NIKKEI Q: The pronoun revolution

In January 2016, more than 300 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians and etymologists — all members of the 127-year-old American Dialect Society — gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C. where members honored “they” as the 2015 word of the year. The anointment was more than an obscure event held by word nerds, but instead indicated how much “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun had made a come-back in the new millennium. The Washington Post officially added the singular gender-neutral use of “they” to the paper’s style guide the same year, and earlier in 2010 the New Oxford American Dictionary had already said the singular gender-neutral “they” was “generally accepted.”

Indeed the ascension of “they” signals the broad reality that ideas about pronouns and thus gender has expanded in the past decade. Facebook at one point offered 50 different options for gender identity. Still, many people — straight as well as old-school gays and lesbians — have had difficulty adjusting to what GQ Magazine has called the “Transgender Revolution,” which includes both non-binary folks (those who more often use “they” pronouns) and trans women as well as trans men (those who more often respectively use “she” or “he” pronouns in opposition to the sex that doctors assigned them at birth).

Even as we become a better educated public on trans issues broadly, people continue to find the application of appropriate pronouns difficult. We might think that we can simply train people to use the correct pronoun as we see trans people as more human.

However, it requires a more fundamental shift in how people view sex and gender as well as pronouns.

The three most common reasons for people’s resistance against respectful pronoun use appear to be 1) sex is fixed in nature with only two possibilities, male and female, and thus it’s out-of-bounds to acknowledge non-binary and trans people with their appropriate personal pronouns; 2) the use of “they” in particular as a singular gender-neutral pronoun is grammatically incorrect; and 3) the application of pronouns is an involuntary action and it’s impossible for the brain to consciously remember someone’s specific pronoun.

Sex (and Gender) as Socially Constructed
For those who are insistent that there are only two sexes rooted in biology, scholars from the 1990s have argued the opposite — that people have defined and determined sex based on their own biases and it is hardly an authoritative science. This means that sex as we understand it today as male and female is not innate nor determined by nature, but instead constructed by social values and norms.

Historian Thomas Laqueur asserts that for three centuries starting in the 1500s the phallo-centric biases of male scientists, rather than physiological evidence, dictated the categorization and study of sex. Social psychologist Suzanne Kessler revealed how countless male doctors in the late 20th century surgically assigned sex to “sexually ambiguous” intersex newborns based on what they perceived as an appropriately sized penis. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling additionally asserted that the binary sex model of male and female are arbitrarily constructed categories, and that the true number of sexes is in fact infinite.

If you attended college after the mid-90s, you would have likely read writings by theorist Judith Butler, who detailed how we determine an individual’s sex by specific cultural codes that are assigned to male and female. This means that if we see someone wearing a dress with long hair, we automatically presume they are a woman. And, that by being a woman who wears dresses with long hair, you simultaneously reinforce these cues that define womanhood. Rarely do we ask people to show us their sex organs to determine their sex or gender, but rather make assumptions daily about people’s sex based on how we think a woman or man should appear.

The very definition of the biological categories male and female, and people’s understanding of themselves and others as male or female, is ultimately social rather than scientific or based in “nature.” Thus the logic of those who refuse to recognize another person’s gender or sex when it diverges from their assigned sex at birth in the name of science or “nature,” may find their foundation to be flawed. Countless scientists have concluded that a sharp and exclusive demarcation between the male and female sex is an impossibility since there exists no single objective criterion. Sex is based on a combination of anatomical, endocrinal and chromosomal features, and the selection of which combination of these features comprises what sex is based on cultural beliefs.

