Ze Is Zir Own Person

With the increasing acceptance of gay marriage, there’s a temptation to think that we as a society have basically done away with all relevant forms of discrimination. “Hey, we abolished slavery, gave women the vote, and let gay people get married! Perfect equality has finally been achieved.”

Then you read something depressing like this opinion piece in The American Conservative, and are jolted back to reality. It spins off an NPR piece on, naturally, those crazy college youths and their mixed-up ideas. Margot Adler reported on the trend among students to identify themselves not only by their name, but also by what pronouns they like to be called by.

Depending on what street corners you hang out on, you might not be aware that pronouns are an issue. Guys are he/him, and gals are she/her, right?

Of course that only makes sense if you buy into the idea that there are guys, and there are gals, and that’s just about all there is. But the reality is much more richly complex — and that’s a reality to which our society has not yet caught up.

My lovely wife Jennifer has a new book coming out next year — Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. One of her chapters is on gender and sexuality — what it is, how it comes about, and how it gets expressed. Once you actually look at the science behind it all, rather than assuming that the categories bequeathed to you as a child represent universal truths, you quickly realize that this stuff is as complicated as all get-out. (That’s how the youths these days talk, right?)

tesseract Talking with Jennifer as she wrote her chapter (which, as usual for her, involved reading a pile of technical papers as well as interviewing many experts) led me to propose the Gender Tesseract. (I’m hoping this becomes a symbol of inclusiveness and understanding, and we sell bushels of T-shirts and bumper stickers.) A tesseract, as readers well know, is the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube. And roughly — very roughly, because these ideas arise from the human desire to stick things into categorical boxes, not from any fixed nature of reality — there are four important dimensions of gender/sexuality to be considered:

  • Gender Identity: how you think of yourself.
  • Gender Expression: how you dress/act/present yourself to the world.
  • Sexual Orientation: to whom you are attracted.
  • Biological Sex: what body parts you have. (Forgot about that one, didn’t you?)

Eddie-Izzard-Dress-to-Kill-8x62 In principle, all of these can be completely different for an individual person. Comedian Eddie Izzard, although he tends to perform in “boy mode” these days, has frequently appeared in women’s clothing — his gender expression (at least as far as clothes were concerned) was female. But he isn’t gay; his sexual orientation is toward (biological/self-identified) women. There shouldn’t be any problem imagining a person (for example) who is biologically female and wears what we think of as women’s clothing, but who thinks of themselves as male and is attracted to women people who are biologically female. All the vertices of the tesseract are open for business.

And of course the reality is infinitely more complicated than that. There’s no reason to locate one’s self at a vertex of the tesseract, rather than somewhere in the interior; yes, Virginia, there are bisexuals. And indeed there are asexuals and pansexuals and countless other variations. Even before I open my T-shirt store, the Gender Tesseract is hopelessly out of date. (Perhaps we should think of functions defined on the tesseract, rather than simply points within it.) As a member of the most boring, socially normative category, I try to keep in mind that I’m not an expert on other people’s sexuality and identity, and listen to what they have to say rather than telling them how to behave.

Which is tricky, because society loves telling you how to behave. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. The most powerful indirect tool society has is language.

The idea of a unique gender binary — men, women, no other categories — is built into English and many other languages. Women are “she,” men are “he,” and there aren’t any other possibilities. Perhaps you don’t know whether a person you are talking about is male or female, in which case society has a rule for you: assume they are male, and refer to them as “he.”

That last one is actually pretty easy to fix. For a long time now, many people have used “they” as a singular pronoun in cases where the person being referred to is of unknown gender. I started using it years ago, and it works fine. (Following in the footsteps here of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, so I’m not exactly a trailblazer.) But what about when you know exactly who you are talking about, and that person doesn’t want to accept a simplistic gender binary?

Thus the quest for gender-neutral pronouns. This is a very tricky subject, as language always is — especially for something so anarchic as English, where there isn’t any central governing body that lays down the law. In English, anyone is allowed to just make up words, so people certainly have. One choice that is popular in the transgender community is to substitute ze for he/she and zir (pronounced “zeer”) for him/his/her. These neologisms can seem strained at first use, but there’s a chance they will catch on and eventually seem perfectly natural. I was intrigued (and pleased) to learn that some college kids are pushing the idea forward. We’ll see how it goes.

