Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

She/he/they/ze/hir: Talking about Pronouns and Gendered Language

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

She/he/they/ze/hir: Talking about Pronouns and Gendered Language

Article excerpt

Building on a long history of language action

There is a significant history of people seeking to influence language as a site of social change. Feminists, for instance, continue to challenge sexist language and develop non-sexist alternatives. The introduction of 'Mx' (pronounced 'mix' or 'mixter') has been a language action that provides a title for folks whose gender is non-binary. Thinking about, writing about and speaking about pronouns and gendered language is part of this tradition of taking action to create cultures that are respectful of all.

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are like shortcuts and we use them a lot when referring to other people. They are a part of many languages. Some of the most common English personal pronouns are:

* he/him/his

* she/her/hers

* they/them/theirs.

We often use these terms without thinking to stand in for a person's name.

Noticing gendered language

Some pronouns in English are gendered. For instance, he/him/his and she/her/hers.

These pronouns are connected to broader ideas about gender. 'He' and 'him' have been loaded with implications, as have 'she' and 'her' - so much so that if I tell you a story about a 'him' or a 'her' and give no other identifying information, your mind might start to make all sorts of assumptions about that person and how they look or act in the world.

Many other words in English are also gendered: man, woman, boy and girl are obvious ones, but there are others like mother, father, daughter, son, aunt, uncle, husband, wife, niece and nephew.

Many of these words have alternatives that describe the same thing without implying gender, for example person, child, parent or partner. Have you heard the word 'nibling' in place of niece or nephew? Isn't it the cutest word?

There is nothing essentially problematic about gendered language or any of these words. However, they shape how we interact with people and they shape our identities. Gendered pronouns and gendered language (in many cultures) are linked to the idea that there are two genders, male and female, and that these are distinct, discrete and opposite. This male-female gender binary has massive implications for our lives (that may be the understatement of the century ©).

For some people, gendered pronouns are relatively unproblematic

Lots of people never have to question the pronouns used to describe them. 'She' or 'he' might fit so comfortably that we don't notice when someone refers to us by a gendered pronoun.

Here are some stories of pronoun ease:

* I haven't had trouble with pronouns personally. I am read as female and am gendered as such, even when I was bald and my post-mastectomy reconstruction was only half done.

* I have not, to the best of my recollection, ever been misgendered. I remember when my daughter was an infant almost 12 years ago it used to make me angry or annoyed if strangers would misgender her as a boy. 'Even though she's wearing pink!' I'd huff to myself. Now with the benefit of hindsight, those feelings were pretty ridiculous, since we didn't even know if she was a girl yet! It was we who assigned her that gender, since she wasn't able to affirm or deny it at the time.

* I'm not sure if I have a clear memory of learning about my gender. As a sensitive and non-athletic person, I never felt I related well to other boys in the schoolyard. And, indeed, that's partially why I ended up being teased and bullied throughout my grade school years. I use 'him', and I suppose I would describe myself as male, but I find I don't relate to a lot of what maleness, societally, entails.

This relative ease with pronouns is not shared by all of us.

For some people, gendered pronouns can be a matter of inclusion or exclusion, even life or death

Some people change the pronouns that they use through the course of their lives. This is in part because none of us gets to choose our first pronouns - they are allocated to us at birth. …

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