a person’s natal sex to find reproductive compatibility. The same thing happens for same-sex couples trying to find compatibility within the masses, the social taboo of being “different” prevents people from finding happiness. I don’t think it’s short-sighted to believe that open communication would solve a lot of problems, but I recognize that discrimination has always been a factor. This, however, is remedied when it becomes apparent that -all of these people- are coming out of the woodwork. The problem is, as usual, conventional society. Hiding information by being obscure or otherwise deceiving others, however, really doesn’t add anything meaningful to trust between people or “the movement” at large. I guess I can be a little political, but I am more for “Just because I’m a man/woman/intersex person, doesn’t mean I cannot…” idea. That, too, can be argued any which way (such as, the “I was born a man but legally became a woman” way.) Semantics. Maybe we should argue what it means to be a man/woman/intersex, then go from there? :)


  13. gunk

    I can understand some of what you’re saying about openness of communication, and being yourself, as well as your point about redefining what it means to be a man or a woman. I think it’s really important that those things happen.
    Suggesting that transfolk shouldn’t change their legal sex is problematic to me. Until we live in a society where trans people will not be discriminated against in terms of jobs, housing, and all sorts of other bureaucratic stuff that requires listing your legal sex, there is a huge issue with trans people not being allowed to change their legal sex. People I know are afraid to apply for jobs because they will have to explain to their employers why their sex says one thing on their tax forms, whereas they appear to be another thing. Also, as you are possibly aware, surgeries and hormones and so forth can mean that trans people do not have the “reproductive capacity” that you mentioned in your post, so I’m not sure if, according to your reasoning, it would then apply that they should be held to their originally-assigned sexes. This is not to even mention their experienced sex – pretty much all the transsexual people I know would argue that they experience their bodies as the sex they identify with, not the one that they were assigned, as distinct from how they experience their genders (ie. some identify as genderqueer, but also transsexual).

    Back to the topic at hand – pronoun usage is slowly changing. Sure, you can’t force anyone to use your preferred pronouns, but you can explain why you’d like them used, and they may or may not choose to honour your wishes. The more people you tell, the more people may begin using them. This is how words pass into common language.

    For the OP: I’d agree with what others have said, that it is completely ok to change your pronouns at will. If you feel like a boy and want to use male pronouns, go for it. If you feel like a girl and want to use female pronouns the very next day, go for it. You have no obligation to disclose your reproductive or genital status to anyone through the use of gendered pronouns. In the end it is up to you to find what feels comfortable. Sure, many people may not understand, and explaining yourself can be exhausting. It’s ok to use different pronouns at different times, or with different people, too. Sometimes you may have to go by certain pronouns for safety or comfort depending on what gender you appear to be to the people around you. For me personally, I use gender-neutral pronouns among friends and am slowly broadening the number of people who I ask to use these pronouns for me. This feels right for me because my gender and sex identity are both non-binary, and so gender-neutral pronouns are the only ones I feel accurately describe my experience of my body and my gender. Good luck finding some pronouns that work for you!


  14. Milo

    Wow, I’m glad I started this. How interesting!

    Alright, well I do have a slight problem, Nicholas, with trans people not changing their legal gender. This does open up a new topic that has often been brought up because it bothers genderqueers. They say that it’s not right that for virtually anything, one must put their gender, even an email address. This is understandable, but then again, on the other end, one can see that this is usually just for demographics purposes, the same way they ask for your address and date of birth. It’s something that helps them with advertising and such. Now ok, sure, maybe it’s not fair. And it does bother me, deep down in my heart because I DON’T FEEL MALE!

    However, the World was not made for us. We are quite a small minority, and most of the World is cisgendered. This certainly DOES NOT mean that we ought to have to put up with persecution and such, but in the end, majority rule with minority rights is the way to go.

    Now, this has gone a long way from the subject I initially broached, so I’ll stop here. I’m happy that everyone has such cool opinions though! :)


  15. epinards

    the world was not made for us, but we have something to offer the world. Cis folks can be as trapped by gender as everyone else. I see genderqueers as opening a lot of doors for the rest of the world, exactly through our struggle to be ourselves and to have our language, our legal identities, our social identities reflect what we want them to reflect. A lot of harm is done to a lot of people through gender, even to cis gender people. Helping everyone see how fluid and flexible of a system gender really is, in my opinion, is a great service to the world.


