Moving Beyond Gendered People and Gendered Personal Pronouns

Why do we separate some 7 billion (that’s 7,000,000,000) humans currently living into two categories: “he” or “she”? Likewise, why do we also separate trillions (quadrillions?) of non-human forms of life into “he” or “she”? Such structuralist thinking is completely inadequate for 2017. 

Present-day English–in contrast to Old English, Spanish, and other languages–is already well-equipped for a complete shift to gender neutral pronouns. Only a few of our words have an innate “gender.” He, him, his, Mr., boy, man, and male and she, her, hers, Mrs., Ms., Miss, girl, woman, and female account for most examples. And these are words we hear all day, every day. 

Because we live in an extremely sexist society, any time people invoke such gendered words, stereotypes and assumptions are cued consciously and unconsciously and shift how people behave.

And because we live in an extremely sexist society, our brains automatically sort people 24/7 into either the “he” or “she” category based on their name and/or their appearance and/or their voice.

And because we live in a sexist society, this pervasive practice serves absolutely no meaningful purpose, except to reinforce patriarchy: There are never occasions when “he” or “she” provides important or fail-safe information.  

Just as race is a social contract, so too is sex. Humans, regardless of the varying degrees of maleness or femaleness that possess them at any given moment, have more in common than they have different, regardless of how any “differences” are constructed and divided.

When we automatically label various forms of life “he” or “she,” we are exercising a particularly dangerous and odd form of cultural ethnocentrism that fails to recognizing differences by time and place. Further, doesn’t it seem kind of silly to divide and label cats, dogs, spiders, and squirrels, for example, in such gendered ways?

What’s the solution?

Maybe, the gender neutral 2015-word-of-the-year pronoun, they. (“Ze” is another popular and useful gender neutral pronoun.) Thanks to insightful conversations with colleagues and students this semester, I have been learning more and more about “they” as a pronoun from people who have explicitly rejected “he” and/or “she” for some time. 

And I am beginning to think that we should move in that direction as an entire society. Doing so is hard, sure, because of how we are trained from the second a medical doctor, nurse, or someone in a similar role announces “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” based on quick glances at genitalia, but re-training our brains is new ways is constantly necessary in the life-long process of decolonizing the mind

I have found solace in Virginia Woolf’s notion of the “androgynous mind” in A Room of One’s Own since first learning about it in 2007–the idea that creativity requires being neither a man, nor a woman. As Judith Butler explains, gender is performativeSimilarly, I have found parts of “Coming” as featured in Orlando, the motion-picture of Woolf’s Orlando, freeing: 

Yes at last, at last
to be free of the past
and the future that beckons me

I am coming! I am coming!
Here I am!
Neither a woman, nor a man

We are joined, we are one
With the human face

Society often censors our available options. And, for reasons I cannot fully figure out, I have only recently fully embraced the full possibility and freedom of rejecting “male” and “man” and “he” and opting for “human” or “they” or my name. Although, I had found “Mr. Pegoda” frustrating and uncomfortable for a long, long time, well before I could easily say, “It’s Dr. Pegoda.” 🙂  I really like the nickname I have been given/used over the years–“AJP”–in part because it’s fully gender neutral, functioning much the way “Dr. Pegoda” does.

When I got my flu shot last week, I put “human” for both “gender” and “ethnicity” as an additional step toward subverting the normative. To my frustration (but not surprise, alas), they “overrode” the information I provided and entered “male” in their system without even asking me. 


Clearly, just as we live in a society of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness, we live under compulsory cis(gender)normativity.

To be continued…..

