Those Darn Pronouns

The question of what pronoun to use (he? she? he/she? they?) plagues writers. With less frequency but deeper consequences, it plagues everybody else. Today I got into a wrangle with a guy — on Facebook, as usual — who referred to Wendy Carlos as “he/she.” I politely explained that this is not correct. “She” is correct.

The discussion went downhill from there.

Since the Oblong Blob is mainly about writing fiction, and has been for a couple of years now, I’ll try to bring writing into the discussion, but we’re going to go off on a tangent, so buckle up.

Recent fantasy fiction has gotten pretty good about portraying gender variance. Alison Goodman’s Eon has a character who is genetically male but socially female. So does Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. And it’s no big deal. These characters are not brought into to the stories because of their gender variance — they’re part of the stories for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with that. Most writers have figured out by now that the real world does not resemble the 1950s fantasies of Ozzie & Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. If you’re writing about real people, you’re going to encounter a variety of personal traits, including various sexual proclivities and various forms of personal identity.

As an aside, one of the first efforts in this direction in speculative fiction was Theodore Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost.” You can read up on it in wikipedia if you want to know more. Its sympathetic depiction of male homosexuality was quite controversial when it was published in 1953.

By now only a few troglodytes in the writing community are insisting that “he” can be used as a pronoun to refer to a non-specific person who might be either male or female. Most of us have gracefully adjusted. You can use “he or she.” You can alternate between “he” and “she” in alternating paragraphs. Often, you can substitute “they” without harm. I will sometimes default to “she” as a sort of affirmative action, in order to counterbalance centuries of “he.”

Turning from the literary to the social, what still confuses many people about the greater visibility of trans women and trans men in our world is that they aren’t sure what pronoun to use. Really, though, this is just bigotry. They can’t seem to embrace the idea that a trans woman is to be referred to as “she” because the very existence of trans individuals alarms and upsets them.

The short version of what to say to people who try to insert “he/she” when talking about my friend Wendy or any other trans woman is, “Get over it.” But a more detailed discussion may be helpful, so let’s go there.

The usual defense of “he/she” is to point to the XY chromosomes of the individual in question. How can you be “she” if you have a Y chromosome? But in fact there’s a fair variety of genetic conditions that can influence sexual identity even at the cellular level. There is, to give just one example, a genetic condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which an XY individual appears anatomically female because the relevant anatomical structures don’t “see” the male hormones in the bloodstream.

But this is a side issue. The chromosomal endowment of an individual is not what gendered pronouns reference. You may think it is, but it’s not. Gender (the question of whether someone is “he” or “she”) is a social construct, not a matter of genetics, nor of anatomy.

Consider: You wander into your local coffee shop and stand in line for a beverage and biscotti. You look around. Some of the people in your field of view will clearly be of the “she” variety, and some will clearly be “he.” More than 95% of the time, you will be in no doubt whatever about whether you’re looking at a “he” or a “she.”

And yet, you have not performed a genetic work-up on ANY of these people! You don’t even know anything about their anatomical endowment — you don’t know what they have or don’t have between their legs. Your judgment as to whom you should address as “sir” and whom to address as “ma’am” is based entirely on social cues, with possibly a little help from secondary anatomical characteristics such as facial hair or width of hips.

The structuring of your social activities (and possibly your emotions, which might include sexual arousal) is based entirely on visual information that is not even remotely scientific. So don’t start lecturing me about how someone with a Y chromosome is really “he” in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary. Just don’t.

Last month, as I was walking across the parking lot toward the gym, a charming three-year-old girl, a complete stranger, said to me, “Are you a boy?” I smiled and said, “Yes, I’m a boy. A boy with a ponytail.” The point is, this little girl was not asking about my chromosomes. She wasn’t asking about my anatomy. Whether she even knows that boys usually have a pee-pee and girls usually don’t — that’s none of my business, and even if she knows it, it was certainly not her primary concern. What she was asking was how she was to view me socially. Girls often have long hair, and boys, in her limited experience, usually don’t. She was researching social cues, because when you’re three you know that some people are “he” and some are “she,” but it can be hard sometimes to figure out which is which.

If you’re an adult and still resort to “he/she” in describing people whom everybody else accepts is a “she,” you’re acting like a three-year-old. Grow up.

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