Gender Pronouns in a Non-Binary World

Hi, my name is Lavanya and my pronouns are she/her. As a cisgender female person, my gender pronoun identity of wanting to be addressed as she/her is far from groundbreaking. The dichotomy of genders has augmented beyond the binaries of male and female, therefore the inclusion and proper representation of people who identify as non-binary, gender non-conforming, transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, etc., becomes significant. 

The General Evolution and Inclusivity of Gender pronouns

Traditional usage of ‘he’ for male or ‘she’ for female in English is slowly substituted with gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns. The LGBTQ+ Resource Center of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, defines gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns as – “a pronoun which does not associate a gender with the individual who is being discussed.”

For this purpose of gender inclusivity, the English language has adopted ‘they/them’ to address people who do not fit into the gender binaries. Apart from they/them, the coinage of neopronouns shares the same purpose but for an individual who does fit into he/him, she/her and they/them. 

Neopronouns are “a category for any English neutral pronouns that are independent from traditional third person English pronouns”. It is “used by people whose gender lies outside of the male/female binary in place of ‘they’”. These include the pronouns – Ze/Zim/Zir, Ey/Em/Eir, Xe/Xem/Xyr, Ve/Ver/Vis, Ne/Nem/Nir, and more.

Neopronouns have been around for a long time, longer than one would speculate. Although seldom used now, the pronoun set Thon/Thons/Thonself dates back to the 1850s. It was coined by attorney and composer Charles Crozat Converse in 1858 and was popularized by its inclusion in Funk and Wagnalls’ dictionary through much of the 19th and 20th century, and in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1934 as “A proposed genderless pronoun of the third person”. 

Similarly, Ey/Em/Eir was put together in 1975 while searching for a replacement for he/him/his” and “She/Her/Hers.” And the revived set Ne/Nem/Nir, created in the 1850s, was originally “Ne/Nis/Nir. 

Gender Pronouns in Languages 

The aforementioned inclusivity is merely descriptive of the English language which lacks grammatical gender. That is, certain languages such as Spanish, Hindi or French have arbitrary gender assignments into a male and female classification for every noun. Some languages – the likes of German, Russian, Polish – have a three-gender system where, in addition to masculine and feminine nouns, there are neutral nouns. 

These classifications are different for the multitude of languages and dialects that exist across the globe. For languages intertwined with grammatical gender, it becomes onerous for a nonbinary or trans individual to find their identity and express themselves in their native tongue. 

Some languages, however, have expanded this binary of conventional practice and recently adopted gender-neutral terms/pronouns for more inclusivity. 

The Swedish vernacular, much similar to the English languages in terms of no grammatical genders, adopted a third gender-neutral pronoun hen in 2012 along with the hon (she) and han (he). Since then, the newly invented word is utilized by the Swedes on the daily. 

In a test conducted by UCLA in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Swedes were used to identify a sketch of a stick figure with a gender pronoun and of the 2000 people who took the test, most described it as hen – the non-binary option. This test showed the magnitude of people’s adoption and usage of new pronouns seven years after adding it

Spanish, the largely gendered language, is also taking strides to be more inclusive. The common tongue of Latin Americans has gendered articles – the article ‘the’ becomes ‘el’ for male and ‘ella’ for female, and its plural form becomes ‘los’ for male plural form and ‘las’ for the female plural form. ‘Un’ for male and ‘una’ for female represents the articles ‘a/an’. 

Not only this, every possible noun is categorized into male and female with the most male-gendered word ending in ‘-o’ and ‘-a’ for female. Many Spanish speakers have therefore refined the terminologies and added ‘elle’ (pronounced EH’-jeh) as the non-binary pronoun instead of ‘el’ and ‘ella’. 

Some end the pronouns with ‘x’ un/una would be unx and el/ella would be ellx – or say Latinx while addressing themselves in place of Latina or Latino. Another variant would be suffixing pronouns with @ symbol to represent both male and female. Pronounced ‘oa’ it would work as Latin@ or l@s amig@s (the friends).

Similar gendered languages such as German and French have included, although not officially, gender-neutral pronouns. 

Then there are several gender-neutral languages such as Chinese, Cantonese, Persian, etc., that largely remain genderless. These languages usually have third-person pronouns or they do not bifurcate their nouns into gender binaries. 

Representation in Pop Culture

At a time when the binaries of gender are rightfully diminishing, people are progressively self-discovering and identifying themselves as who they are. The apparent changes in languages to broaden and include non-binary people don’t go without backlash. Hence, the representation of proper gender pronouns in pop culture is always a support to the LGBTQ+ minorities. 

In my limited viewing of series and movies, the first time I stumbled upon a discourse on Pronouns was while watching the POP TV original show – One Day At A Time. In an episode, Elena – one of the lead characters – friends introduced themselves with their name and pronouns to a confused mother and grandmother. Two of the friends mentioned their pronouns are they/them and ze/zir. 

The show goes on to depict Elena explaining non-binary pronouns to her mother and grandmother, they then learning and using proper pronouns to communicate with her non-binary friends. 

Grey’s Anatomy recently represented the same in one of their episodes. It featured the series’ first non-binary patient and how the patient corrected the doctor to address them as “I’m a ‘they,’ I’m genderqueer, non-binary.” Fans of the show rejoiced at the representation. Some tweeted, “[Grey’s Anatomy] is always taking steps to make sure that people of different ages, races, sexual orientations and gender identities are represented. That’s one of the reasons I love this show so much!”

Why Proper Representation Of Gender Pronouns Matters

“Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world,” said Lera Boroditsky, a professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD.

Using a non-binary or transgender person’s proper pronouns helps them abundantly in the long run, despite how trivial it may seem to a cis-gendered person. In the process to discover themselves, many non-binary or transgender people may deal with gender dysphoria that could severely take a toll on themselves.

American Psychiatric Association defines Gender Dysphoria as – significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics. 

It is noted that wrong usage of pronouns, willingly or unwillingly, can induce more problems of gender dysphoria to a non-binary or transgender person.

Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people’s multiple, intersecting identities.”

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