Dear Christine, Reasonable in Rochester Part III

  • Posted on December 3, 2017 at 7:48 am

By Christine Cantrell, PhD, LP

Dear Christine, I wonder if you have any good articles or references about transgender or more specifically, non-binary people that describes the uses of pronouns. We have a situation in our Indivisible group that people have taken offense and some are not understanding about pronouns. Sincere leaders are trying to mend fences and have withstood some kind-of mean attacks and their apologies weren’t accepted. We can’t get anything done if we can’t talk to each other. What would you suggest? Signed, Reasonable in Rochester, MI

Dear Reasonable,

This is a complicated topic, so I will answer in three parts.
Part 1 is on Gender Identity
Part 2 is on Transgender Issues.
Part 3, today, will explore Pronoun Issues

Part 3

When I was in elementary school in the ’60s, the school secretary was “Mz Smith,” with a distinct southern accent. The title “Ms” was popularized to signify a woman so that her marital status (Miss or Mrs) wasn’t known or wasn’t a focus of the interaction. In 1972, The Us Government Printing Office approved this title for official documents. You can’t go wrong with Ms, so that has become the standard default title of woman in business as well as socially.

Language evolves and changes constantly. Think about the word “bad”. When I was young, it meant “terrible” or “misbehaving”. In the last couple of decades, “bad” has come to mean the opposite: “good” or “excellent.” I love reading dictionaries’ history of the words. As words are used, their meaning changes, sometimes to the complete opposite meaning from their original usage! That’s why the most common verbs are so irregular (“am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.” They keep changing with constant usage. English, an amalgam of dozens of languages over the millennium, has a plethora of irregular verbs as well as nouns. I am glad it is my native tongue! Any other language has more consistent structure than English.

And English is still evolving! Words are being “coined” all the time that reflect the challenges, discoveries and opportunities of a new era. Old words do not fit current circumstances. The Internet era spawns many new words ( e.g. “bitcoin” or “botnet”) in popular culture, and even the Oxford English Dictionary gives the stamp of approval to a number of these new words and phrases each year.

So, language follows culture and experience. As humanity’s awareness of the varieties of experience of life expand, new words are created or old words are given new life with new meaning. Hence, with gender, we no longer only see “male” and “female”, but instead there is “non-binary” or “gender fluid.” You may not have encountered such a person, but they one in 1500 -2000 births are intersex babies. They are legally recognized by about a dozen states and countries. If you are intersex What pronouns will work? Not “he/him” or “she/her.” How about “They/them”? But it’s one person. “It?” Not if that person experiences themselves as a singular person with feelings and sexuality and identity.

Various cultures have come up with alternative pronouns that do not denote the sex of the speaker or a sexless “it.” These are new pronouns and there is no complete consensus of which to use. Check out the table below for the variations that are in use currently:

This table was taken and edited from this Wikipedia page.

OK, I get it. It’s not normal and it’s uncomfortable. But imagine if the language didn’t reflect your experience in the world. What if you had no words to express who you are and what you feel? That puts you in the shoes of a non-binary person whose life experience does not fit he/she or him/her, or it! Something else has to be created, much like Ms for women who did not want or need to identify their marital or divorce status in the 60s. Why is this important to you and me? It’s not so much, until you meet someone who identifies as “gender fluid” or “non-binary.” If you’ve thought about this beforehand, you will realize that using an alternative pronoun will make that person feel respected and welcomed. The tension will subside and the ability for honest interaction will grow. This isn’t a fad. There are real people who really don’t relate to being either/or, but instead feel both/and. It might not be your experience but it might be your child’s, or your grandchild’s, or a neighbor’s or a colleague’s. You might not have a clue that someone else feels “non-binary” until you show a bit of acceptance to differences. Our brains interpret the signal from our eyes, so we tend to see only what we expect to see, or we see only what we focus on. This is how magicians can fool us with sleight of hand, distracting our focus from the real action. California and Oregon now permit a “non-binary” or “third gender” category on legal documents because there are enough of these people to be formally recognized. Imagine if you had the genitalia and organs of a male and a female. What pronoun would you go by? Other countries such as Austria, Germany, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, the UK and India identify intersex people by this “third gender” legally on birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

Christine C. Cantrell, PhD

Christine C. Cantrell, PhD
1026 W. 11 Mile Rd,
Suite C
Royal Oak, MI 48067

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