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Gone are the days when we were taught gender in binary and their corresponding pronouns as “he” and “she”. Today, variations in a person’s gender identity and expression are getting visibility more than ever before. This demands unlearning and relearning many conventional usages of language.
Gender identity is something different from and completely unrelated to the sex assigned to a person at birth. This is where the use of pronouns comes in. Physically, a person may be born with certain sex organs, but what they identify with determines their gender and subsequently, their pronouns.
Usually, there is a tendency to automatically believe that a person’s looks determine their pronouns or their gender identity. For example, someone who wears androgynous clothes may seem to be a queer person. Intersex and transgender individuals are called and recognised as “third gender”. But it is wrong to make assumptions about what pronouns someone uses based on their appearance.
In India, the Transgender Persons ( Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 erroneously groups intersex, transgender, and genderqueer people under the same category. While the promulgation of such an Act may be touted as a progressive step toward inclusion, such provisions which compel people to be identified as male, female or transgender, again defeat their purpose.
It is a common misconception to categorise transgender people as “third gender”, which designates them as belonging to a gender other than male or female. Some individuals assigned male at birth may have a female gender identity and prefer “she/her” as pronouns, while some others assigned female at birth, may have a male as gender identity and prefer the pronouns “he/him”.
In the case of genderqueer or gender non-conforming individuals, they use gender-neutral pronouns because they don’t want to limit themselves to options provided by a binary, heteronormative system. Their preferred use of pronouns is usually “they”. Even though traditionally, in English classes we were taught to use “they” in plural form, the use of “they” in a singular form for gender non-conforming people has a long history.
In 2015, the 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society declared the singular “they” as the 2015 word of the year. Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionary, both now include the singular usage of “they.” For some people, the use of pronouns may not always be static, like in the case of gender-fluid persons, who experience one or more changes in their gender identity or gender expression. They may use “they” as a pronoun or prefer different pronouns at different intervals of time.
The use of gender-neutral pronouns also requires the rethinking of languages in a non-gendered way. Instead of associating a particular characteristic as the sole determinant of sex, “male” and “female” should be used depending on the context, with flexible associations. For example, saying male chromosomes instead of Y chromosomes attributes the trait of maleness to a specific chromosome, when in reality, determining whether a person is male or female depends on multiple variables.
Some people may also use a mix of he/they or she/they. This means it is okay to alternate between the two pronouns. “Some people, they don’t mind those pronouns being interchanged for them. And for some other people, they use one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another, depending on maybe safety or comfort,” Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD says.
A person’s use of particular pronouns is a way of telling people more about their identity. Therefore, the correct use of pronouns is necessary to extend basic respect to them and ensure them a safe space. If someone is referred to with the wrong pronouns, then it can make them feel invalidated, dismissed, or even dysphoric.
For a cis-gender person who does not have to constantly think about the pronouns people use for them, it is not only negligent but can also be outright oppressive to not care about the pronouns other people use.
So where do we start to correct the use of pronouns? The first step is asking about people’s pronouns in the initial conversation with them. While it may be awkward at first, it is crucial to approach a person with an open mind. The correct use of pronouns can be better taught in classrooms, where young people are still learning about bodies and language.
With children having limited safe spaces where they can engage in such conversations, the inclusion of such topics in biology and sex education classes is crucial. Bill Farmer, a science teacher from Illinois teaches students about people with intersex traits, as well as people who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy different from the traditional male or female binary. Along with it, he introduces the idea that gender is a social construct and not a biological fact, early on in his sessions.
Gender identity must be included and discussed in class because as Sam Long, a transgender man who teaches biology at Denver South High School says, “LGBTQIA+ identities are a naturally occurring facet of human variation and that is why we need to learn about them in the context of biology and human anatomy.”
Also, when teaching about gender, sex, and sexuality, the language should focus on the precise organ, function, or pattern being studied, instead of attributing this automatically to a particular gender. For example, instead of saying women produce eggs, one can say ovaries produce eggs.
Even now, when science has proven that there are sexes and genders beyond male and female, the discourse around it is still rooted in binary gender ideas. This lack of understanding has severely impacted how we perceive and address people outside of gender heteronormativity.
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