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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44 replies

  1. “There are never occasions when “he” or “she” provides important or fail-safe information.”
    Except, obviously, in posts like these.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahahaaha!! 🙂 You’re right!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I had a an economics teacher in high school who would strictly go by “Doc Savage (their name being Debra Savage)” and would reject answering to “Ms.” because they would state that they worked too hard for their doctorate to not be called doctor but I feel in a sense it was also them rejecting normative gender pronouns. The article reminded me of this as well as the article previously assigned about moving towards a more queerified future. I think they/them/their really embodies queer.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Very provocative thoughts. I had never thought of this aspect of the title.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The biggest problem with “they” is that it refers to a plural noun and the rules prevent us from using it to refer to one person. However “data” used to pose a similar problem, and the rules forced us to use a plural verb form with it. But more recently, it came to be called a “mass noun” which then allows us to use a singular verb form with it. So if the latter is now ruled as proper, then the former will probably become proper as well (maybe another “mass noun”?).

    Liked by 1 person

    • But, grammar rules are just rules. They can change. The article linked above discusses the singular “they.” As one of my students was explaining, we already use “they” at times as a generic response – “they professor, they sure do demand you work hard.”

      I’ve gotten accustomed to it quickly. Instead of “She’ll be here in a minute.” “They’ll be here in a minute.” “She is going” “They is coming” (that would make the singular clear).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Right now, though, “They is coming” would just make you sound illiterate, even though your heart’s in the right place. “They’ll be here in a minute” is grammatically correct and could slip by most ears.
      You bring up some really good points, so that I strongly suspect that “they” will become more acceptable in reference to a single person.

      Liked by 2 people

    • We can work on it one day, one person at a time. 🙂 I know in writing students have been using “their” as a singular and plural word for a very long time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I beg to differ. I know many non-binary people and respect their pronoun choices if I know what they are, but I would not want a neutral pronoun imposed on me. Gender is not performative, it is experienced internally and outside of social constructs and expectations. It can be performed, but that is not the same thing. As someone who grew up in the 60s and 70s with a persistent sense of gender insecurity not reflected in my presentation—I was not a tomboy, attracted to girls, etc, and did not want to be a boy—I was in my late 30s before I knew there was an explanation for the mismatch between my apparent gender and my internally felt gender. To be seen as and live as a male person is hard won. My physical sex is another matter. To that end, as a gay identified person I will never be accepted as a man. I am sexually neutered, but that is nothing to be proud of or happy about. Your students are young. They are of another generation. In my cohort, transphobia runs very deep, especially within the gay community.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your thoughts. So sorry you had such a rough time! Transphobia is still too common in the queer community, but it’s getting better.

      I do want to comment that in your statement above you seem to use “gender” and “sex” interchangeably and inaccurately. Both are social constructions in various ways, but aspects of sex is what one would feel internally, not gender. I’d recommend reading some of the theory behind all of this, as it is very interesting and liberating.

      I do understand that some people fought hard to be a “man” or to be a “woman” and want the associated pronouns because of our contemporary cultures and mores. Hopefully, still, one day we’ll be in a situation where all of this is recognized for the social construction it is. Overall, everyone would be much more free and happier if we completely omitted gendered categories.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Not to discount your perspective which is, at least in part, academic (I won’t assume more because I don’t know) I can assure you that I use gender and sex very explicitly to refer to two different things—gender identity (social role AND/OR internal awareness) and biological sex/secondary characteristics. As a straight woman, I married, had children and did everything the social role required (rigidly, of course due to my insecurity). At no point did I want to be a man, what I wanted to was to feel female. My gender identity was, and always has been male. It was liberating to discover that. Queer theory was NOT a comfort at that time. Much had changed in the almost 20 years since I came out and started to investigate transition. It is only now, after 17 years on testosterone, comfortable in my body (in so far as it can be aligned, psychologically and physically, with my gender identity), that I understand one can journey, but especially if your trajectory is female to male, as I claim in an essay I published: Your body will betray you. Sex, then, is physical and can be only altered so far (or so successfully). That is my lived experience of 57 years as a transgender person.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the followup comments!

      I think part of the difficulty is that we don’t have enough words to describe “sex” and “gender” and the various biological, cultural, psychological, physiological, and social elements involved with both, how we feel, how people see us, and what is and isn’t “allowed.”

