Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gender and Language

Three posts ago, remember how I wrote about feminism, from the perspective of me as a man? Okay, good. Now, two posts ago was about hyperfocus.

That essay about feminism was written in one of my hyperfocus ("Spark") moments. After sitting a few moments awake in bed, I climbed down the latter, booted up my laptop, and typed for twenty solid minutes without stopping for more than a few moments. It was as close to taking material directly from my brain and placing it onto a page as is possible, and the result was quite nice. It's rough and unpolished, but it's a direct statement of what I believe.

I didn't do a lot of editing. That's not necessarily out of pride, though I do have some in the finished work, but mainly because it didn't need very much. True grammatical polishing, in fact, would take away some of the impact. Last post, about precision, applies exactly here. Even when repetitive and sometimes in odd uses and forms, the words in the piece were exactly how I wanted them. I digest, over and over again, media where turns of phrase are perfected to the point of beauty. Firefly, where every line is a quotable sound bite, and Snow Crash, where every sentence is carefully constructed to make the characters a little more awesome, and two personal favorites. That shows in my best writing, where some of my best lines could stand alone.

I made almost no grammatical edits to the piece. I added a short paragraph to the middle, which I mostly composed during the rough draft but didn't type out then. But there was one part I edited over and over, and I am still unsatisfied with. It was the first paragraph, especially the fourth sentence. The final incarnation is "I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man." It makes my point: being male, unlike being a feminist, was not a conscious choice I made.

But it's problematic, because so many people do not fit into the gender binary of {{male and masculine}} versus {{female and feminine}}. It fact, even ridding ourselves of the stereotypes of masculine and feminine, the divide between {{male}} and {{female}} is not absolute. I first became aware of this on a prominent internet forum known for its inclusiveness. There are about a dozen openly transgender and genderqueer people on the forum, and I read what they have to say. There are people who start their lives as "normal" males and discover later in life that they feel that they are female, and vice versa. It is customary to refer to such transgender people by the pronouns they prefer, regardless of their appearance or genitalia. Other people are even further from this gender binary. There are people who feel they belong in neither male or female, or in both. Cultures from Native Americans to the Thai recognize the idea of a third sex. And there are countless situations where birth defects and genital anomalies cause a person to be improperly sorted by sex at birth, or make such sorting impossible. There are at least eleven different ways that a person with no conscious feelings outside the gender they grew up as, can in fact be sorted into a different gender, because no marker like external genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, or appearance can sort genders with 100% accuracy. (This also happens to be an argument against heterosexual-only marriage, because when defined by these tests a person's legal gender can differ from the gender they were raised as, and identified with, since birth).

So it's very difficult to pin down wording for that sentence that identifies me as immutably male without unreasonably marginalizing all of these people - which make up perhaps 1% of the population, and a highly invisible percent at that. I am not a male because I was born with a penis rather than a vagina. I am not male because it was on my birth certificate, or because my genotype is XY. I am not male specifically by birth. I am male because that is how I personally identify (and, lucky me, those physical characteristics happen to agree). But English, with its roots as a heavily gendered language, make it hard to express this. Like highways and suburbs designed before walking came back as a form of transportation, the language simply did not evolve with any real capacity for describing gender and sex other than {{male}} and {{female}}. I found it difficult to convey the idea that I am mentally male while avoiding implying that my physical characteristics differ. Precision suffers.

There's workarounds, and I try to use them. For the sentence in my essay, some ambiguity with "because that is who I am" works as a kludge, though not as an elegant solution. But one of the simplest situations is also the most frustrating and complex. If I have a person, who I am referring to in the third person singular, what can I use if "he" or "she" would be incorrect because I do not know their gender, or wish to hide it, or it doesn't fit simply into the binary?

Conventional formal English dictates that I default to "he", a sexist protocol that I find distasteful. Equally ugly is "it", which is at least neutral, but totally dehumanizes the person. "One" only works in rare situations. (S)he is so inelegant and so worthless for fiction that I refuse to consider it as a serious use. Certain workaround pronouns have been proposed, and I've even been known to use "hir" and "xe" at times. They're not pretty, but they're the least evil in a field that includes "thon", "per", "yt", "co", "en", "mer", "hy", "hu", and "e".

But the solution is obvious. "They". It works for multiple third persons of indiscriminate sex; why not for a single? The singular they has a controversial history. Shakespeare made frequent use, and it was more or less standard until grammatical standardization and reforms in the nineteenth century, when the stereotypical British prescriptivists outlawed it, along with other glories like the split infinitive and the ending of sentences with prepositions. With modern equality movements and linguistic changes it is beginning to make a comeback, but it is still considered inappropriate for any serious writing.

I consider this unacceptable. It is a long-used and elegant solution for a thorny problem that only will get more prominent as strict societal enforcement of the gender binary loosens. The singular they, I say, is here to stay!

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