The Third Person Singular

Best-pronouns-for-a butchWhenever I hear myself referred to in the female gender I wince. It is a reflex. Whether it is an honorific like Miss or Ma’am, or one of the four pronouns (she, her, hers, herself), it feels wrong. Internally, I always correct the mistake. Lately, it has been irritating me.

I wrote a post a while back about eliminating honorifics. Getting rid of Ms. was relatively easy and extremely satisfying. I did most of it on-line and made a few phone calls requesting the Ms. be removed from in front of my name. My mail now arrives addressed to Jamie Ray. None of my friends or co-workers have ever stuck a Ms. or Miss in front of my name unless they were being sarcastic. But they use pronouns.

There are lots of pronouns. Most of them are gender-neutral or inclusive. My problem is with the third person singular. The personal subject (she), the object (her), the reflexive (herself), and the possessive (hers). Four words; eight if you count the male counterparts.

I never thought of myself as a she-her-girl. I always though of myself as a boy who got sorted into the girl pile without anyone asking or checking. Growing up, I hated being called Amy, hated being referred to as a girl, and hated being called Miss. As I got older, I turned down the sound. I tuned out the words. I tried to ignore them.

I know that my body is female and my legal sex is female. I know that she and her are grammatically correct, but they feel contradictory. Dissonant. I think of myself as a boy. I think of myself as trans*. I don’t think of myself as ze, hir, or zim. In my external life I am butch.

A lot of butches don’t squirm at female honorifics and pronouns. I do. Fortunately, I think and write in the first person. So I can be me, Jamie. When I am talking one on one, the second person pronouns kick in (you, your, yours, and yourself). The third person singular only comes up in groups of three of more, or when someone is talking about me behind my back (which does not bother me as long as I don’t have to hear it). It is a problem in groups.

When I changed my name, a few people asked me which pronouns I wanted them to use.  The question caught me by surprise. I hedged and told them that although I wasn’t comfortable with female pronouns, I also wasn’t comfortable with the alternatives. I kept the status quo.

The truth is, I’d like them to use gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns. They match my name. It seems like a simple request, but I have not made it. It is the kind of request that invites questions. It is the kind of request that requires an explanation. And instructions.

The next time someone asks me which pronouns I would like them to use I am going to tell the truth. I will ask them to use either Jamie, or the singular they pronouns (they, them, their). I will tell them that female gendered pronouns are inaccurate and awkward. I feel misgendered and misrepresented. It may be cumbersome for them to try to form new sentences, but it is a different kind of awkwardness. It is the clumsiness of making an effort to try something new. Inconvenient, but not impossible.

English is not a dead language. New words are added and old words become obsolete. Semantic changes affect the meaning of words in common usage; syntatic changes affect our grammar. The word “transgender” was coined about 50 years ago. The word “cisgender” did not exist 20 years ago. Now it is in the Oxford Dictionaries. It is a fabulous word for explaining transgender.

Using gender-neutral and non-binary pronouns may initially seem like a cross between playing Twister and Simon Says. Or like having two left tongues. It will not be easy. Substituting they, and avoiding she, her, hers, and herself, will occasionally result in an inelegant sentence. But is an awkward sentence that big a crime? In a few years it may sound natural.

CN Lester recently posted a 24 part series of questions and answers on identifying as non-binary. Question 19 deals with pronouns. You can find it on their blog “a gentleman and a scholar.” I highly recommend it.

20 thoughts on “The Third Person Singular

  1. Alex

    After reading your post I remembered I read a while back something about a discussion that was going on in sweden, because sweden had introduced a neutral pronoun in their language and of course some people screamed murder about that..

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for the link. Cisgender people are quite attached to binary pronouns, I like “hen”. In a swedish/american international relationship, one partner could be “hen-pecked”.

      Like

      Reply
  2. fbcohen10

    Jamie I can’t tell you how much of this rings true for me. Feeling like a boy sorted into the girl pile…. The use of female pronouns, a lot of it. However now that people have started using male pronouns with me its like a whole new lease on life for me. I’m feeling more and more like what I see inside matches the outside now. Its wonderful, still awkward at times, but slowly changing. I hope that you do ask for pronouns to change and that you can feel the liberation as well.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Hi, thanks for reading and commenting. I am not quite ready for other people to use male pronouns – and it would certainly cause some problems with my partner, Donna. I feel like I am slowly chipping away at all the things that remind me that I am female, without necessarily adding in or substituting the male. Not sure if it is the world’s slowest transition, or if I am trying to find a place in the middle to stake my freak flag.

      Like

      Reply
      1. fbcohen10

        Hi Jamie, I don’t think that you trying to steak a claim on identity is flying a freak flag. We all need a way to identify and fit in to society. You need to do what you nerdf to do. There is no right or wrong, it is just what you need to do to be comfortable. It may not be easy but you are not alone. Have you heard of the author Leslie Fienberg? He talks about using alternative pronouns like ze and hir. You might find some of his material helpful.