“They” as Grammatically Correct
Even if an individual is able to accept that there are more than two sexes or that sex is socially constructed, there lies another obstacle, particularly with the use of the singular, gender neutral pronoun “they.” Many presume the use of “they” in this manner is grammatically incorrect. This claim occurs more often among old-school gays and lesbians who already accept if not embrace transpeople in their communities, as opposed to the larger numbers of straight folks who still remain unable to move out of the male-female gender binary. While the resurgence of the singular gender neutral “they” has been characterized as a pronoun revolution, it is more accurately a pronoun renaissance since it was in common use since the 1300s and used by accomplished English language writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, also known as the “father of English literature,” who used the singular gender neutral “they” in “The Canterbury Tales.” William Shakespeare also employed the singular gender neutral “they” in his plays in the late 1500s. In “The Comedy of Errors” he wrote, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, as if I were their well-acquainted friend.” More recently, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, and even the BBC have used “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun, as does the Bible.
The real pronoun revolution more accurately exists in the proliferation of new pronouns not yet accepted by the formal keepers of the English language. In 2016, Jessica Bennett of the New York Times found students using “ze,” “ey, ” “hir,” “xe,” “hen,” and “e” at colleges such as Wesleyan, American University, Barnard College and Harvard. While this explosion might seem absurd to the pronoun police, it’s important to remember that language itself is constantly in a state of flux. We can see this most clearly among our Issei and Shin-Issei forbearers who have passed down to their Nisei and Sansei descendants outdated words from as far as back as the Meiji era, words that would barely be discernible to a millennial in Tokyo today. Notably, literary critic Andrew Way Leong asserted that the very word Issei, so powerfully evocative of a specific identity today, was not in common use among Japanese Americans between the 1880s and 1920s, a period characterized by historian Yuji Ichioka as the “world of the Issei.” So incomprehensible was the word that Leong recently commented at a J-Sei event that if an Issei had called another Japanese immigrant an “Issei” in the early 20th century, he could very well have thought he had sneezed.

Indeed, language is an ever-changing dynamic mode of communication that is meant to accommodate an evolving community even as it appears to leave others behind. As a reminder of just how much language and therefore ideas about gender and sex have changed in the 21st century, DMVs in more than a handful of states across the nation have been offering the non-binary option of “x” for sex on their driver’s licenses.

Relearning Pronouns
So, what now you may ask? If you are persuaded that sex and gender are socially constructed and agree that we need to be more deliberate and affirming with our pronoun usage, how do you then reprogram your binary pronoun brain? Pronouns must be learned similar to the way you learn the name of people you meet for the first time. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of us take pronouns for granted, assuming gender and assigning pronouns to people without consent.

If it feels too forward to ask people you meet for the first time about which pronoun they use, then simply include your own pronoun when you introduce yourself, which will open up the door for your new friend to do the same. “Hi, my name is Brian, and I use ‘he, him, his.’” In nonprofit circles including higher education, it’s been customary to introduce your pronoun along with your name since at least 2015. We see it today in e-mail signatures as well as on Zoom calls right after people’s names. Be aware that some may use two different pronouns such as “she” and “they,” which is also perfectly acceptable.

If it’s difficult for you to remember someone’s specific pronoun, thanks to Oxford Dictionary you can now count on “they” as the singular gender-neutral pronoun as a non-offending catchall. When you use the wrong pronoun, don’t make a scene, just correct yourself and move on. If you witness others using the wrong pronoun, correct them matter-of-factly in public or in private depending on the situation as well as the person. We all must do our part to honor each other’s pronouns. The aforementioned theorist Judith Butler has written extensively about how centrally gender defines our sense of self. Sex is in fact so core to our identity that many folks are completely unthinking about their own gender. For others for whom their assigned sex at birth does not align with how they feel, gender becomes a contested terrain full of trauma as well as joy. The worst thing a person can do is to fill that terrain with more trauma in their repeated misgendering of someone without any self-consciousness nor effort to change their behavior.
The best part of being in the midst of a pronoun revolution within a Nikkei context is that most Japanese American queers are patient with open hearts and will not shame you for making a pronoun gaffe. In the midst of such grace, how could one not make an effort to use pronouns with deliberation and respect. So go ahead and try introducing your own pronoun whenever you introduce yourself. Make an effort to memorize the pronouns of people you meet as part of their name. Correct those around you who may use the wrong pronoun for someone you know. You will no doubt make an impression on a millennial JA, particularly if you are silver haired.

Amy Sueyoshi offers gender pronouns seminar twice a year at the San Francisco LGBT Center.

Amy Sueyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University with a joint faculty appointment in Sexuality Studies and Race and Resistance Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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