Gender-neutral pronouns vs Third/Other-gender pronouns
For a while all pronouns apart from “he” and “she” have been called “gender-neutral” pronouns. Here’s the problem with this: a lot of non-binary identified people do not identify as gender-neutral. So I, Tan, am proposing we define more clearly what are and are not gender-neutral pronouns.
I am writing this post based on my own experiences as a genderqueer person who uses zie/zir pronouns. I cannot speak for every non-binary person who does not use binary pronouns. This is my opinion alone, and with this post I am asking other non-binary identified people, who use non-binary pronouns, to also give their opinions so I can see if this is just me or a problem more non-binary people face.
Here are my problems with referring to all non-binary pronouns as “gender-neutral” (in helpful bullet form!):
- De-genders all non-binary pronouns and therefore de-genders all non-binary people, regardless of how they identify
- Misgenders people when third/other-gender pronouns (such as ze/hir) are used instead of gender-neutral pronouns, ie using “ze” for a person whose gender is unknown: “I don’t what pronouns ze prefers so I’ll use gender-neutral pronouns for hir.” Not all non-binary pronouns are gender neutral, therefore using non-gender-neutral pronouns assigns a gender to someone just like using “he” or “she” for a person of unknown gender.
- Erases the identities of non-binary people (by assuming their pronouns, and thus identities, are all gender-neutral) and appropriates the identities of non-binary people (by using third/other-gender pronouns for people who do not identify as such).
- In some cases, dehumanizes non-binary people when their pronouns are used for inanimate objects or animals, ie “This is a pencil, place zir over there.”
Especially in the last bullet point, I think a lot of this stems from well-meaning but over-zealous cisgender and/or binary-identified people who think gender-neutral pronouns are a great concept but don’t know how to use them. I included the last one because I have had people tell me stories of how they used “zie” pronouns for inanimate objects because “they’re gender-neutral”. So let’s be clear: third/other-gender pronouns, like all pronouns besides “it,” are for people,* unless you give an object a personality (for example, my laptop has a name and I use male pronouns for him).
Very often on tumblr, when there is a picture of a person being discussed and the person’s gender is unknown, I see people use “zie” or “ze” pronouns for them. And every time it makes me uncomfortable because for me, those are pronouns for non-binary people, and using them for people whose genders are unknown is still assigning them a gender. And even if people identified as gender-neutral use “zie” and “ze” etc, then they are still pronouns that connote a gender identity (gender-neutral/genderless/agender) and all the same issues apply.
I will admit that I’m not sure of the history of these pronouns - I don’t know if they were first created by linguists to be gender neutral, and then non-binary people adopted them, or if they were created by the queer community. However “they” is already used as a gender neutral pronoun, and in fact has a long history of use (I’ve been told Shakespeare himself used singular they? I don’t have a source) so I don’t see the problem with just continuing to use “they” when a person’s gender is unknown. Other gender neutral pronouns are the Spivak pronouns [being based off singular they] and possibly “ne/nir” pronouns because I believe they are based off the word “neutral”, however I don’t know anyone who uses either set of pronouns and cannot speak for them.
So, these are my thoughts on gender neutral vs third/other-gender pronouns. Opinions? Corrections? Critiques?
*Some people do prefer it pronouns, but generally “it” is for objects and is considered derogatory for someone to use for a person who does not identify by “it”.
This is wonderfully put, and I hope my followers give it a read and pass it on.
I agree that non-binary folks should be able to have pronouns that describe their identities. Ze, gender neutral, and other-gendered pronouns should remain something people get to choose to use for themselves, like s/he.
They has mostly been used to describe people of an unknown gender, and I think it should stay that way!
Since I’m genderfluid and only occasionally nonbinary*, I prefer they so I don’t have to switch between she/he/ze whenever it fits. It fits me.
* I have come to realize noting my gender(s) when it’s relevant to a discussion IS REALLY HARD when my gender identity and gender expression is so all over the freakin place. I’m genderqueer unless otherwise specified, and my genderqueer identity is nonbinary, but some days I’m just not genderqueer. I’m confusing myself.
THIS. So much this!
It really bugs me when ze/hir is used ‘neutrally’ or for people of unknown gender - 1 that’s our pronoun, for queer/non-binary use and 2 that’s what singular they is for. FFS
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