Enough About Storm’s Gender. Let’s Talk About the Pronouns

It’s unfortunate that Kate Swift passed away recently, because I’m sure she would have had something to say about the way  the media is covering the story about Kathy Witterick and David Stocker’s child, Storm. Newspapers and blogs have been having a field day with Storm’s parents’ decision to raise their child gender-neutrally, debating whether it’s good for the child, whether it’s a sign of bad parenting and whether a child actually can be raised gender-neutral. What’s clearest is that no one really knows how to handle Storm’s lack of a gender ID: Is Storm “it”, a “child”, “s/he”, or what?

Witterick and Stocker say that they’re determined not to reveal their child’s sex because that knowledge would be used as the foundation for constructing a gender identity. And with gender identity comes what the parents understand as limitations on their child’s capability for an individual identity expression. By leaving the child’s sex unknown to others, the parents hope that Storm will explore roles and behaviors “unconstrained by social norms about males and females” that others may impose on Storm.

This idea is frightening to many, and perhaps it’s compounded by our inability to use the English language when talking about those who step outside our common understanding of gender. Our pronouns are based on the binary of she/he–which becomes a problem when people do not conform to the sex-binary and gender-binary of male/female and man/woman. So how can we, as journalists and human beings in a society that still has a hard time understanding the difference between sex and gender, treat Storm’s identity with respect?

For one, we can use more flexible pronouns. Kate Swift was known for her revolutionary idea to change “singular sexist pronouns into plural gender-free ones.” Along with Casey Miller, she devised the gender-neutral terms “‘tey’ (she/he), ‘ter’ (her/his) and ‘tem’ (her/him)/” Other pronoun systems have been invented since: Spivak, ze/zir, zhe/zhir/zhim, ne, and the list goes on.

Spivak pronouns were popularized by Michael Spivak, a mathematician who used the pronouns in his textbooks. He, however, does not know where the pronouns themselves originated. He wrote:

I think I read about it in a newspaper clipping, perhaps from the Boston Globe, during the time I taught at Brandeis, and I believe it was credited to an anthropologist; later on, when I wanted to use it, I was unable to locate the source.

Ze/zir is thought to have originated in the 1980′s in the science-fiction community, with many variants. Swift’s idea has been taken a step further with these pronouns, as they can be used not only to refer simultaneously to “she” and “he”, but can also be used as a preferred gender pronoun for individuals who do not identify with either gender. “They” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is another possibility although it is met with stylistic criticism.

It’s astounding that these pronouns have been around for so long and yet so few people have adopted them. Many of the gender-neutral pronouns are chosen as a form of personal gender expression, and diversity is hard to standardize. Also, the communities that have used them historically are small and isolated.

Nonetheless, although gender-neutral pronouns may be imperfect and are still developing, they may be the best resource for treating gender-neutral persons with respect. Reverting to “it”–as many people have done–makes Storm an object rather than a subject. Although we don’t know which gender Storm will want to identify with–or if Storm will identify with a gender at all–we know that this child is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and decency, starting with our language.

Photo from Flickr user efleming under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. When I was first learning English, I had such trouble with the pronouns! In my mother’s tongue, Finnish, everybody is just “hän” (hän = he, she, any sentient being). The whole concept of this pronominal gender segregation was just plain weird to me and so hard to use correctly. I still occasionally use the wrong one.

    • English could learn something useful from Finnish, but my friends in Vaasa tell me that it’s very easy to determine gender from the context rather than any pronouns.

    • I’m glad that there’s a language which doesn’t concentrate on pronouns. I think other world language could learn from it. It would be just great.

    • I really don’t see how any of this- you using the ‘wrong’ pronoun, Witterick and Stocker concealing Storm’s gender- is a problem. But your post makes me want to learn Finnish.

    • Shannon says:

      I have a friend from Argentina who hates that English is more general neutral than Spanish. If you tell him a story about your friend, he gets distracted trying to figure out if the friend is male or female.

      I have the opposite problem. When using Spanish, I get distracted by inanimate objects having gender. What characteristics does a table have that makes it female?

      I’m also annoyed that the male title of Mr. is used for all men but the traditional female titles convey marital status. I always use the title Ms.