      Your essay “Your Boy Will Betray You” is good! I’m going to add that to the resources in the Queer Studies class I teach.

      Interestingly, although for different reasons, I too have been on testosterone for around twenty years or so. My body stopped making it and all other chemicals after a brain tumor at four,. Sometimes it gets a bit frustrating putting the jell on everyday.

      Do you have any thoughts on how your trans experience is different in Canada than if you had been in the U.S. or another country? I’m mainly curious about how Canada, generally speaking, has treated non-cishet peoples.

      Talk to you more later! Have a good day.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comments on my essay. I’ll comment further (as far as I can) later. I’m preparing to speak at a queer church tonight of all things.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This conversation has really been fascinating. I think many of us straight people would love to understand what trans people need to do just to feel the right gender and not be “misaligned,” as roughghosts has put it. There is so much in what you say that I only get an inkling of what you want to say. But it is a true eye-opener. My nephew is a trans who had to go through a rough time convincing his parents when he was 10. He has full support from both now and earns his living today on stage in a highly acclaimed performance.

      Liked by 3 people

    • In my case, I do not have an issue with straight, cis-gendered people. I find them to be more accepting and supportive than LGBT folk. Younger queer people tend to have different experience. The misalignment I feel is related to my body. Transmen have limited and very unsatisfactory surgical options if the they wish to approximate a male body. Testosterone does the heavy work and allows one to live quite invisibly as a man (socially male). But no surgery will ever “pass” one sexually or medically. So I struggle with an existential otherness or fragmented sense of self. Articulating that, the groundlessness of being differently gendered man (my language) is at the core of much of my writing.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s fine with me to use non-gendered pronouns for anyone who requests them. By the same token, unless someone indicates that that’s what they want, I think we should stick with gendered ones. Maybe sometime in the future the majority of people will prefer non-gendered pronouns, but at this point in time the vast majority prefer gendered ones.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for your comments, as always!

      I do wonder how many people actually “prefer” gendered pronouns vs. have just never really thought about it/don’t know their are other options?? I do know more and more people see and live beyond male/female stereotypes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that depends on where you live/work/spend time. University settings are definitely “cutting edge” both in ideas that eventually make their way into the general population, and also in ways that end up staying very “niche.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I would firs like start by saying that the pronoun “they” is a plural pronoun. It is meant to show possession to a group or collective of people. It is not singular in anyway. I also find it naive in a way to believe that people and society will change the word “they” to allow singular possession. It just simply won’t happen. Instead of trying to change a word that already has meaning, I believe we should simply create a new word. People may argue against that but words like “it” is to harsh to use as the third gender option.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I think it is great to not assume another’s gender and use “they” instead. Doing so eliminates those preconceptions that come along with “he” or “she”. With medical forms however, wouldn’t doctors need to know one’s constructed gender for medical purposes such as diseases that come along with having testes or ovaries? I’m just wondering. Besides this, we are all human and we do not need such black and white coding to understand one another!

    -Thalia Trinidad

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for commenting! A doctor might need to know that, sure, but that has nothing automatically to do with male or female. Someone could be “male” in every way except for having ovaries, for example. So a better question would be which of the following do you have: penis, ovaries, testes, prostate,……

      Liked by 1 person

    • Since I have recently learned of the word “ze” as a neutral pronoun, it has become my favorite. Only because it sounds similar to “he” and “she”. It is not that I want to continue to gender label, but it is an easier transition to get out of the routine of labeling every living thing as a “he” or “she. Following up on what you were saying about the medical aspect of it, I would like to say that sometimes I think that by providing your so called gender, you are also providing information that is allied with everything that is medically involved in “male” or “female.” So when thinking medically, if you say male, it doesn’t only include penis or vagina, but also the knowledge of the how the average male or female body works.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. For medical forms, I promise you that we will have to stick with “male” and “female,” because those terms carry a great deal of relevant information in a very abbreviated form. Possibly we will add “transgender male” and “transgender female” if the medical system needs that info (and I think they do). But these terms are not in fact reflective of “constructed” identities, but physical ones. Gender may be constructed, but sex is not.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Among other sources, the book “Sexing the Body” has important information on how and why sex too is a social construction.