        Like

  3. RonaFraser

    Yes – I ran into this challenge with an acquaintance. I have never discussed their sexuality with them directly because, well, it never came up… but I believe they simply did not like being categorized into either category. I think they were also mid transition or trying to decide whether to physically transition. ANYWAYS, they were organizing an event and we were writing about it in our monthly arts & community paper, and the editor and I DID have a hard time discussing the article, because we had to keep stopping ourselves from using pronouns. You really don’t notice how often you refer to gender until you try to stop. We resorted to referring to them by name, but then that also sounds funny as you are using their name in every sentence. Anyways, it was very interesting for me, who works with words, because as I say, I’d never noticed how often we use those pronouns. I guess it is like a lot of things — you don’t notice it unless it bothers you.
    At first it was kinda hard for me to fathom, as a cisgendered person, that being called “she” when your anatomy is female would be a problem. But then I remembered how much it disturbs me to be called ma’am, or anything else that implies I am old and mature, as I still feel like a young student. It is only when I look in the mirror that I see the pudgy fortysomething woman with creases all over her face… I have never been one to really look at myself in the mirror — if I look it is for something specific – how is my hair, is there food in my teeth, do I have any new chin hairs… I do not take in how I look. I really have no concept of it. I never think I look like what I actually look like. Anyways, all of that rambling to say, maybe if you are ever trying to explain this to a cisgendered person (especially one over forty!!), you could use the example of how you do not feel like you look. I mean, I also no some grandmas who have a hard time at first, as they do not feel old enough to be called grandma.
    I know it is not the same thing, but it’s as close as I can get 🙂 Thanks for making me think about these things.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Ma’am is hands down the worst thing to be called. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to eventually getting those Senior discounts (not for a while). I hadn’t thought about using chronological age vs. psychological age as a way to describe not feeling like your birth gender, but it is a good simile.

      Don’t worry about your typos. I am manic about trying to proof my posts, but I swear gremlins get in there and move the commas around and swap letters in words just to annoy me. Comments are always a little looser and random in composition.

      Like

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Beyond the gender binary | the wrong bathroom

  5. belladonnaquixote

    I’ve been using “they/them/their” pronouns for a bit and it is slightly awkward, but it works. My biggest problem was being an English major who existed around English majors who refused to use the singular they because it’s grammatically incorrect >.<'. Fact is, it actually is grammatically correct and acceptable to use the singular they and I suggest kicking anybody in the shin who tries to fight you on that.

    Seriously though, the hardest thing about non-binary pronouns is getting people to fucking use them without fighting you on it (particularly cishet folks), and it gets very frustrating – more so because you've finally established a set of pronouns that makes you comfortable and people refuse to use them because "it's too hard" or they think it's confusing or it sounds weird to them. Explaining your pronouns does get really old, but it's super important to make your identity clear.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for telling letting me know your experience with using they/them/their. It is correct, but still uncommon usage – except where the gender is an unknown. It is much better that trying to say “he or she” and you can’t say “s/he”. I’d rather say “When I meet a new person I ask them to use non-binary pronouns” than say “When I meet a new person I ask him or her to use non-binary pronouns.”

      I am going to try it on a voluntary basis; the next person who tries to be sensitive and asks about pronouns is going to have to “talk the talk.”

      Like

      Reply
      1. belladonnaquixote

        That’s the exact attitude you should have toward this. It’s really cool when people actually try to understand. Good luck and whatever you do, don’t get down on yourself.

        Like

  6. genderfabulous

    I battle with pronouns everyday as well. I’d like to think that I don’t care, but the wince you describe at female pronouns always gets me too. Sometimes I correct people to “he,” since that’s been my preferred pronoun for the last 7 years or so, but it’s hard to correct people because I feel that “he” is also inaccurate. I like “ze/zir” the best politically/personally, but I feel that no one will use them, so I don’t ask them to. Maybe “they/them” might be a good middle ground…

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I have a hard time thinking about asking anyone outside the community to use he. In the greater scheme of things, I need to figure out which battles/issues are most important. How much energy do I want to put into correcting/explaining and how willing am I to feel misgendered/misrepresented/unacknowledged. At least I am seen – but then when someone uses the female pronouns and honorifics it feels like an attempt to mainstream me despite all evidence to the contrary. It is just one more thing to muddle through.

      Like

      Reply
  7. rmiles

    I really like, and benefit, from having a gender neutral first name (Thank you, Mom!). I don’t want to imagine what my life would be like if I had a socially construed feminine, or “girly”, name. If that were the case I would at least need to make up a nickname for myself. 🙂 Cheers.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Donna is actually trying out the they/their pronouns and using my name as much as possible to avoid she. She doesn’t want to have to do a lot of explaining to others, which is fine with me. She is conscious of it, which is a welcome change. It is hard to remember that she needs and should have time to process my changes – and things that can seem minor to me can look big to her. Fortunately she in for the long haul so I can wait and nudge her along.

      Like

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Labels and Authenticity Do Not Mix | A Boy and Her Dog

  9. simplyisnton

    I really like this discussion, because I often feel the same- not male pronouns, but female pronouns make me flinch. (It gets really bad when my mom starts calling me a daughter… *shudder*) Thank you for writing this. 🙂

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s