Tag Archives: gender neutral pronouns

Pronouns can be awkward

I like to think I don’t care which pronouns people use. But…I do. I guess I just like to be open about which pronouns people use because I don’t like stability, or being boxed in to something rigid. But the thing that disconcerts me is the reasons people use she/her/hers pronouns for me. Because if it’s just that they decide I am “female-bodied” – that’s not really cool. It’s true that I use and prefer he/him/his pronouns. And that my friends use them to describe me. But I do want to be cool with people using feminine pronouns. But I want to know what their reasons are for doing so. Leslie Feinberg is pretty awesome at being cool with people using different pronouns, so long as they’re in context:

Leslie Feinberg: For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian – referring to me as “she/her” is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as “he/him” honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as “she/her” does.

I think for me right now, this is not the case: “referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible.” In fact, the opposite is true. But it does depend where I am. I grew up in a small town where strangers have pretty much always, and continue to, gender me as male and use masculine pronouns for me. I think this is because they don’t realise queer people, or specifically butch dykes, exist. That is, they’re not recognised. But in Melbourne, especially the kinds of places I hang out, I often don’t look male. So for me, Feinberg’s point would work when people use masculine pronouns for me – which I’m into.

I guess I feel my genderqueerness is unintelligible and that’s really tiring.

Judith Butler: To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.

I lack the recognition (often but not always) to be intelligibly male.

Also  I’m often in places where it’s clear I’m not a teenager (universities, clubs), so I don’t get gendered as a teenage boy, which is the way I am most often read by non-trans strangers outside of these contexts. And as I’ve said before, I think one of the reasons people are so quick to gender me female and use feminine pronouns for me is because of the snaps from male-looking dykes offended at being called ‘he’ (which is fair enough, but also results in this kind of confusion.) So, seriously: ask what pronouns someone prefers. And just as seriously, don’t be offended by someone asking.

I went home for the holidays, and my parents, as well as many of my old friends, use feminine pronouns for me. I don’t want to ‘correct’ them. That seems wrong, because I don’t feel like I have some essential male being or something; that they’re wrong. But I do want them to know I prefer masculine pronouns, because I think they’d feel embarassed to know that was the case and I just didn’t tell them.

I guess I’d want to ask why people used feminine pronouns for me. And if their reasoning is: “You’re a girl”, “You look like a girl” or “Well I always have,” I don’t think that’s good enough. But I also recognise it’s up to me to tell them otherwise. But like, I’m tired.

Dean Spade: there is no innocence nor insignificance to the mistake of ‘she’ for ‘he’ when referring to a person who has chosen to take on a ‘wrong’ pronoun. even if it is done thoughtlessly, that thoughtlessness comes from and supports the two cardinal rules of gender: that all people must look like the gender (one out of a possible two) they are called by, and that gender is fixed and cannot be changed. each time this burden shifting occurs, the non-trans person affirms these gender rules, playing by them and letting me know that they will not do the work to see the world outside of these rules.

This is probably where I want to be:

Dean Spade: if comfort was my goal, i could probably have found a smoother path than the one i’m on, right? i haven’t chosen this word ‘he’ because it means something true to me, or it feels all homey and delicious. no pronoun feels personal to me. i’ve chosen it because the act of saying it, of looking at the body i’m in and the way that my gender has been identified since birth and then calling me ‘he,’ disrupts oppressive processes that fix everyone’s gender as ‘real,’ immutable, and determinative of your station in life. i’m not hoping that people will see that i’m different, paste a fake smile on their faces and force themselves to say some word about me with no thought process. i’m hoping that they will feel implicated, that it will make them think about the realness of everyone’s gender, that it will make them feel more like they can do whatever they want with their gender, or at least cause a pause where one normally would not exist. quite likely, this will be uncomfortable for all of us, but i believe that becoming uncomfortable with the oppressive system of rigid gender assignment is a great step toward undoing it.

also, check out Dean Spade’s Pronoun etiquette I’ve re-posted here.