Rod Dreher, author of the American Conservative piece, was less pleased. It is in the nature of conservatism to resist change, so that shouldn’t come as much of surprise. What’s depressing is the sheer lazy stupidity of the “critique.” Actually there’s not much critique at all — Dreher merely points at something he doesn’t understand, and kind of giggles uncomfortably. He labels the students “deeply confused people,” and the sum of his counterargument is one word: “Honestly?”

Yes, honestly. Language matters, and matching how we speak about people to how they think about themselves is an important part of human dignity. I don’t know what the best linguistic solution is for the knotty realities of human gender and sexuality, but I welcome the attempts to do better. Perfect equality has not yet been achieved, but I like to think we’re moving in a good direction.

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32 Responses to Ze Is Zir Own Person

  1. Steve Reilly says:

    Surely it’d be easier to shift the meaning of singular “they” a bit than to introduce new pronouns into the language. Why not just use that for people who don’t want to be referred to by “he” or “she”.

  2. Doc C says:

    These kinds of social and cultural changes are best built from within the groups of people who wish to use them, not simply pronounced on by experts from above. Your reflections, like those of Rod Dreher, fall into the latter category. Again quoting Paul Simon, at his 1973 concert in Barton Hall, when the campus police tried to stop the crowd on the gym floor who were rising to dance to his melodies with Urubamba and the Jessie Dixon Singers, “Get those security guards out of here and let those kids boogie.”

    Live the change, and the change will come alive.

  3. Sili says:

    I agree with Steve, save for the slightly too confrontational tone that I may be imagining.

    I suspect it’s more difficult to introduce function words into a language, since as long as they’re new they draw attention to themselves, which is exactly what they’re not supposed to do. (But of course the current English pronouns aren’t original, so it *can* happen.)

    I had a short period of liking the idea of made-up GNPs, but now they annoy me as much as zombie ‘rules’ and about prepositions and split infinitives.

    But I’ve changed my own usage unconsciously following norma loquendi before, so I’ll likely do it again, if this actually catches on.

    But for now I’ll stick to the perfectly fine Norse “they”.

  4. Lisa says:

    This is wonderful! I would like 4^4 gender tesseract bumper stickers, please.
    I do know people who use “they” as a definite singular pronoun, and it feels entirely natural. I don’t know how popular that option is relative to ze/zir/hir/etc, but it definitely happens and it’s easy to use.

  5. Lisa says:

    That said, everyone should be free to choose their own pronouns. The point is not what is easiest for me to use, it’s what is most comfortable for my friends to hear.

  6. Lord says:

    I thought ‘one’ worked for that. There are also those genetically one sex but due to mutation are physically another, at least partially.

  7. James says:

    I note that the UK Deed Poll service recognises the title “Mx” in place of Mr, Mrs etc. for similar purposes:

  8. You slipped up there. Maybe, it should read

    There shouldn’t be any problem imagining a person (for example) who is biologically female and wears what we think of as women’s clothing, but who thinks of themselves as male and is attracted to women people who are biologically female, wear male clothing, think of themselves as female and are attracted to people of type person 1.

  9. Sean Carroll says:

    You’re right. I will fix it. 🙂

  10. Mitchell Porter says:

    Lisa said

    “everyone should be free to choose their own pronouns”

    Do they get to change from week to week? From hour to hour?

    My philosophy is, “he” for clearly male, “she” for clearly female, and the wishywashy “they” for intermediate, indeterminate, or it’s-complicated. I don’t really like the last, but the other obvious pronoun to use is “it”, which is even worse, and all the other choices seem to be designer pronouns like ze, zie, sie, etc.

  11. FrankL says:

    Doc C – you got it. “Live the change, and the change will come alive.”

    I object to the statement “The most powerful indirect tool society has is language.” If by “indirect” is meant “informal and non-violent”, then no, the most powerful indirect tool is informally directed non-violent action. Which is the point Margot Adler got right. Not so depressing. (Sure, the rest of it is a conservative laughing at something new).