  16. Jessica

    Trouble is the religious crowd (and others) believes in the dichotomy called gender. As I was old by an old friend:

    “Human beings are the recipients of 500 million years of genetic specialization and adaptation. The differentiation of biological organisms into male and female is a fundamental characteristic of sexual organisms. A given human being may dislike the social or even the biological realities of their gender and they may undertake measures to mimic the external characteristics and behaviors of the sex to which they were not born, but the results are principally imaginary. Being confused with another sex does not make the person their non-birth gender any more than surgically removing the legs of a lizard makes a snake. People who undertake such a self-invention are universally selfish, self-absorbed, and self-preoccupied to to point of psychosis or sociopathy. This is why ‘transition’ is so often damaging to pre-existing relationships. ‘I am going to do this regardless of anything you can do or say’ is not the basis for maintaining enduring commitments. If you pursue this course of action, you will be damaged and if you seem to find any life improvement thereby, you will, in my opinion, be in denial.”

    Yes, she is still a friend, but we don’t talk about trans stuff much.


  17. Milo


    This made me sad @Jessica.


  18. Jessica

    Always nice to have one’s friends think you’re broken.

    I like to recall C.S. Lewis in the Silver Chair (Narnia series)… when the witch queen is trying to get the heroes in a drugged sleep to admit that their version of reality was just a dream, one of the heroes says “Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.”


  19. Milo

    :) C.S. Lewis makes me happy. Especially his books for adults, but the Narnia books are beautiful classics too.


  20. Nicholas

    @gunk: If the problem is discrimination, why not fight that instead? Setting the trend to “You must change your legal sex to …” then we force future generations to follow suit until the problem is fixed. I’m probably a little radical here, and I mean no disrespect, but the same problem exists with transsexualism. The ball is being rolled, and the bar is being set at surgery. Young transpeople come to idealize the day when they, too, can have surgery. It’s a dangerous trend to set, an extreme act to follow. It’s frighteningly similar to media-popular concepts of beauty and female circumcision. Why let the next generation be swept away in a wave we support today? Instead, I think we should support less drastic forms of “transitioning,” like genderqueer identities and HRT (and even HRT has some permanent effects, but none that kill off an individual’s natural ability to reproduce.)

    Gunk, I did not understand “experienced sex” so I couldn’t follow that part :(

    @Milo: The problem of the “sex boxes” can be solved by directly confronting the problem. The box can be removed entirely, or expanded. I love the “Other – Please Describe” box myself :) Or hey, maybe male/female pronouns should be reserved for intimate conversation and the non-gendered “they” be the norm for polite conversation. It would entail the same steps as going from using someone’s last name to being able to use their first name when speaking to them. An easy shift if you ask me :D

    @Jessica: The line “Being confused with another sex does not make the person their non-birth gender any more than surgically removing the legs of a lizard makes a snake” struck a chord with me. I got over both wanting to be more like a man, and more like a woman, by taking time to look at myself and appreciate who I was. I came to see myself as a separate entity, distinct from the people I knew, and I pursued being a better representation of myself. I thought to myself, “I’m a kind of person!” and started to take great pride in who I was. So I’m currently in the process of questioning convention, and taking a broad look at gender and deciding what fits best. Twice in my life, I wanted to go under the knife, once to remove the parts of me that made me a man, and again to remove the parts of me that made me a woman. And I’m glad that I never did any of it, and had the time to look at myself, because those parts of me–together–tell me that “I’m a kind of person!”


  21. gunk

    I totally see your point, and I didn’t mean to imply that fighting wasn’t important Some trans people may, in a world that was free of gender and sex binaries, choose not to have surgeries or take hormones or change their legal sex. Some still may. I’d love for that world to exist, and I intend to fight so that it can do so. But, for the moment, many people’s lives are being negatively impacted by the fact that until they have certain surgeries, that they may not be able to afford, they are not allowed to choose to change their legal sex, and therefore face discrimination right now. Not everyone wants to be an activist, and to use their life to educate others. I guess my problem with the idea of changing legal sex not being allowed largely comes down to choice. Fighting for it not to be necessary, to end discrimination, is important, but at the end of that struggle there will likely still be people who wish to change their legal sex, and I don’t want to say that they can’t – I trust that they have a good reason for wanting to change their legal sex (ie. that is the one to which they belong, inside).

    My note about “experienced sex” was a way of trying to suggest that some people, even though they have a body that is described as one sex, experience their body as a different sex (ie. a trans guy who experiences what others have labelled a clitoris as a phallus). I know a lot of trans people who feel that although their body looks like one thing to most of society, they feel it as another thing, and relate to it as such. I’m sorry if that’s kinda hard to understand, it’s a tricky concept to put across.


  22. Nicholas

    @gunk: I see what you mean. There are people now who feel and experience that the only way to have their needs met is to have their legal sex changed. I think it is a good short-term goal to allow it to happen until the same needs can be met without changing one’s legal sex. After that, I guess I’m dreaming of a Utopia where male and female are just reproductive terms that need not be changed, and everything else has its own tag. It’s would be like coloring your hair, you’re a natural brunette, but today you’re a blonde. There would be no need to tell people that you’re a natural blonde. As simple as that!

