The Challenging Task of Expressing Gender Neutrality

We’ve been taught since we were little that a person is either a boy or a girl, he or she, him or her. Our language does little to accommodate for people who don’t identify as a man or as a woman. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to describe people without using gendered pronouns.

Gender-neutral pronouns are not widely acknowledged or used and avoiding pronouns altogether requires sloppy and confusing sentence structure. Genderqueer people are often referred to as “it,” stripping them of both their gender identity and their humanity.

Attempting to avoid using offensive language, people often use “they” or “them” to describe a genderqueer person. For example, “they are genderqueer.”

While this is preferable to forcing a gender on someone, it is grammatically incorrect. A genderqueer person is still an individual, and it doesn’t make sense to refer to a single person as they.

Some genderqueer people choose to use gender-neutral pronouns. The most popular gender-neutral pronouns are “sie, hir, hir, hirs, hirself,” and “zie, zir, zir, zirs, zirself.” (These pronouns would be used in place of “he, him, his, his, and himself,” or “she, her, her, hers, herself.”) While gender-neutral pronouns successfully express gender neutrality and theoretically solve the problem of discussing people without using gendered language, most people are completely unaware that gender-neutral pronouns exist, rendering them essentially useless. The point of language is communication, so it is problematic if gender-neutral language is not understood. And I somehow doubt that gender-neutral pronouns will catch on when so few people understand that gender isn’t binary.

So how should people communicate without gendered language? Using incorrect grammar or using uncommon gender-neutral pronouns? Neither option seems ideal. Gender-neutral language should be easy to understand both for those inside and outside the LGBT community, and it should be effective in describing genderqueer people without offending anyone.

Perhaps we could learn something from the Spanish language, which has recently adopted a modern flare to communicate across the gender spectrum. The @ sign has recently been used to replace the “o” or “a” that usually makes a word masculine or feminine. For example, one could say “Hello old friends and new friends!” using the expression “Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s!” Obviously, this usage only works in written language and not spoken language, but it shows an impressive use of modern technology to express a new social need.

Language will need to adapt to the growing presence of genderqueer individuals, who don’t identify as men or women. The only question is, how and when will our language change?

Photo credit: Horia Varlan