    • I beg to differ. Sex (although it is very much physically real) is ultimately gender dressed in a white lab coat. Binary sexes are a result of speciation by evolution and as a result is incredibly blurry when it comes to differentiating between the two, especially in a medical setting with regards to humans. No one person is completely medically “male” or “female” in that not all people have specific sex characteristics that align with what we delineate as a specific sex. Medical sex involves hormone levels, reproductive organs, external genitalia and sometimes genetics. The medical definitions of male and female are incredibly narrow and do not often account for trans or intersex people and can be detrimental to their own unique medical care for their own unique body.

      In most cases, patients are simply reduced to their external genitals (which are also equated to gender in the present) which can result not only in unequal medical care, but also care and research that is ultimately inaccurate, if not narrow and focused around cisgender men. Examples of this can be found in differing medication doses between men and women (which are often more affected by the person’s size than their medical sex), samples used to test medication (which are typically composed of cisgender able-bodied men), and even the discrimination women experience in regards to reporting their pain or other problems to healthcare professionals (this can be linked to the historic use of “hysteria” as a medical term.)

      It would be far better and more accurate for patients if medical care was centered more around what parts their bodies do or do not include, the sex-related hormones that affect their lives, and for the medical field to ultimately acknowledge the diversity that is the human population. Yes, this makes studying medicine far more complex, but it very much can improve the quality of medical care received by the patient and can reduce the damages doctors and the medical field have already done with faulty research that does not take this diversity into account.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I agree with the fact that these pronouns further divide our society instead of unifying everyone as humans; however, for there to be a change to using only gender neutral pronouns is nearly impossible. Not only would you have to change years and years of language, but for everyone to come to the agreement to do this is so far fetched. When it comes down to it, i think it just depends on personal preference. I like to be referred to using pronouns. I do see how it would facilitate things though. There are many times where people are offended because of the use of incorrect pronouns. Sometimes it is even hard to know what pronouns people would like to be referred to as. Both sides are valid, I think that this brings up a good point but i just do not think it is worth changing the entire language. That is nearly impossible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you, I don’t think it is possible to change an entire language. But I do believe that a gender-neutral language does not have to mean that there is only one pronoun for he or she. There could be more neutral pronouns for the singular use that is dissimilar from they, them or their. It is just about accepting the evolution of a language and perhaps come up with a pronoun more acceptable.As individuals, we should also be more careful when we are addressing people at the beginning, middle and end of a conversation.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I 100% fully endorse the use of gender neutral pronouns. Whenever I’m discussing someone who hasn’t established what pronouns they ascribe to I often simply refer to them as they. “XYZ is so sweet, they brought cookies to class Monday!” It’s extremely simple in my opinion and takes minimal effort after a while of unlearning the automatic binary coding. There have been so many studies that show how differently people treat others based on their percieved gender. Parents will treat their newborns completely different, color coding them and premptively placing restrictions and societal expectations on then before they can even hold up their own head. English seems uniquely equipped to allow for this shift too, many (if not all) of the romance languages have gender built into their language- affecting conjugates and word forms outside of pronouns.
    I am not a biologist, not even faintly adept at science in general. That being said, the gendered binary we apply to sex seems unnecessary at best and actively damaging at worst. Many people fall outside of the two catagories their given either with differing hormones or physical sex traits. The social connotation attached to the words male and female actively affects medical experiences. Studies have shown that women are often seen as “overexaggerating” when in pain and subsequently misdiagnosed or trivialized.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I could see why medical paperwork would want to know the gender, just to make sure they have the proper equipment and examination procedures. I do however hope that they (whoever creates medical paperwork) include an option for “non-binary” to simply do the same, let doctors know that they may need both types of examination and equipment. For example, if a person comes in with nausea, cramps, and bloating, the implications would be different for someone with a uterus, someone with testes, and of course, someone with the mixture of the two. But, I don’t think calling animals gender neutral pronouns is an issue. Animals don’t even have the cognitive function to even process what a gender is, much less the subtleties of the English language, much less to be offended by it. Although i think gender stereotyping animals is wrong and only leads to more imposed roles, i highly doubt a change in the English language would benefit the animal in any way.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. While I agree that gender titles themselves are a social construction, gender as an idea is not. Animals and people do naturally have sex organs that differentiate them from the opposite sex, and gender titles are built around that. To say that everyone should go by gender neutral pronouns would be difficult, not only because sex organs are a natural part of us, but because eliminating gender titles would be eliminating entire cultural definitions. Being defined as a man or a woman is, for a lot of people, a point of pride and is very empowering. If society were to stop using gender pronouns, then that source of empowerment and pride would disappear, as would the labels “transgender” and “feminist”. So while gender titles are social constructions, they are very important social constructions and very important cultural definitions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I think I understand what you mean. In regards to sex, the whole female and male thing, it’s convenient. Female = vulva, uterus, and not too much testosterone. Male = sperm and a lot more testosterone. That’s as basic as I’ll get. I like to think of sex as: who does what in terms of reproduction. Females get pregnant. Males do the impregnating. Simple. Unfortunately, there are people who cannot do either, and if the definition for male and female only had to do with reproduction then technically those people who can’t make babies are…not human..?
      Anyways, I think the terms male, female, and intersex are totally fine. Useful. For medicine.