    • My grandparents were Holocaust survivors from the Hungary/Czech border, and my mom grew up with Hungarian in the home. Hungarian is supposedly related to Finnish (although my mom says she can’t hear any relation), but there is a similarity in that in Hungarian, the word “er” (no idea how to spell that) also means he or she.

  2. English as a language has quite a few problems.

    I think we do need a gender free pronouns. Can we use the Finnish?

  3. I am interested in how this works. It would be nice to find this a trend. I had a friend who raised boy/girl twins. The boy was born about 5 pounds. The girls was more than 7. But the boy was tossed about, even as an infant, like a sack of potatoes. The girl, the first in a family of boys, was treated like some delicate flower. She’s not and never was.

    But that father repeats the same old tired line about boys and girls are different. Indeed they are, but how much of that difference is the manner in which they are handled, talked to, and praised, beginning from birth?

  4. NWOslave says:

    This child, along with the previous boy who was said to be raised “genderless” is being raised as a girl. You can find photo’s of the boy and clearly a definite girl hair cut. Bangs cut short long in the back with braids, his clothing is feminine and his “taught” mannerisms are feminine, not “gender neutral.”

    • @NWOslave

      Jazz and Zio (Storm’s older brothers) apparently both identify as boys, and are not being raised as girls: they are being raised to choose clothing and hair that make them feel confident and happy, despite what gender *we* attribute to the styles. The parents are not forcing or teaching them to dress one way or another…Jazz and Zio choose how they want to look. If they wanted to wear Spiderman t-shirts and skirts, it would be up to them.

      • NWOslave says:

        Storm’s older brother did not “ask” for that hairstyle. He did not “ask” for the clothing he wears. He did not “ask” to be taught to act in a feminine matter. Was there a football even offered as a toy? Was there someone willing to throw the football back and forth? Was the “offer” for a little roughhousing or rough and tumble play ever presented?

        If you read up on these parents you can see that any type of “boys” play was denied. Further, the slightest “sign” of any masculine qualities quickly garnished disapproval from his mother. Every child wants his/her parents approval. Feminine is not (default) gender neutral.

        • “Feminine is not (default) gender neutral.”

          Neither is masculine. The parents are doing the best they can to avoid favoring masculinism while living within a strongly patrifocal society. If the kids grow up to be thoughtful, strong, and compassionate regardless of gender, we all win. Your point? ;)

  5. This is also a problem in German where all professions etc also have a gender specific ending (for women “in” is added to the end, eg. Kurator, Kuratorin – Curator) This gets more complicated when talking about groups of people. There is a plural form of men (Kuratoren) and plural form for women (Kuratorinnen). However, when talking about a mixed group you would traditionally use the male form. Even if there are 100 women and one man.

    A couple of ways have been devised to refer to a general group of people, but there is no consensus and no standard. The most common are: KuratorInnen, Kurator_innen, and Kurator*innen. However, you only read these really in activist or left-wing publications. The ‘correct’ form is still the one where a male presence trumps the female. An exception is job advertisements where adverts say Kurator/in or Kurator (M/W) to show that it is for male and female candidates.

    But the language also has masculine, feminine and neuter assigned to all nouns. Obviously perhaps men and women fall in masculine and feminine, but lots of others go by ending. Mädchen (young girl) for example is neuter, Uterus is masculine.

  6. Re: ““They” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is another possibility although it is met with stylistic criticism.”

    You’ve closed off this option in one sentence ….

    I encourage my students to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular if they are struggling with gendered language. The “stylistic” discomfort it provokes is far less than that produced by the made-up pronouns, which, as you noted, have not caught on in any viable way. I believe wholeheartedly in the need for gender neutral language, but when I encounter teys and tirs and zes and zirs I struggle to take them seriously–imagine how difficult it would be for someone who doesn’t care at all. Most young people seem very comfortable with the “they/them/theirs” option. In fact, this approach to gender-neutral language seems to come naturally, and it is the corrections offered by authority figures that prevent it being adopted.

    Making up new terms that draw attention to change when there are already words that make the transition much more smoothly seems counterproductive. Language isn’t likely to change because we wag a disapproving finger at it. So why be so dismissive of a change that seems to be happening pretty effortlessly?