    I totally get the “experienced sex” part now. I experience that on a regular basis, probably due to an extreme prepubertal desire to be entirely female. Fantasizing over years kind of tied together a body I had, and a body I wanted. It’s a strange thing indeed, I can experience them separately or together, and talking about it with friends often leaves them very befuddled! I really don’t know where I’m going with this one… I guess my experience doesn’t really apply because I’ve always felt inbetween, and my body reflected that.


  23. baccha

    You clarified “experienced sex” quite nicely, that’s a concept I’ve encountered in the past and struggled to wrap my mind around.

    I see where you’re coming from, but I’m bothered by your comparison of transitional surgery to ‘female circumcision’. The analogy just doesn’t hold when you look at the cases in terms of agency – to my knowledge, in most cases of FGC, girls aren’t instigating the surgical alteration of their genitals, their parents are, and girls certainly aren’t required to go through therapy and jump through other hoops to prove their sincerity in wanting the procedure done.

    The comparison of culturally-dominant concepts of gender informing transitional surgery to “media-popular concepts of beauty” informing cosmetic surgery is more to the point, despite its implicit dismissiveness toward those who transition. But, pursuing that analogy further, how fruitful is it really to discourage people from cosmetic surgery? If they find some measure of relief from being able to live in their own skin more easily, who am I to deny them that relief?

    If they do have regrets, that is deeply unfortunate. By all means, remind people of how serious surgery is. But adults make all kinds of irreversible decisions they may end up regretting. Surgery is centrally concerned with a person’s body, so why not treat people as adults and allow them responsibility over their bodies?

    Transitioning’s not an either/or issue, it’s a both/and issue. I’m with you, let’s get genderqueer, turn heads, change minds, break down the binary. But I refuse to resent those who won’t or can’t live that life. If transitional surgery _is_ somehow delaying the death of the binary, so be it.


  24. Lyn Aven

    “People who undertake such a self-invention are universally selfish, self-absorbed, and self-preoccupied”

    Maybe it’s selfish to be trans, but it’s just as selfish to want to be happy. It’s just as selfish to want to be successful. It hasn’t been that long since these same criticisms were leveled at women for wanting to make something of themselves — selfish, out for their own interests, at the cost of damaging their relationships (because what working woman can love her family?). It’s the same fallacy and hopefully someday will be seen with the same sense of distaste and outdatedness.


  25. epinards

    Lyn’s comment reminds me of this from the buddha:

    “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person will not be found: You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.”

    This has been a very powerful conversation, thank you to the participants for sharing so honestly.


  26. Jessicaa

    Bravo Lyn. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. Women have long been cast in the role of give till it hurts and then give some more. Sacrifice for your family, sacrifice for your husband, sacrifice for your children… A certain amount of self-sacrifice can bring a measure of satisfaction, but it is hardly a basis for contentment.


  27. Nicholas

    @baccha: You’re absolutely right. FGC and transitioning aren’t similar enough when considered together. But I meant FGC to be considered -with- the pressure to conform to media beauty. With FGC, the push to conform is maintained by societal convention, and the mutilation occurs during the vulnerable period of childhood. With cosmetic surgery, the push to conform is ever-present in the media, and the individual is constantly exposed to images of what they “should be” by the media. These images create a very narrow and unrealistic idea of beauty such that it often creates an enduring dissatisfaction with one’s personal body. Being forced to wait to make the decision to surgically alter oneself is just arbitrary–sure, they’re an adult and they make the decision, but would they have made the decision if they weren’t constantly assaulted by images of how they “should be” during the formative years? I’m drawing similarities between FGC and cosmetic surgery when I’m considering vulnerable periods of one’s life.

    As far as the fruitfulness of discouraging people from having plastic surgery, well, often it’s too late at that point. It’s a vicious cycle, where our self-esteem is literally poisoned by very narrow and unrealistic images of “average people.” I think it’s more fruitful to encourage diversity and self-satisfaction at an early age, and provide more information regarding media images. So much of what you we’re exposed to isn’t real, and there’s never a disclaimer.

    The best we can do is provide information to people to make truly informed decisions, and give them the time to really consider the pros and cons. I wish I could comfortably say that’s we do that now, but I know it isn’t so. There’s entirely too much outside pressure influencing people on what’s best for their own body.


  28. Jessica

    Ever seen evolution?


  29. Milo

    @Nicholas:Actually, I really like where you were going with formal vs. informal. I had never thought about it before, but English really is an exception to a lot of European languages in terms of not having a formal and informal way of address. And actually, in Spanish at least, the formal is gender neutral. Hu, this idea would not be that much of a stretch. I like it a lot! :)


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