    Changing the language is effective only for “verbal thinkers”, people for whom language and thought are practically indistinguishable. For example, a scientist who thinks the science is “in” the math, rather than the math being a rough symbolic method of communicating the science. Changing the language is ineffective when it comes to not “non-verbal thinkers”. No matter how many times one manages to change the word for a person of low measured IQ, or a person whose skin reflects a lesser portion of white light than average, that new word will eventually simply become a pejorative joke not only among the prejudiced, but the non-verbal thinkers as well and as such is counterproductive. A new one has to be invented every 10 years or so, and still it doesn’t work. When a person of low measured IQ or low-reflectivity skin has the opportunity to be, demonstrably, a contributor to our society, the particular terms society uses will become unconsciously neutral and of little concern. Until then, “live the change (don’t talk it), and the change will come alive.”

  12. Shwell Thanksh says:

    My first exposure to a future in which gender is expanded as a concept came through the pages of a science fiction novel — decades ago. In fact, the topic is fairly well-explored territory in that genre, though it seems doubtful that self-described conservatives ever touch the genre.

  13. Brett says:

    I will willingly admit that I don’t understand gender identity…?issues?. I don’t understand how someone can be of one sex and say that they were born to be the opposite sex. What I mean is that I don’t understand the thought mechanism behind transgender individuals. Not that I don’t want to; but it just seems more likely that a person is confused or has some sort of psychological issue to work out. But hey, that’s me not understanding it. I do believe you’re free to do whatever you want regardless of whether or not I understand it.

    In regards to language and using the correct pronoun…it’s too much work to cater to everyone’s individual pronoun needs. A lot of it is just part of a regional dialect. “you guys” is gender neutral to almost everyone who uses it on the east coast. “Ya’ll” sounds too ignorant. “Ladies and Gentlemen” or anything of that nature gives people the impression that you’re up tight and can’t exist in a socially informal setting. If someone prefers a single pronoun, then I’d be happy to oblige. But if they are so sensitive that they need to correct me about it, and then they change the pronoun that they would like to be called, you can bet your net worth that I’m going to give them grief about it for a while. It’s similar to how M.D.(s) insist on correcting people they’ll probably only meet once in their life.
    -“What floor sir?”
    -“It’s DOCTOR, and 4th”

    Insisting on a particular pronoun will most often make a person look like a pompous ass.

  14. Juan F. says:

    OFF topic (I could not see where to put it better than in you last post, Sean): Are you going to make the slides of your last (great!) talk availabre on slideshare or so? I am talking about this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEKSpZPByD0

    Final remark: Your answer to the ether vs. Higgs field was epic! Congratulations! 😀

  15. steven johnson says:

    He or she is one: Collapse this into “orn,” then by parallelism derive orm, ormself, orns?

    Ze I suppose is okay, but it’s not the bombz, in my opinion.

    Oddly enough, I’ve seen “hir,” but that seems to be reserved to people who aren’t planning on actually speaking to another human being, as it looks like a typo that would still be pronounced “her.”

  16. James Gallagher says:

    The French would never stand for it, but English is a language which is very easy going wrt usage and grammatical change over time.

    Of course the Germans already have a solution with their neuter gender (er/sie/es he/she/it) http://german.about.com/library/blcase_sum2.htm

    Some languages even just have animate or inanimate “genders”

  17. Doug says:

    And really, granting the gender binary narrative hegemony over the axes is still more than it really deserves.

  18. Mitchell Porter says:

    I declared “my philosophy” of gender pronoun usage a few comments back, but without much conviction. Really, I think this is an unsolvable “problem”, and one that’s only going to grow – though perhaps it won’t get too big. The vast majority of English speakers are still going about their lives using “he” and “she” as they have been used for centuries, happily unaware that anyone thinks this is wrong.

    But there is definitely an avantgarde, e.g. among social-justice tumblr-youth, who are promoting personal choice of gender as a human right and a new universal norm. Encouraging this trend are some brute facts and some subtle influences. The brute facts are that advances in surgery, biochemistry, and related areas are going to make it possible to explore, ever deeper, the interzone between classical sexual types. By subtle influences I mean everything in culture that encourages people to think in this direction.

    And the reason the problem is unsolvable, is because there really is no universal standard. Even a world where people switch their preferred gender pronoun really often could work, if the whole culture was on board with this and understood its logic. Alternatively, the simple “three-gender” option I described could also work, again if there was consensus.

    But since history is all about differences existing alongside each other, what I expect is that there will be no agreed-upon solution. America and Russia no longer dominate the world the way they did, but with Russia passing laws against “homosexual propaganda”, while American liberal media is increasingly trans-friendly, they do still manage to demonstrate that different directions are possible. And whichever way you turn, something will go wrong for someone. Someone who is genuinely intersex may feel like a freak in a society that doesn’t understand the concept; but in a society where one is encouraged to think that being male or female is just a matter of how you feel on the inside, there are going to be casualties too.