      I also understand that males and females are different in terms of body mass. The whole “males are better at math and females are better at arts” is bs. I used to believe it, but now…I definitely believe it’s a societal thing. A gender thing. Some science, because people are wired differently and there’s chemicals involved-BUT, society’s expectations on gender plays a role, too.

      I’ve read a lot about how gender is just a form of oppression, which yes I agree to some degree. In the past, it was rough. The mortality rate for babies was high. And females being pregnant for 9 months is just too long. I totally understand the segregated responsibilities of the past–in terms of survival. Buuut, after a while males clearly found a way to suppress females and the poor and unsavory people. Gender was reinforced. Gender was venerated. Gender became culture.

      I can’t imagine a world where we don’t use gendered pronouns. But I CAN imagine a world with MANY kinds of genders. Gender doesn’t have to match your sex.

      Mmm, there’s also the argument about gender mannerisms being biological. Like in “Becoming Nicole”, a male-born twin always preferred “girly” things, even as a toddler. Cases like those are so interesting. To “be” a woman/man. To “feel” like a man/woman. Those are interesting thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. A well opinionated article! I can say that I’ve also taken to falling into a neutral ‘they’ out of habit with having friends who are nb/are between transitioning and I wish that it was more popular in everyday conversation.

    Just for the sake of conversation, what are your feelings on Xe/Xem or Ze/Zir? It’s been something that I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with saying, but do you feel that it would ever be possible to have the pronouns catch on outside of the queer community? The only people who seem to have to have heard of using Xe/Xem are typically people in the queer community, or are large science-fiction fans (there’s a surprising amount of queer writers in the science-fiction community who have characters using Xe/Xem pronouns. go figure).

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve had a lot of thoughts on this topic since I, myself, made the mistake of using “she” where “he” should’ve been used. I agree that gender neutral pronouns should become the normal, but I don’t believe that “he” and “she” and the associating terms should be completely removed. Yes they are both social constructions, but they’re also categories in a person’s intersectionality that provide strength and importance (to some) to one’s being. When one does something great, they want their race emphasized, they want their class displayed, and they want their gender front and center. They don’t want to be your average joe, they want to be made o stand out, requiring all their intersectionalities shown. But it’s whatever THEY decided, not what society or an average eye decides. I feel gender neutral pronouns should be used amongst society as the everyday reference until verbally directed otherwise from the individual THEMSELF. No one should get the authorization to label you what they feel your “gender” is. It will be hard since it has been instilled in all brains since one can speak, read, and understand what these words them meant, but it’s possible with hard work and global recognition. People have to realize it’s problem, in order for it to be fixed. And that’s most likely going to fall back as a responsibility to the Queer community to bring cogniscence and awareness to the problem as a whole. In response to Woolf’s idea of creativity only being in those who identify as neither man nor woman, I can’t agree or disagree. If that is how he feels, then I’ll refer to him as only a gender neutral pronoun, but some people find strength and comfortability in the identification of either male or female.