    • Amy Borsuk says:

      I don’t think I was being dismissive about “they”. Or rather, that was not my intention. I did prefer to focus my time in the article on gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) that are less well-known and used less commonly so that I could get people thinking about them.

      That being said, I do agree that “they” as a GNP has certainly become very commonly used in English and seems to be doing so rather naturally. There are some grammatically awkward questions that arise when using “they” (“they is” or “they are” when referring to one person gender-neutrally) but perhaps with use, the English language will adapt or evolve to accommodate. Or maybe “they is” will start to sound normal after it’s used for so long. I can’t say, but I do want to give the other GNPs a fighting chance as well. Awareness is the first step, after all.

      Thanks for your feedback. It really got me thinking!

      • I am aware that this is something of a late reply to your concern, but it is worth noting that in the English language, you can be either singular or plural. Whereas in other languages, there is a distinction between singular and plural ‘you’. In French, assuming you are speaking to friends, one other person would be ‘tu’, whereas a group of other people are always ‘vous’. Thus, verbs are conjugated differently (‘tu est’ as opposed to ‘vous êtes’). However, whether addressing one person or a group in English, it is always ‘you are’.

        Interestingly, this entire issue all goes back to the fact that most dialects of English lost ‘thou’, the old singular form, by the 17th century. Thus, if we follow the same logic that caused people to drop thou, for whatever reasons that this occurred, then it is perfectly grammatically acceptable to refer to refer to a single person as a ‘they’. Again following established patterns in language use, there would be no need for the grammatically awkward and incorrect both in concept and sound form of ‘they is’; it would be ‘they are’. I don’t quite understand why people seem to have such difficulty accepting singular they, considering the English language has already undergone a similar linguistic shift.

  7. In the Philippines, our many languages, including the dominant ones Tagalog and Cebuano Binisaya, use the same pronoun for male and female: siya. Our children often have a problem making the shift when they study English, with the confusion extending way up to their college years. It would be nice to see our problem turning into a solution.

  8. I’ve been living in English-speaking countries for the past 10 years, and I still cannot get he/she straight in a conversation. I frequently refer to my husband as she. It’s ok in writing, when I have to think about it. But at the root of my ‘problem’ lies the issue that in Hungarian there is no he/she. Just like in Finnish: we have an ‘it’ for objects, and an ‘it’ for all sentient beings.

    Of course, my mistakes entertain my friends to no end…but sadly offend others, who are not willing to consider that for me, there is really no difference.

  9. Mary Ann says:

    This is hopeful. Not only would this work in reference to humans but also for animals! Carol Adams’ “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” does a great job of discussing the ways we objectify animals (which leads to violence towards them) by referring to them as “it.” This would help!

  10. Great insightful post! Media also fails to understand implications of gender socialization. Check out my input… rachelpiazza.tumblr.com

  11. Let’s simplify: Call the child by name so that a pronoun is not even needed.

    Secondly, I know that those interested in the resistance to pronoun change will find it instructive to read Dale Spender’s historical documentation about patriarchal control of social institutions (such as Parliament) whereby she outlines the facts surrounding Mr. Kirby’s Rule 51 of his grammarian rule book. Pior to 1850 in England, “they” was commonly used to refer to mixed sex groups and “he” and “she” were both used to refer to specifically same sex groups of persons– until in 1850 Parliament passed Rule 51 into law making “he” the acceptable and required as a generic pronoun. The justification? “He” not only encompassed “she” but “he” was superior to “she.”

    Note that the common folk were very resistant to this change and refused to use “he” as a generic. Hence, after 100 years of the resistance from approximately 1746 to 1850, these elite male grammarians finally pretitioned Parliament. The result was the passage of Mr. Kirby’s Rule 51 into legal status. (Of course, no women were allwed to be members of Parliament; none were there to resist the legal muting of “she” as an individual person. Key Words for Web Search: Muted Group theory Dale Spender.

  12. We all use “they” all the time anyway. Picture this:

    You answer the phone only to hear a dial tone. What do you say if someone asks who it was?

    You say “I don’t know. They hung up.”

    Seems like a no-brainer.

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