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 performative. Similarly, 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