    Liked by 1 person


      “n response to Woolf’s idea of creativity only being in those who identify as neither man nor woman, I can’t agree or disagree. If that is how ze feels, then I’ll refer xem as only a gender neutral pronoun, but some people find strength and comfortability in the identification of either male or female.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Great article! Many of us today fail to realize the using gendered pronouns could be hurtful when referring to a person of the sex that isn’t preferred. However that isn’t the case with everyone, there are still many people who would want to be referred to as “he” or “she” and perhaps using they can be distrurbing to them as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Although I do think that using specific gender pronouns like he or she to identify one another has caused much of the patriarchy and sexism in the world I can’t imagine not using them. The reason for me to use these words is because like many people I was raised in a society were identifying yourself as a specific gender was the norm. However, if someone in the future ask me to not refer to them with specific pronouns or characteristics that classify them as a specific gender I am completely okay with that. Ultimately I do think that the way people were brought up can justify why they still use gender norms and it also varies within areas and specific places.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. These are concepts I’ve agreed with for a very long time, though I would not outright reject or eradicate the terms of “boy” and “girl”, and such of their liking, as factors of identity. Rather, they should be terms one can decide to utilize as they mature, in order to identify themselves in which way that makes them comfortable, if it does.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Gendered personal pronouns are something we use on a daily basis without even thinking about them because in our own mind, we unconsciously categorize each human being into either a “he” or “she”. This categorization indeed doesn’t significantly contribute in any way or others to the daily conversation and interaction between people to people. This just happens because we were taught about it by our families and teachers, who also learned about it in their young age. Your blog helps to bring awareness to such matter and praises the importance of gender neutral pronouns that can bring about significant changes in the way people think and perceive queer people. This is because queer people no longer have to conform to either “female” or “male”, the only two genders assigned to them at birth by their genitalia. However, for now, the practice of gender neutral pronouns is still not common as you mentioned in your flu shot visit and thus, there’s still a lot of work needed to be done in order to change the way people think.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I agree that gender neutral pronouns would be useful when referring to someone who might not identify with gender binary pronouns.Gender pronouns are just another social construct that society forces upon us to simplify the classification of others and ourselves and it makes no sense that out of the millions of people on earth we would only categorize people into to two separate categories. However, gender is so deeply rooted into our society that it would be hard to change this social norm that is known and used universally.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. This article takes me back to the video we watched in class last week in regards to labeling. I feel like labels cause segregation amongst people. Pronouns are way of identification and I don’t think they should be removed. If I innocently make the mistake in using the incorrect pronouns towards someone, I would refer to them in the pronouns of their choice. I don’t think pronouns all together should be removed. I think I naturally use the word “they” in referring to one person although I was taught that word was plural. Overall, I believe that being kindly corrected will work just fine when addressing someone incorrectly will be the best alternative until all of society learns that gender isn’t only male or female.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I related this to my own name. I was named after my Dad, Samuel. I go by Sammy and even when people call me Samuel I get the slightest chill of this idea of it not being me. It feels so weird to even think of me as my dad. To even be thinking you as a person who isn’t you it just plan odd.
    As I read this post I finally understand why many trans individuals get slightly fusterated whenever you use their past pronouns. Insightful to a person who never truly understood what the issue is to irratating even when on accident. A friend actually allows it to let it slide since I have barely known her. But now it makes me realize how fusterating can actually be.
    And also Could I start relating this to my example to why it is so harmful?

    Liked by 1 person

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