The Language of Gender

My Gender

I will be referring to my article “My Gender Changed When I Visited India”, published in Femsplain on February 25th, 2016.

Looking objectively at a social construct at the root of a culture isn’t easy. I have tried to take a step back in order to consider the importance of gender in the modern day, after tens of thousands of years of its development. In this article, I will discuss some of the implications on our language of operating as a non-gender-binary society, and how our language can adapt to follow this change.

In my article for Femsplain, I discuss my own experience of gender and how people’s perceptions of me differed between two cultures. I tell the story of visiting India and feeling the dividing wall between genders hit me when I found people perceived me to be female. To cut a long (and read-worthy) story short, I conclude that since perceptions of gender are so fluid between cultures, between countries, between people and over time, surely gender itself is not binary – contrary to common belief.

Arguing in this logical way about something as conceptual and subjective as social gender presents some difficulties. In a logical argument you must discuss the fallbacks of your approach, so I’d like to highlight a complication involved in moving towards a less gender-centric social view.

Some languages are more dependent on gender and some slightly less. My language (English) is very much dependent on genderism for expressions to seem natural. Here’s a little example to highlight genderism from one of my favourite TV shows, Miranda.

With gender pronoun:

Miranda’s being a bit silly today, isn’t she?

Without gender pronoun:

Miranda’s being a bit silly today – isn’t Miranda?

These show how unnatural genderless language can seem if it’s not used correctly, with quite strange but necessary rules.

In my article I introduced two notable characters: the security guard and the photographer. I was very careful to test my own views and not attach any gender to these characters – if using gender to describe someone of an unconfirmed gender is misleading then I shouldn’t do it at all, I thought. For example, this is how I described my interaction with the photographer:

Standing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, walking along a crowded marble pathway towards the grand mausoleum, a photographer walked past me. After knocking into my arm then turning around, an apology began streaming out.

“Sorry, Sir – um, Madam – um… ah, I’m… sorry.”

With a face filled with embarrassment, the local was clearly worried about causing offense and felt guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw summarized the issue. The photographer was confused by me.

I used “photographer” and “local” to describe the person. I also had to use some careful switching of emphasis to the impersonal subject, like “an apology began streaming out” instead of something like “he began to apologise adamantly”. It took much longer to adjust these parts of the article to be non-gendered than I had imagined, but I hope that I achieved my goal. I believe this description sounds natural without gender.

Thinking about these sorts of rules has helped me to develop some vague ideas to make using genderless language simpler.

The Non-Binary Pronoun

A well-known convention for addressing people of non-binary gender is to use the non-binary pronoun. Instead of he/him or she/her, it’s possible to use they/their. This is the quick-fix solution to all our problems. It provides an immediate equivalent to gendered pronouns without the genderism.

Using the non-binary pronoun, I could describe the photographer bumping into me like so:

Their face was filled with embarrassment, clearly worried about causing offense and feeling guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw on their face summarized the issue. They were confused by me.

This works perfectly well for people who identify as having a non-binary gender. I have two comments on it though.

Firstly, because of the history of the word they and its use for plural description, the rule can sound odd grammatically. While singular “they” has been used since the Middle Ages, and even by Jane Austen and can work in some contexts, it is a usage that isn’t common so can be confusing when you hear it. Of course I don’t suggest this takes away from the validity of someone using it to express their gender identity. I suspect that this effect will diminish over time as “they” is used more often for the neutral gender case in its singular form.

Second is a larger question I have about the neutral gender case. Because it has been adopted by non-binary people as the preferred descriptor, “they” is going to take on extra meaning and may not actually be neutral. You may be “he” if you are cis-male, “she” if you are cis-female or “they” if you are non-binary. But if I see someone in a coffee shop of an unknown gender, how would I say to my friend “X has a nice hat”? To use “he” or “she” would be an assumption of gender, and to use “they” would be an assumption of non-gender. This solution lacks an unknown case; a word to use when you don’t know how someone identifies.

This is where we need further language to fall-back on.

Impersonal Emphases

The answer to my hat question is simple really. We rephrase the sentence. “That’s a nice hat” isn’t too difficult to say. All you have to do is remove the person as the subject of the sentence or use them as the object.

This can become much more difficult though. For example, how could you rephrase “She said she wanted to go!” to remove gender? The rephrasing would have to be something like: “It was said that there was a want to go!”. This does remove the person from the sentence, and I believe it is just about grammatically correct; however, it does sound a little bit like lawyer-talk – or gibberish

Using impersonal emphases, I could describe the photographer bumping into me like so:

I saw a face filled with embarrassment, clearly worried about causing offense and feeling guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw summarized the issue. I was causing confusion.

An issue with impersonal emphasis is that it does exactly what it says on the tin. It removes any intimate, personal quality from a description. In some cases it works well – when you can avoid referring to a person easily or become the subject yourself – but in others, creating a natural sentence isn’t quite possible.

The Common Noun

Perhaps there is another simple idea we can add to our toolkit. Informal English is very pronoun heavy, but I suspect they could be slowly eased out and replaced by the most basic common nouns. I referred to the security guard and the photographer by their job titles. You could refer to the hatted person in the coffee shop by saying “that barista has a nice hat”, and you could rephrase my say-go sentence like so: “The businessperson said going would be best!”

Applying this to the description of my interaction with the photographer gives my final, chosen form:

With a face filled with embarrassment, the local was clearly worried about causing offense and felt guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw summarized the issue. The photographer was confused by me.

This has its limits when you are trying to keep track of each labelled person in a sentence. For example, only using this you could end up talking about “the businessperson with the long brown hair”, “the businessperson with the thin-rimmed glasses” and “the businessperson in the blue jacket” if you were at a significantly genderless meeting. It is probably best to use this sparsely, and probably only once in a sentence. It works well though.

Using a combination…

By using a combination of these styles of language it’s possible to rephrase most sentences to be genderless. While they sound a bit odd on their own, their union acts effectively to plug the holes. It’s not easy to use language in this way. It feels complicated. It feels almost impossible to do in regular speech. But with time I suspect we will start to see language moving this way as androgyny becomes a more common part of our society and our culture.

I will certainly enjoy seeing how language evolves to better describe the new situations of gender we are beginning to see.

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