It, Ze, They: What pronoun to use?

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By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter and Columnist*

At the Five College Queer Sexuality and Gender Conference held at Hampshire College on March 5th, I was handed a name tag with an extra space for my preferred pronoun. While anyone can always choose to write in anything people need to know-whether it’s a preferred pronoun or favorite flavor of ice cream-making it standard for everyone at an event to select a pronoun is a nice touch. I wish I saw it more often outside of the Pioneer Valley’s LGBTQ microcosm.

Being asked about preferred pronouns makes me think a little harder about gender-my own and everyone else’s-and how we attempt to sum up such a complicated subject in such tiny words. Pronouns carry a heavy load in the English language. They indicate who is doing something and to whom, while signaling gender, number, and possession, among other things.

Pronouns are a “big deal” to most transgender people. For many, expressing a pronoun preference is a first step in coming out. Picking a new name can take much longer-there are so many to consider! Pronouns generally offer fewer choices. There’s “he” if the person identifies as male and “she” if they identify as female. There’s always “it,” rarely chosen but often used by people who aren’t sure of someone’s gender and want to convey in no uncertain terms that their gender-variance makes them sub-human.

However, not every person identifies unequivocally as male or female (or sub-human). The traditional gender paradigm makes pronoun choice easy. Did the doctor say “it’s a boy!” at your birth? You’re a “he.” “It’s a girl!” means you’re a “she.” Many transgender people fit into this polarized scheme comfortably-comfortable as men and women in a two-gender world, they’re happy to use the pronouns English attaches to those genders.

Yet plenty of people aren’t comfortable with two rigid choices. Some may be in the process of exploring their gender. Others may feel permanently and clearly “neither” or “both.” For some, gender feels flexible, ever-shifting. These people find themselves outside the gender binary, joining a centuries-old effort to find a gender-neutral pronoun that works in English-and that’s where things get interesting.

The most popular among FTM (female-to-male) and FTX (female-to-something-else) people in recent years has been “ze”-a constructed pronoun, conjured up for exactly this usage … and that’s the problem, as I see it. Constructed words don’t easily enter mainstream vocabulary unless they are developed for a new concept (such as “email” or “website”).

Yet at the conference, I noticed many people I’d expect to have written “ze” on their nametags had actually chosen the pronoun “they.” The singular “they” has always been my favorite gender-neutral pronoun. “They” is already part of the language and used every day, by everyone. Using “they” to mean a single person whose gender is not known or not disclosed is also common in colloquial usage. Many a lesbian and gay man has stayed safely in the closet by referring to a lover as “they,” after all. Most people don’t bat an eye at it. (I’ve used the singular “they” throughout this column and, unless you’re a writer or editor, you probably didn’t notice.) What’s more, English has already survived one pronoun shifting from plural to singular: the formerly plural-only “you.”

Singular “they” offers a great, viable option for people who don’t feel comfortable with “he” or “she.” Plus, it gives trans people who have made a complicated peace with binary gender another option to consider. It’s an option that says that no matter how “male” or “female” someone looks, they may not entirely buy the gender binary and the sexism tied up in it.

In case you’re wondering, I wrote “he” on my nametag. I first uttered that I’d rather be called “he” when I was 6 years old and I was 30 before I won that battle. It’s not something I’d cede easily. Yet I’m still thinking about that space for my preferred pronoun-and that’s perhaps the best outcome of a thought-provoking conference.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about the FTM experience? Email Ty at tynanpower@yahoo.com.

*Tynan Power is a parent, a writer, a progressive Muslim leader, an interfaith organizer, a (very slow) runner, mostly a big goof, sometimes taken too seriously, loving, gentle, queer and queer-cultured, a pen geek, often dehydrated, & full of wanderlust. He also happens to be a transgender man.