Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Pronomial Confusion and Gender Identity

When considering men who dress as women, there is considerable uncertainty where pronouns are applied. When dressed, many crossdressers like to be referred to using feminine pronouns (she, her); some insist upon it. Sadly, English struggles with gender-neutral pronouns, adopting instead cumbersome workarounds like the singular they construction ("The passenger should make sure they have the exact change"), which makes the academic in me cringe a little (though it has been used since at least the time of Shakespeare). The alternative, "The passenger should make sure that he or she has the exact change", is grammatically correct but colloquially awkward.

Bewildering: pronouns
Even more surprising to me is that certain groups have attempted to invent new, gender neutral pronouns for English. Words like hir, meaning "his or hers", or zie, meaning "he or she" have been proposed. I have some sympathy for this viewpoint: words matter, and language shapes minds. On the other hand, I loathe mangling the language in this manner, so for me, invented pronouns are out.

Where does that leave me? Actually, I am not that bothered about what pronouns apply to me. One of the things I dislike is something pretending to be something it isn't. It's pretty hard to reconcile that with crossdressing: surely a crossdresser is a man pretending (sometimes) to be a woman? I thought for a long time that I was, and now I realise that actually I'm not pretending to be a woman. I'm not trying to be anything other than a man in women's clothes (though I try to make the very best of it). Who I am doesn't change, regardless of what clothes I wear.

Even the name doesn't really matter. "Vivienne" makes a handy pseudonym, but I don't mind what name I am called by. For quite a long time I attempted to confect an alternate identity for Vivienne. What sort of woman would she be? Daring, flamboyant, unconventional. After a while I came to realise that, when dressed, I don't need to pretend to be somebody else, and that actually I feel just like myself. To pretend to be that other person was denying that I quite like who I am normally, and also feeling a bit uncomfortable.

So Vivienne and all her feminine pronouns are entirely optional.

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Addendum: 8th October 2014

Via the OUP Blog, I came across this website, Gender Neutral Pronouns, which gives a comprehensive discussion and comparison of several different systems. Although it has been three years since I wrote this article, I still find any system of gender neutral pronouns to be unbearably clumsy and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, you might find some here that you haven't tried.

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Addendum: 5th January 2017

The pronouns thing continues to not go away. I have been talking about it again on Quora. My viewpoint hasn't changed since I wrote the above article, although I would add a couple of other points.

First, language exists to serve us, not the other way around. Therefore if the language does not suit our needs, it should be adapted. But this is English we are talking about! The language of Shakespeare, and Milton, and Dickens. The language in which some of the most majestic pieces of work ever written, have been written! Therefore, if you are going to change it, please do it elegantly. Be respectful to it. If you can't manage that, you have no business meddling with it!