BY: AL DONATO
Gender as we know it is a lie. The male-female binary is a social construct, ignoring intersex, trans, genderqueer, and other non-binary individuals whose identities aren’t the same as the sex assigned at birth.
Unfortunately, it’s a lie swathed in many pervasive institutions our society upholds, the most damning of which is language.
Imagine living in a world where your very existence was unspeakable. When you try to refer to yourself, you’re met with confusion, disgust, or ignored altogether.
It’s a reality for many people who don’t identify as male or female. For them, non-normative pronouns such as xe or zie or ze instead of he or she – all pronounced “zee” – allow them to define themselves on their own terms. Unfortunately, for many, doing so invites harassment.
Albi*, a 29-year-old web designer and proofreader, uses zie, hir, and hirs pronouns (pronounced here, and heres). Albi first discovered zie a decade ago, browsing the Internet in hir high school library.
“I thought zie/hir were neat. I tried them out a few times when I wrote short stories and poems. I even used them for myself online, very early on, and liked how they felt,” Albi says. “It wasn’t until years later in my almost-30s that I’ve looked more into that and put the puzzle clues together.”
However, zie often falls back on they, them, and theirs to avoid negative confrontations.
“Somebody actually had the nerve to tell me my pronouns were used by ‘whiny attention whores’… needless to say we’re no longer friends,” says Albi.
English, this capricious pilfered bastardization of other cultures’ tongues we speak, is constantly mutating to accommodate our selfies, twerking and amazeballs (all words recognized by the Oxford Dictionary), but has yet to accept alternatives to masculine and feminine singular pronouns.
In Canada, the Vancouver school board has faced a backlash for approving a policy allowing students to be referred to as xe, xym, and xyr, which are pronounced like zee, zem, and zur. For dissenters, their issues ranged from grammatical to medical, reasons that all disregard how students themselves identified.
College graduate Gabriel Antonio, 22, uses ze, hir, and hirs. Antonio noticed students were mostly receptive of hir pronouns. Adults were a different story.
Teachers’ reactions went from not using any pronouns at all with Antonio to telling hir they weren’t going to use hir “made up, fake sounding pronouns.”
“At this point my friends and most of my nuclear family know my preferred pronouns, but no one in my family really uses them. In college I used ze and hir everywhere because people were willing and able to use them,” Antonio says.
For Albi, zie is frequently misgendered by co-workers who excuse their intentional ignorance of Albi’s identity because they say gendered pronouns are “better for business”.
“There’s the unfortunate implication that I can’t appear too different – I can be queer, I can be poly, but I better stay in that gender box,” Albi says. “I call them out on it fairly regularly.“
A lot of this controversy hinges on the misconception that non-normative pronouns are new. Over a century ago, gender-neutral pronouns like thon rose to prominence, but failed to catch on in mainstream vernacular. Science fiction, a genre keen to dismantle societal conventions, is rife with invented pronouns; in the animated movie Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs, Yivo is a tentacled life-form that attempts to date the entire universe, and is referred to by Yivo’s preferred pronouns shklee and shkleer.
Then there’s the argument for non-normative pronouns gaining traction in casual conversation before official recognition— a harsh sell when the conversations that are being held actively attempt to unmake them.
Albi says zie doesn’t have the energy to deal with the blowback from those against hir pronouns.
“They seem to want to prioritize rigid linguistic rules over people’s well-being and self-identification. It’s funny because language is ever-evolving along with people, and I find it counter-productive to be so inflexible because of ‘linguistic challenges,'” Albi says.
The pervasive rejection of gender-variant individuals in North America isn’t happening abroad. In Europe, Sweden pioneers gender-neutral child rearing with hen, a pronoun that replaces he and she in Swedish nurseries and has been used in magazines, children’s books, and government documents.
It’s an attitude more prevalent in the West’s digital spheres, where personas and indirect interaction breeds safe spaces for questioning and exploring gender. Blogs, resources and lists of emerging pronouns chronicle gender-variant lives that would be undocumented or otherwise neglected.
In a time where visibility spurs validity more than ever, the struggle for pronoun recognition will continue online and offline. And Albi welcomes the attention.
“People who are just curious can be informed, and those that are questioning can see that there are options for gender – and they are all valid. We’re here, we’re sometimes neither, get used to it.”
*alias used to protect the individual