Since it’s now LGBTQIA+ Pride Month I have been thinking a lot about gender. I have friends who have children who have announced they will not be going through life as the gender they were born into, I have young friends who have decided to transition from one gender to another, I have friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer, and every other lifestyle wrapped up in the little + at the end of the acronym.
I also know people who use they/them instead of he/him or she/her. To be honest, this intrigues me. I think language is a fascinating thing and I feel like deciding you are neither gender is a pretty brave statement to make in a world that only has two boxes to choose between on most official forms. It feels like it would be very freeing to tell people you refuse to conform to one gender or set of gender norms. It’s also frightening considering how many people are still violently opposed to anything or anyone different.
I also have some older family members and family friends who think the use of they/them is pointless, or even silly. It has only come up because the child of a family friend has chosen to use they/them and so my family has come face to face with it and has had to try to get used to it. Mostly because they can’t bring themselves to be disrespectful to the child by saying something. I’m glad they have to try. I think it behooves us all to try. I just don’t see the harm in trying not to offend people. I have southern friends whose children have been directed to cll me ma’am or to put a Miss in front of my name. I find it strange but it’s part of how those families and their community communicate. I’m not going to mock them for it or make the children feel odd or out of place. Why do we find it so much easier to ignore or even forgive things that sound respectful rather than things that sound like independent thinking?
What I find most remarkable about the topic of gender is that after doing some research for a short story I’m writing about a character who uses they/them, I have come to realize how many languages have genderless pronouns or have a third gender. No, I’m serious, look at this article about languages which use genderless third person pronouns. You can google almost anything related to the topic and find dozens of sites. They are all about linguistics though, not politics or society or religion. Maybe that’s why we only notice some forms of address and not others. The things that may strike us as unusual sound very different than the ones that sound so different that they scare us.
Isn’t that the crux of the matter though? Is choosing a genderless pronoun cause for indiscriminate harassment? Of course not. Any kind of harassment at all? Of course not. So then why make a child feel bad for being who they are? When I was young, girls who were ‘tomboys’ were weird after a certain age. If you were a tomboy you were supposed to ‘grow out of it’. It was in all the movies I saw as a child, tomboy gets left out by the old friends because she doesn’t want to dress up and just be a pretty girl. On the night of the big reveal, usually for prom or a party or something similar, the whole cast is astonished because she’s dressed up and beautiful and feminine in a very traditional way with perfectly applied makeup, coiffed hair, heels, a dressy dress, etc. Think Gidget, Pretty in Pink, or the Princess Diaries.
Why does that trope get so much play? Do we really think every person born female is just waiting to bust out of her shell and be a beautiful fully done up woman? Do we think those of us who have decided not to do that are missing out? What about those of us who transitioned? Or refuse to pick a gender with which to define ourselves? Does the use of a pronoun change us in any world ending way? No, it doesn’t.
So, thinking abut gender, although often uncomfortable and sometimes difficult is something we, as a society, should be willing to do for our young people so they feel comfortable and welcome to live as they are and how they define themselves. I’ve finished the first draft of my story about a character who uses they/them and once I do some editing I’ll look for an illustrator. Why? I think if we can get more stories, books, and movies out there to counteract the ‘pretty girl hiding behind the facade of the tomboy’ message the better it will be for all of our children.