Ninth grade honors English. That’s the first time I heard it—that I should use the phrase “he or she” instead of “you” or “they” to refer to a hypothetical person. I remember my teacher’s pronoun lesson: “Traditionally, people have paired ‘he’ with hypothetical people like ‘the reader,’” he said, “but then feminists argued that wasn’t inclusive of women. So now it’s convention to use ‘he or she.’”
It seemed like the best alternative, since “you” was so informal and “they” was plural. And it certainly seemed like the most inclusive option, since it took into account exactly the people who filled the classroom and my life—women and men. It challenged my heteronormative, white middle-class upbringing and taught me I didn’t have to accept everything that came along with the “F” on my birth certificate, like the pressure I felt and put on myself to wear makeup and dresses.
It took discovering what made “he or she” progressive, however, before I could see its flaws. That first pronoun lesson, after all, taught me that gender was something I could and should be conscious of. I owe my current non-binary gender identity and all my interest in feminism to it, which makes my relationship with the phrase all the more complicated. Not only do I disagree that English teachers should be pushing it on their students, but I owe everything I am and will be to one English teacher doing just that—marking up all my instances of “you” or “they” in essays as if they were blatant misspellings. I treasure and despise the phrase simultaneously.
At the time of that lesson, I was fifteen and had never heard phrases like “gender binary” and “transgender.” It was back before Caitlyn Jenner came out, before transgender bathroom issues gained national attention, and before the Purdue OWL Style Guide had an “Appropriate Pronoun Usage” page on its website that acknowledged the non-inclusivity of “he or she.” Back then, I’d never met anyone who was anything other than cisgender, and wasn’t even aware that it was possible for someone to see their real, lived gender as something other than the one on their birth certificate.
Even entering college, I was still using “he or she.” I recognized how cumbersome the phrase was, but didn’t know what else to pair with “the reader” in literature-related papers. Instead, I filled my page with painfully wordy sentences. “Like Cooper, Sedaris, or the moth,” reads a sentence from my first college paper, “one may think he or she knows him or herself now, but in a moment, things will change.” I recognized how awkward the pronouns were, but heard my high school English teacher in my head constantly—“he” wasn’t inclusive. Holding space for women felt more important than writing sentences that sounded good.
It took discovering what made “he or she” progressive, however, before I could see its flaws.
One professor, while reading an early draft of a paper on Virginia Woolf, called me out. “Woolf wrote about women’s rights,” he said. “She probably would’ve just said ‘she.’ You should give that a try.” And though I tried it, part of me knew the solution I sought wasn’t to move to the “opposite” end of the spectrum and exclude men. There had to be a better way.
When I began attending meetings at my college’s LGBTQ Center, I found that solution. By the end of my second year , I overheard a fellow club leader remark, after everyone introduced their pronouns at an event: “It’s funny. At this event last year, nearly everyone was using ‘she/her.’ Now, look at us.” Nearly half the room had introduced their pronouns as “they/them.” It was thanks to the non-binary friends I made in college that I found a resolution to my writing dilemma: gender-neutral pronouns. I learned that referring to everyone I encounter, even strangers on the train, using gender-neutral pronouns unless they’ve specified otherwise, helps make it easier to adjust to friends’ pronoun changes. And it’s a trick I’ve adapted into my essay writing.
The singular “they” is by no means a perfect solution to the problem. Because it is traditionally a plural pronoun (as those opposed to the use of singular “they” like to point out, as if they don’t use the singular “they” aloud every day), it can cause confusion. Hanging out on a park bench with a friend once, zie texted zir friend about a group of baby ducks, only to have the friend ask a clarifying question: “By ‘they,’ do you mean the ducks or Kim?”
But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be a credible solution. It’s certainly less of a mouthful than “he or she.” And it’s much more inclusive. “He or she” holds up the gender binary, rather than subverting it. It provides the reader with only two options, whereas “they” keeps those options open. “He or she,” after all, implies that there is no other possibility—or at least that there’s no space for any other gender possibility in an argument—and it relegates anyone who does not see themselves as “he” or “she” to the realm of invisibility. Using singular “they” acknowledges that people who do not think of themselves as “he” or “she” (whether they don’t 100% of the time or only some of the time) are valid, that their genders are valid, and thus, that their humanity is valid and just as worthy of inclusion as cis folks’.
“He or she” holds up the gender binary, rather than subverting it. It provides the reader with only two options, whereas “they” keeps those options open.
It’s funny to me now that two cis white men introduced me to considering pronouns a feminist issue. Nowadays, my instinct is to pay attention to diverse perspectives on pronouns, and not just to the people who were included back when writers still referred to hypothetical people as “he.” I’ve been listening to the trans and non-binary people to whom pronouns are not just an issue of clarity in writing, but a matter of respect or disrespect, of validation or invalidation—and I’ve become one of them.
These days, it pains me to see “he or she” written down at all. I was horrified when I applied for jobs at “progressive” non-profits with self-proclaimed non-discriminatory hiring policies that still referred to their potential job candidates as “he or she” or “s/he.” Like Virginia Woolf or either of the instructors who advised me on pronoun usage, I understood that I couldn’t blame them for being unaware of how invalidating a phrase like “he or she” seems to someone who thinks of themselves as “they” or “zie” or any of the other myriad gender pronoun options in use right now. Yet I found myself hesitating before sending in applications. If they used “he or she” in their description, how would they handle an employee, or even just a job applicant, who used “they”?
I was even more horrified when a manager at a temp academic department job tasked me with revising an email template from the previous year, and I found the phrase “he or she” on every page. The academic department housed the university’s gender and sexuality studies major. It was in a gender and sexuality studies intro course with a professor in that very department that I first learned to think of gender as a social construct, and first read a paper describing a culture in the Middle East that had a non-binary gender category. The department, I knew, housed many of the school’s non-binary undergrads. Some of them, I knew from encountering them at the school’s LGBTQ Center, used gender-neutral pronouns. And yet there “he or she” was, referring to everyone but those students.
I’ve been listening to the trans and non-binary people to whom pronouns are not just an issue of clarity in writing, but a matter of respect or disrespect, of validation or invalidation
I imagined how I would’ve felt as a student who uses gender-neutral pronouns reading an email that addressed cis students and not me. Most likely, I would’ve shrugged it off the same way I shrug off “she/her” pronouns I hear in grocery stores and from extended family members who haven’t heard about my gender identity—begrudgingly, but with the understanding that sometimes people just don’t realize the stakes involved in pronouns. Sometimes, people care, but haven’t yet learned how important pronouns can be to showing they care.
In the email template’s case, I did the only thing I could do. Since it was my job to revise the email (to update dates, update language to reflect changes in the department’s policies, etc.) before sending it to students, I gave the pronouns an update. I changed every “he or she” to “they” and submitted the updated draft to my supervisor. And the email went out to students without the cumbersome gender-binary-perpetuating “he or she.”
Take that, gender binary.
Kim Kaletsky is a queer essayist whose work has been published in the New York Times and on Quiet: The Power of Introverts author Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution blog. They do communications work for a radical feminist non-profit and will be pursuing a Master’s at CUNY Graduate Center beginning in fall 2016. You can find them online on Facebook, on their Tumblr-based lit mag blog, Brouhaha Magazine, and, recently, on Twitter @kimpossibleokay.