Pronouns: Aiming to be neutral

An+Activist+for+the+LGBTQ%2B+community+shows+their+spirit+at+the+Atlanta+Pride+Parade+in+October+2014.+Last+year%2C+the+parade+celebrated+its+44th+year.

Photo by River Young

An Activist for the LGBTQ+ community shows their spirit at the Atlanta Pride Parade in October 2014. Last year, the parade celebrated its 44th year.

“Gender can be a state of mind . . . When you refer to someone as a he or a she, you are limiting your perception of them to anatomy alone,” Decatur American literature teacher Christopher Simony said.

According to UC Berkeley’s Equity Resource Center, transgender put simply means, “those whose psychological self (gender identity) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with.”

Non-binary is an all inclusive category for gender identities. Those who identify as non-binary often use pronouns other than she/her or he/him, such as they/them or ze/hir.

Susan Tamasi, a sociolinguistics professor at Emory University said, “Pronouns are hugely reactive to people’s identities.”

Non-binary people feel similarly.

“Whenever someone misgenders me, it’s a claw at my identity,” Jules Tokuyama said, a non-binary individual from Los Angeles, California.

Jules identifies as genderqueer.

“Sometimes I feel like a girl, and sometimes I’m a mix of everything and I want to be masculine. It’s just a mess,” they said.

Jules’ assigned gender at birth was female. They never felt like they were “wholly girl,” but believed everyone felt the same way.

Teagan Smith*, a non-binary student at Decatur said that there’s an assumption that non-binaries are “wanna-be trans.”

“It’s frustrating to not see any representation of non-binary people. It’s either ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ A lot of people think it’s kind of silly – a phase,” they said.

Smith is only out to a few of their friends due to fear, but going public isn’t a problem for everyone.

Dani Planer, a senior at The Galloway School, came out to their friends as non-binary in 10th grade, and publicly in 11th.

Dani Planer is still deciding on which college to attend, but plans to major in gender studies and African American ethnicities and culture.
Emmie Poth-Nebel
Dani Planer is still deciding on which college to attend, but plans to major in gender studies and African American ethnicities and culture.

“I figured out that there were other options besides male and female, and this boxing in is a way to make it easier to oppress people,” they said. “I’m not ready to label myself as something because that’s what other people want me to do.”

After coming out, though, they felt uncomfortable with using the girls’ restroom, so they would use the boys’. Although this change felt more appropriate, Planer’s friends had to escort them to the restroom for “protection.”

Planer met two other transgender teens, one non-binary and the other genderqueer. The trio banded together and rallied for the formation of a “gender-inclusive” bathroom.

“It started out as an emissions bathroom, but [still] only has one stall,” Planer said. “We contacted the Communications Director and she helped us set it up.”

Within one semester, the trio’s vision was complete. At the entrance of the school sits a bathroom with a three-gender symbol alongside a small plaque explaining its significance.

“We want people to know that when they come to the school, they’ll encounter things that are different from what they’ve been taught their whole life,” Planer said.

To supporters of the non-binary community, English language changes, as should societal views.

“We have 400 years of modern English to overcome our basic use of pronouns,” Simony said.

The argument over whether or not they/them pronouns can be used singularly results in tension between the transgender community and those who are unaware of these pronouns.

Gender-neutral pronouns are gaining more attention at the university level as well.

Kelly Ball, a Women’s Studies professor at Agnes Scott College said that it’s important for society to know the meaning behind pronoun changes. “Language is a living system that reflects the realities of those of us who use it,” Ball said.

Since “they” functioned as a plural pronoun for so long, Ball believes that the singular usage of the pronoun will take a while to get used to.

“People don’t like language changes because they think language needs to function one way, and only one way,” Tamasi said.

“It’s important that educators respect a students pronoun choice,” Ball said.

Ball and Tamasi support the use of non-binary pronouns in the educational environment.

“As a linguist, I think people should be flexible and embrace language change, and if they don’t embrace it, they need to understand that it happens and it’s a part of language,” Tamasi said.

Ball said pronouns will be more prevalent in the next 25 years, believing that active use and affirmation will allow wide acceptance of non-binary usage.

Simony is among the Decatur faculty, and students, who are making efforts to ‘normalize’ un-gendered pronouns.

Simony “avoids using singular pronouns” but instead uses plural.

During lessons, Ball and Simony don’t assume their students’ pronouns and refrain from using he/him and she/her pronouns until students indicate their personal preferences.

“To me, it’s imperative that educators respect a student’s pronoun choice…” Simony said, hesitating in thought. ”My default is to use students’ names.”

The increase in non-binary terms throughout the educational environments, evident among teachers and students, allows the usage of pronouns to reach a wide range of people.

Simony envisions a growth in the support of pronoun usage throughout the Decatur community and society as a whole.

<a href=“http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/education/edlife/a-university-recognizes-a-third-gender-neutral.html?referrer=&_r=0”> Some colleges, like the University of Vermont, already offer a third gender option on official documents.</a>

“Language is organic and it changes over time,” he said. “If these pronouns were to organically work their way into English, I’m all for it.”