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Pronoun Etiquette

By Dean Spade
People often wonder how to be polite when it comes to problems of misidentifying another person’s pronoun. Here are some general tips:

  1. If you make a mistake, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  2. If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun is misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  3. If you aren’t sure of a person’s pronoun, ask. One way to do this is by sharing your own. “I use masculine pronouns. I want to make sure to address you correctly, how do you like to be addressed?” This may seem like a strange thing to do but a person who often experiences being addressed incorrectly may see it as a sign of respect that you are interested in getting it right.
  4. When facilitating a group discussion, ask people to identify their pronouns when they go around and do introductions. This will allow everyone in the room the chance to self-identify and to get each others’ pronouns right the first time. It will also reduce the burden on anyone whose pronoun is often misidentified and may help them access the discussion more easily because they do not have to fear an embarrassing mistake.

From his guide to Making_Classrooms_Welcoming_for_Trans.pdf

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Ask Max


Chris asked Max on September 29, 2008:

I need you to do me and the English language a favour. Can you come up with a gender neutral singular pronoun? When I write, I tend to use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in equal balance for gender-unspecified singular persons.

I see how and why you would object to this, and I think I do, too. I think this is an interesting exposure of how gender specific language is. Even when the gender isn’t specified, the rules of English compel us to specify one of two genders. Hey look! A microcosm of society!

Problem being, most people solve this (or commit a grammatical error) by referring to ungendered singular persons as ‘they’, which is grammatically incorrect. English specifies three pronouns here: ‘he’ or ‘she’ for singular, and ‘they’ for plural.

I would like to know your thoughts, as a writer and queer activist, on how to solve this dilemma. It is curious that the answer might be the problem. Perhaps ‘they’, ungendered and plural, is fittingly applied to catch gender identity in its plural state. I don’t feel that pluralising gender is any kind of solution, though. Just because you are not male or female, does not mean that you are both male and female. As I understand it, a lot of the notion of queer gender is not deciding between male and female, or even finding a middle ground, but perhaps associating with an ‘other’ that isn’t traditionally recognised. I am ignorant of the current thought on this. I am ignorant of your thoughts on this.

So, solve my linguistic riddle and assuage my grammatical conscience.



Max replied:

ah yes indeed – English does force us into this unfortunate situation. As you have drawn attention to, by forcing us to choose, English (as a language/system) reinforces/perpetuates the gender binary we see in everydaylife. However there are gender neutral pronouns (neologisms) available. 

A trendy set of gender neutral pronouns which are used by trans/gender theorists (including me & Kate Bornstein) is ze/ hir, as in

he, she, ze / him, her, hir / his, hers, hirs

which is pretty sweet in writing because it doesn’t look too weird (though weird enough), but obviously is a bit problematic in speech (hir sounding the same as her), but I’m ok with this. 

Michael Spivak suggests and uses the pronouns ey/ em, as in a singular of they/ them, but to me this sounds and looks too weird and people probably won’t know what the fuck you are doing / you can lose the meaning of the whole thing (ze/ hir does look like a pronoun).

Also, Del LaGrace Volcano uses herm/ herm’s – I think that’s pretty cool too.

Volcano says: “Herm is a term that works in some instances better than others. Her and him equals herm, it’s also short for HERMaphroDYKE and is a play on words. I also use male pronouns in my everyday life because that is the gender people see and I don’t have the time or energy to educate every person I meet, some of whom might want to cause me harm if they knew I was a transgendered intersexed queer! However, since what people see is not just a ‘man’ but what looks to them like a short chubby gay man using male pronouns does not guarantee physical safety.” (in G3 Magazine, September, 2008)

All of these however I fear you might not be able to get away with in ‘official’ / formal / legal writing. In which case, I recommend (politically) that you use the feminine she/her throughout. This is because in theworld at large the masculine/male is considered universal. So by using the feminine, you put women back in (to writing/’reality’). By using both, I fear (politically) it comes across as ‘equal’, when things aren’t. (This is also the case (problem) with s/he or (s)he, although there are instances where this may be more appropriate). That is, even if you always used only feminine pronouns, you would not come close to making even the number of feminine and masculine pronouns in use.

When/If you are using it as a universal, I think ze/ hir serves the purpose very well – it draws attention to the way the English language forces us to choose, and defies this expectation. At the same time, if you are referring to someone specifically, ask them. It’s not always obvious which pronoun a person would like to use, and not your place to assume or guess.

Queer love,



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