Words & Pronouns
The English language plugs gender into words that it doesn’t necessarily have to be in. In many cases, people are recognizing that gendered words are irrelevant or incorrect and taking it upon themselves to use gender-free words. For example: Chairman has been replaced with Chairperson, Fireman has been replaced with Firefighter and Policeman has been replaced with Police Officer. Because women and gender non-conforming persons can also chair committees, put out fires, and join law enforcement.
There are also other instances where people feel the need to add gender to a word as an unnecessary and sometimes impertinent gesture. For example: People may say “male nurse” instead of just “nurse” because of the presumption nurses are female. Likewise, people may say “female doctor” instead of just “doctor” because of the presumption doctors are male.
Language is an important tool for teaching children how the world around them works. It is crucial that we are aware of how the English language is gendered if we do not want our children to feel limited in their opportunities simply because certain words imply gender boundaries. Making conscious efforts to teach yourself new ways of approaching your native language may feel awkward, but with enough practice, it will become second nature. If you were around in the 90s, it’s likely that “Google” was not a staple in your vocabulary, but it probably is now. I say “Google it” several times a week.
We are constantly adding new words to our lexicon. We also decide to drop other words from our vocabulary when we learn that the words are offensive. It typically takes one time of saying “tranny,” “hermaphrodite,” “feminazi,” “illegal alien” or “colored person” in front of an informed person to learn that those words are offensive to many people and are not politically correct. In an effort to stop offending people, we simply get rid of hurtful words and replace dated words with more progressive lingo. (Replacements for the words above include: trans*, intersex, feminist, undocumented immigrant, person of color).
It can be worrying that we are going to say the ‘wrong’ thing, but we have to be open to absorbing the progressive changes that occur in our language. We don’t have the same vocabulary as our great grandparents, and we won’t have the same vocabulary ten years from now that we have today. Language continuously evolves and improves. Be patient with yourself and just keep giving it your best effort.
There are many gender-neutral languages in cultures across the globe. Many languages don’t use pronouns such as “he” or “she” but instead use one word for everyone. Sweden introduced the word "hen" as a gender-neutral person pronoun. Although it may feel foreign to replace gendered pronouns with gender-neutral terminology, we actually do it all the time without even thinking about it. Let’s say you have a meeting with someone but you don’t know if the person is a man or a woman (or does not conform to gender binaries). The pronoun we use in that situation is the singular plural “they” “them” or “their.” For example:
“I’m meeting the principal of my kid’s new school tomorrow in their office. I am looking forward to meeting them and I hope they have some community resources for me.”
This example is a good jumping off point for discussing pronouns. We often make assumptions about the labels someone prefers without asking them what they actually prefer. We use language to categorize people into boxes that we believe help us understand how to approach situations. If someone has a penis (or we think they have a penis) we use he/him/his pronouns and treat them like a boy/man. If someone has a vagina (or we think they have a vagina) we use she/her/hers pronouns and treat them like a girl/woman.
See what I did there? … I added gender-neutral terminology into sentences about gendered pronouns and you probably read the sentence without realizing it or getting confused.
Most people give others signals or clues about their gender expression, which we then pick up on to decide which pronouns to use when referring to them. I typically wear clothes that are marketed towards women, and people may notice that I have breasts, and my voice sounds feminine. I may have make-up on or jewelry and so people take in all the visual signs I give them about how I express my gender to determine that I am a “she.” This works for us most of the time because many people subscribe to traditional feminine or masculine gender expressions and prefer the pronouns associated with that gender – but not always. A great way of finding out is stating, “My pronouns are ____, ____, and ____. What are your pronouns?” Or, just be mindful and use gender-neutral pronouns if you are unsure and don’t feel comfortable asking.
Saturday Night Live’s character, Pat, is a great example of how uncomfortable people get when they don’t know what gender ‘box’ to put someone in.
Knowing someone’s sex or gender leads us to treat them in specific, gendered ways that are often times unnecessary. And for some reason, people may feel uneasy if they do not know if someone is a boy or a girl or a man or a woman. And if a person falls somewhere in between or is ambiguous or androgynous it disrupts our categorizing system of putting people in either the blue “boy/man” box or the pink “girl/woman” box.
Take five seconds to ponder this question:
Why is it important for me to know the sex/gender of a person?
Your answer was probably somewhere near:
So I know how to treat them.
Babies are a lot like Pat. If someone presented you with a random newborn baby, dressed only in a plain white onesie, it would be impossible for you to know if that baby was male or female by just looking at them. Thus, adults gender babies, dress them like a “girl” or a “boy,” and begin to treat them according to gender stereotypes. This is not to make babies comfortable, who are unaware of gender; this is to make adults comfortable.
Individuals get to decide for themselves the pronouns and labels they wish to use. In our case, we have decided to refer to Zoomer using the gender-neutral pronouns: they, them, their and we also use the letter Z as a pronoun. We are using they/them/their/Z as placeholders until Zoomer is able to self-identify which gender (if any) they wish to subscribe to and choose their personal pronouns.
The purpose of pronouns is really to simplify having to use someone’s name over and over again – for example, instead of saying, “I need to give Zoomer a bath but I can’t find the toy that Zoomer likes to play with while I wash Zoomer’s hair.” We can use pronouns and say, “I need to give Z a bath but I can’t find the toy they like to play with while I wash their hair.” It doesn’t make the sentence too much shorter – it’s just a linguistic habit we have. Gendered pronouns, however, often lead to gendered interactions, whereas gender-free pronouns create an opportunity for gender-free interactions.
In the mean time, we are fully aware that not revealing Z’s sex nor assigning a gender will cause many people to feel squirmy – however, if people don’t know what Z’s sex is, they won’t rely on gender stereotypes when interacting with them and can instead have a gender creative experience with our child, which we feel Z and others deserve.