  19. Tony says:

    Getting the right pronoun would mean that I would have to know way more about the person I am talking to than I want to. Seriously. I understand sexual identity is important to people who do not identify with ‘the norm’ but I really don’t want to have to keep track of the sexual identity of everyone around me. I don’t honestly care. Whatever you are and however you identify – that’s your business.

    Is it possible that sexuality is becoming *too much* a part of how we identify ourselves? In my own world, my sexual identity would come pretty far down the list of traits I would want to be remembered for.

    In any case, I think the language will evolve as it needs to. I would guess that it would evolve toward more neutral pronouns than specific ones for each and every possible variation in a very complicated space of possibilities. It will change too fast for those who can’t accept and too slowly for those who it effects directly, but it will evolve.

  20. Chris says:

    I’ve always thought the “he or she” construction to be extremely awkward. When told by a grade school teacher why we can’t just say “they” was because “they” was plural and not singular. It always seemed like a dumb reason since “you” is both singular and plural, so why can’t “they” be? This isn’t a law of the universe, it’s just an arbitrary rule.

  21. BobC says:

    The limitations of English are many when it comes to personal pronouns. Long ago I added “y’all” to my Yankee speech to distinguish my use of the singular and plural “you”. Other languages have an “it” pronoun that is free of English’s interpretation of “it” as “non-living” or “non-human”.

    We need gender-neutral human pronouns not only when someone’s gender is not known (to avoid the stilted use of “one” or “people” or the singular “they”), but also when the personal and social aspects of gender are indeterminate relative to the quotidian binary choice.

    The purpose of a language is to communicate thoughts. If we can think about such things, we should have a means to clearly express and discuss them. We don’t have to agree with the thoughts being expressed, but we should all strive to enhance and clarify communication on such topics.

    The euphemisms in this area are already brilliantly awkward and fun, but they tend to polarize discussion rather than facilitate it. I have no horse in this race, and ze/zer sounds eminently workable to me as a linguistic tool.

  22. John Urbanik says:

    We can always use “Hey you there”. If we all get to pick what we want to be addressed by then I vote for “My Lord and Master”.

    At what point does all this get to be just flat out silly? In a word of 6 plys billion people you are bound to tick a few off no matter what you say or do.

  23. Kevin S says:

    @Shwell Thanksh: I’m guessing you’re referring to “The Left Hand of Darkness”, by Ursula K. LeGuin? If so, I can’t recommend this book highly enough; despite being fiction, it’s one of the best handlings of this topic, through social commentary, that I can think of.

  24. “Perhaps we should think of functions defined on the tesseract, rather than simply points within it.”

    Fibre bundles!

    Thanks for picking up this topic. As you say, many people think that there is no longer any discrimination, but polyamorous people are about where homosexual people were decades ago, with regard to acceptance in society.

    Gender Identity: how you think of yourself.
    Gender Expression: how you dress/act/present yourself to the world.
    Sexual Orientation: to whom you are attracted.
    Biological Sex: what body parts you have. (Forgot about that one, didn’t you?)

    You need more points:

    Anatomical sex (your last point), genetic sex, hormonal sex. These can be distinct. Any or all of these might not be uniquely male or female.

    It might seem silly at first, but gender-neutral pronouns (no, “es” in German is not gender-neutral, it is neutral, i.e. neither male nor female, not comprising both and all) might be the way to go. Hungarian has this. We don’t have separate pronouns for black and white people. Yes, sex/gender/whatever can be important in a personal relationship, but outside of that, why should anyone care?

    Personally, I prefer gender-neutral clothes for both men and women (when clothes have to be worn at all) and have never liked gender-specific clothes for any gender (e.g. high heels, 3-piece suits). However, there should be the freedom to dress anyway desired. A woman these days can dress like a man (jeans—see, it’s so accepted we no longer even think of trousers as male clothing (well, most of us; the religious right does, of course)), but vice versa is difficult. The only almost exception is the kilt in Scotland, but this is not just a skirt, but very stylized, and a woman in a kilt would look like a woman dressed as a man in Scotland.

  25. sauls says: