Ils Accuse!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Question

Recently I have been noting a shift in language where people who feel their gender is neither he or she are asking to use the pronoun “they.” I find this awkward grammatically, especially where I’m from, where my mother tongue is English but I also speak French, so “they” would presumably become “ils,” and that in itself is both masculine and plural, which requires the verb to be pluralized, too.

Answer

When this pronoun first came to my ears (drunk off my shitter at some queer porn screening, of course), I flat out refused to adopt it. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense!” I yelled, and in mutiny, did the splits on the floor beneath the bar.

On reflection, I think this fit of pique had to do with the fact that “they” sounded a little like someone demanding to have themselves spoken about in the third person or as though they were part of a supernatural collective like the Borg. What could be more annoying than a pronoun that evoked third-person science fiction dorkery? 

But look at the next-last sentence. Its pronouns are gender-neutral, and it includes the word “themselves,” which is also used as a plural. I realized that it was simply my grudging inability to adopt something that struck me as supremely self-indulgent (funny, since I have thriven on this quality myself for decades. I guess only I’m allowed to have everything my way) and that people were simply asking me to offer them the same ease I feel with the pronoun “she.”

We find it annoying not to be able to gender people in one of two ways. So many quotidian grammatical conventions require us to do this, but, really, we don’t need to know someone’s gender to have any regular social interaction with them at all. 

Back when people wore lots of frilly things, it was considered outrageous to refer to new acquaintances by their first name – doing so was overly familiar and disrespectful. It strikes me as odd that custom required people to use one another’s surnames practically until they were married for propriety’s sake, but grammatically, gendering someone,  tantamount to – gasp! – thinking about their genitals, was perfectly fine. 

At some point, things went from “I’m Mr. Anderson, so pleased to make your acquaintance” to “Please! Mr. Anderson is my father. Call me Bob.” I’m sure there was a time when this was awkward and seemed uncouth and resulted in a lot of people being carried out of drawing rooms in a dead faint, but now it’s general custom.

For several centuries there have been initiatives to adopt gender-neutral pronouns, led by linguists, feminists and gender queers, yet not one of them has succeeded in making their suggestions common parlance. People who identify as gender-variant need to take the lead on this, but more importantly, we need to follow. It would be great if it were as simple as “Hi, I’m Randy, pronoun they” “Hi, Randy. I’m Alex, pronoun she,” but I doubt that’s going to happen. We are queers, after all, and, well, we need something to write PhDs and urgent open letters about. Sex workers and QuAIA can’t have all the attention. 

Regardless, we need to respect that there are many places where people who express gender variance don’t feel safe, and that they shouldn’t have to feel ill at ease in places where there are established policies of respecting peoples’ differences. You may find it precious, whimsical and grammatically awkward, Je, but in the end, it’s common courtesy.