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.


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.


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!


  1. Hi Vivienne

    First time visit and interesting post. I guess I do feel different when dressed. Even if I look like a man in women's clothes, I am trying to hide that so don't like to be reminded of my failure.

    It is still me but I do feel different even if it's just a different feelings. Anyhow, I do get into Tina mode, and prefer if my wife calls me Tina. I think she is really the only one that might still refer to my male name and she gets it right most of the time, which I think is all I can ask.

    Outside, I have had an occasional reference to 'He', but most give me the courtesy of the pronoun of the way I am presenting, which I think makes sense.

    I too hate any attempt to invent a new name, which would just make me feel even more artificial.

    I guess I just want to feel natural. To fit in. Having someone get it wrong ruins the felling.

    Hugs TinaCortina x

    1. Hi Tina,

      Thanks for posting a reply to this, officially the least popular of all the posts on my blog!

      Can I just say I love the cadence of your name: Tina Cortina. I don't know if you have any connection to the Ford car of that name!

      I haven't yet had the experience of having other people try to figure out what to call me when dressed. I am not sure if this is something which is going to happen or not. As it happens, my male name would actually do quite well as a female name, if push came to shove. I remain hopeful that someday, what name I prefer to be called will become an actual, rather than a theoretical, problem!

      Thanks for popping in.


  2. ahhhh yes pronouns. this is a challenge even for those of us who are transgendered but not transitioning. when i describe myself or someone else who is transgendered but not transitioning it gets tricky to do. so no wonder that the rest of the non transgendered population is pronoun challenged when describing us. LOL i have jokingly said thee are 3 uses of the term cd in the usa first there is the money cd ( certificate of deposit) then there is the music cd (like a modern version of a LP record) and then there is me! LOL
    i guess i have become soooo confident MOST of the time as diana that as long as the pronoun is not a deliberate attempt to be mean i no longer get to upset with the confusion invoked with a slip of the tongue. all i know is that when i am out as diana i feel i am a woman named Diana ( even though i know who i am in the male sense) the interesting thing is that over the last couple of years as i have come out one at a time to my closest friends, family, and mediate neighbors no one seems to care for the most part they have said "you are who are being transgendered doesn't make you nice and it doesn't make you mean you are who you are " as my dad says our exterior is only a shell so that we can recognize each other, but the true self is within" it has actually made it easier for me as i have shared about "my other self" since i no longer feel as though i need to hide this secret from everyone as that was to exhausting. the greatest part is that now i can ask a GG where she bought her clothing or boots and get a straight forward answer instead of a strange questioning look. good luck with your journey and feel free to contact me if you need to.

  3. I count myself lucky that English has not evolved in the way of other languages where objects and their modifiers have genders. In languages such as Spanish, we not only have to navigate around gender labels applied to our persons, but we must remember that a dish and a fork are masculine while a table and a spoon, god help us, are feminine. The English-speaking world has not found it necessary to consider the genitalia of inanimate objects. I find this interesting, and wonder what it says about the psychology of those of us for whom English is our native tongue. Perhaps our ancestors were ahead of their time in realizing that neither tables nor plates, nor any of the flatware will reproduce themselves regardless of their assigned genders, and therefore there is no point in assigning them. I wonder if it is it easier to be transgender (and all the variants) in the English-speaking world. Because we recognize that our tables, dishes and flatware are useful without having a gender, perhaps this gives the English-speaking world a head start toward a future where it is understood that people, also, are useful and worthy of fulfillment independent of gender considerations.

    1. Hi Wyn,

      It's a very interesting point of view that perhaps English has a head start in recognising that people are the same regardless of gender. I think we are making some progress. For example, I think it is becoming commoner to refer to a woman as an actor rather than the more traditional actress. We are coming to just having one word for men and women doing the same job, as we already do for teacher. As an interesting aside, female versions of some male professions used to be a completely different word. The examples I can think of are weaver/webster, spinner/spinster, and baker/baxter, and these have all been completely abandoned.

      German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter (providing great amusement to schoolboys that "the young woman" is das Mädchen (neuter), but great agony in having to learn huge tables of nominative, accusative and so on for three genders (and which nouns belong to which)).

      Perhaps there are languages where there are gender-neutral pronouns, where "him" and "her" are the same word, and "his" and "hers" are the same word. We have the same word, "you", for everyone, male and female, and the same word "I" for everyone, male and female. I wonder if other languages have different patterns of this. Are there languages where there is a "you (male)" different from a "you (female)", or even "I (male)" different from "I (female)"?

      Does anyone know of examples of this, or similar sorts of thing?