A gender identity primer

gender: queer (via un_cola on Flickr)

As good a place to start as any, I guess.

I originally wrote the following in part as a coming-out piece on my livejournal. The other part of the impetus was a falling out I had had with a friend, in which he postulated that people who don’t want to be known as either “she” or “he” should go by “it”, and I had struggled to explain why that is totally not ok (which is where some of the harsher rhetoric is coming from). Anyway, here it is:

Non-standard gender identities are any identities other than the masculine and feminine. “Genderqueer” is often used as a blanket term for these kinds of identities, but I don’t think that it necessarily accurately describes everyone. People’s gender identities are expressed in a myriad of ways, but I think the one that is most apparent and striking is often their use of a pronoun other than “he” or “she”. I kind of want to take the time here to explore the meanings for some of the different pronouns that get used, and some of the motivations that may lay behind the choice to use each one.

I should preface this by saying that what I’m writing here is not definitive in any way whatsoever, and that I can’t even remotely hope to cover all of the considerations or perspectives of people with non-standard gender identities, or their reasons for choosing the pronouns they do – this is a very individual call, and each person’s feelings about individual pronouns may vary.

“It”: in the English language, “it” is a genderless pronoun. As such, it may seem to be a clearly appropriate pronoun for genderless people. However, the word also has a problematic history in it’s application to people. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that calling a person “it” makes it easier for one to commit atrocities against that person; as such, the act of actively choosing to identify oneself as such is an unfathomably brave form of self-expression (regardless of the reasons for that choice). It also means that suggesting that this pronoun is the most appropriate pronoun for someone who does not actively identify as such is inherently disrespectful. Not only can it come across as dehumanizing, even if it is clear that that is not your intent, it is presumptive to assume that such a genderless pronoun is suitable for every non-masculine, non-feminine person. Not all of us are genderless (and this is actually only one of many reasons why someone may decide against an identification as “it”).

“They”: because “they” is often used as a singular in cases of a gender indeterminate antecedent, it can be the perfect pronoun for gender indeterminate (or gender-fluid) people (like me!). Rather than being genderless, my gender identity is actually just subject to the whim of the moment. And rather than expect people to check in with me hourly to see if I’m more of a he or a she at the moment, I prefer that they use “they,” as I feel that such use leaves room for whatever self-expression feels most appropriate to me at any given moment. I suspect that other people have different motivations for the use of this pronoun, but I hope this gives you the flavour of the kind of considerations involved. For me, “they” is simply the most accurate word.

“Ze”: some people have alternative gender identities that are more concrete and stable than mine. For these people, their gender identities may be seen as simply something new that the language has not yet accounted for, and as is usually the case when new concepts arise in a culture, new words are sometimes required to accommodate and acknowledge these identities. In using the pronoun “ze,” someone may wish to communicate (among many, many other things) that their identity fits a category that is entirely separate from the masculine and feminine genders.

“Ou”: the basic concepts that apply to ze can be applied here as well. I have to admit that I am confused by the fact that “ou” seems to be a derivative of the second-person singular instead of the third-person singular (as is “ze”). However, since I know how difficult it is to actively take on and express an alternative identity like this, I am certain that a great deal of soul-searching goes in to the decision to use the pronoun. As such, I would never presume to reduce such a choice to the person’s misunderstanding of the grammar involved; I am certain that there are some very real motivations behind this choice. If/when I find out what they may be, I will let you know!

EDIT: So I looked into it; turns out that ou is an archaic English term, and it simultaneously encompasses the pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it”. That’s kind of awesome.

And of course, I should also note that there are other pronouns out there, and that each individual person chooses their pronoun for their own reasons.

So yeah, these are just some of the things that genderqueer people and people of other non-standard gender identities consider in their quest to accurately represent and express themselves to others. The kindest thing you could for anyone who tells you about an identity that you don’t understand is to ask what their identity means to them, directly and non-judgmentally, without presuming that you know more about what their chosen identification means than they do.

That said, now that I have actually come out about my own identity, if you do have any questions or hesitations about it, please feel free to ask me about it. I’d like to help you to feel comfortable with this, and I know that’s not necessarily an easy place to get to. Just be aware that I have put a lot of thought into this and that my identity is not open to any kind of debate.

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