Join 3,432 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


They is Me
January 25, 2012 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Canadian queer magazine Xtra! has found itself at the center of controversy after refusing to refer to certain transgendered interviewees by their preferred pronoun: "they."

The controversy started when Xtra! refused to refer to artist Elisha Lim as "they" instead of "she", claiming that using "they" to refer to individuals, rather than groups, would confuse readers. Musician Rae Spoon turned down an interview and cover story in Xtra! because the magazine wouldn't guarantee that it would refer to them as "they."

Xtra! has since changed its stance on the issue, somewhat, saying that it will now use subjects' surnames instead of pronouns if the subject prefers to go by "they." Interestingly, despite its continued refusal to use "they" as a singular pronoun, the magazine published a piece by long-time columnist Ivan Coyote that is critical of the refusal to refer to people by their preferred pronouns.
posted by asnider (173 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Actually, as gender-neutral pronouns go, I like "They" a lot. Grammar nazi can go to hell.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:07 PM on January 25, 2012 [18 favorites]


Idiocy. Not on Xtra's part.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:07 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I, for two, stand by basic agreed upon laws of grammar.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:09 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have to admit I just thought 'Oh god, not another trans post.' Because I foresee idiocy and not the kind You Should See the Other Guy is implying.

You'd hope that if the New York Times can manage it, a queer magazine, could manage it. (And to think, when I read that article about trans Klezmer musicians, I moaned that the NYT had to call attention to the fact they hadn't used an honorific for someone who didn't want an honorific.)
posted by hoyland at 7:12 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Xtra! comes out looking really stupid in this. "They" is fine. Ivan, as usual, is awesome.
posted by rtha at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've said this before and I'll say it again: if it's good enough for Jane Austen, it's good enough for me.

(I don't think I've read any Austen.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


At least no one wanted to use "hir"
posted by birdherder at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


I must admit, I read Coyote's take in the last link, and the usage did seem quite jarring, even though I should have been expecting it, given the context:

A couple of months ago my friend and collaborator Elisha Lim (they drew the book covers for Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme and for One in Every Crowd, my latest two books) was ...

So I understand Xtras stance here -- if a writer does not have a preferred singular pronoun (and allowing them full discretion to select whichever singular pronoun they wish), then simply using their last name in its place would seem to be appropriate. Isn't this what "zhe" was supposed to address?
posted by modernnomad at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012


Clearly, a gender-neutral pronoun is needed. However, using the plural pronoun is most certainly confusing for the reader. Particularly when paired with names that don't necessarily immediately scan as single person entities. Hell, on first pass (granted, I'm tired as hell this evening) I read Rae Spoon, paired with they/them, as a band name, not a personal name. I'm hoping this thread will be full of suggestions for gender-neutral pronouns, not a hate-fest on either party here (though not respecting someone's wishes when it comes to issues of identity is a dick move).
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I prefer to be referred to using first-person singular pronouns, myself.

But seriously, humans are clever creatures who can use context to decipher edge-case grammatical devices. A magazine interview provides plenty of linguistic context to show that 'they' is being used as a singular pronoun in that case. Or they could have written a little note somewhere. Why not do it?

A mistaken editorial decision is one thing, but to make an express policy of not honouring a request that's so minor to fulfill is pretty gauche.
posted by Drexen at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


apparently, those laws of grammar are not agreed upon
posted by jb at 7:14 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's kind of pathetic when the Canadian queer magazine Xtra! is slightly more conservative than the American Chemical Society.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:14 PM on January 25, 2012


Isn't this what "zhe" was supposed to address?

People get really hostile about purpose-made gender neutral pronouns. Even more than they are in this thread.
posted by hoyland at 7:14 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there no nit too small to pick?
posted by crunchland at 7:15 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I once watched Elisha Lim direct traffic in the middle of the intersection at Spadina and Harbord during the big blackout... whatever year that was. 2005?
posted by The Thnikkaman at 7:15 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't this what "zhe" was supposed to address?

And it still can, for those who choose to use it as their preferred personal pronoun. It sounds like neither Elisha nor Rae choose to.
posted by rtha at 7:17 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can we bring back the "one" construction, as in "One might" "one does" "one should". It fills a perfectly good role in English.
posted by The Whelk at 7:20 PM on January 25, 2012 [15 favorites]


One does not like sounding like one is a pretentious fuck all the time.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:21 PM on January 25, 2012 [28 favorites]


Kid Charlemagne, that ACS style guide says (in the gender neutral section) that the plural pronoun shouldn't be used with a singular antecedent. I appreciate the commentary, but I think that that style guide actually reinforces Xtra!'s position, that gender neutral language is of course the goal, but using the plural with a singular antecedent is very clumsy at best, and wildly misleading at worst.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 7:21 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


One does not like sounding like one is a pretentious fuck all the time.

One's mileage may vary.
posted by shothotbot at 7:21 PM on January 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


People get really hostile about purpose-made gender neutral pronouns. Even more than they are in this thread.

Because every little special snowflake thinks up a new pronoun, they're the first fucking person to do it, insists you call them by it and gets all pissy when you don't/when you forget/when you just can't be fucking bothered with the latest pronoun in vogue.
posted by Talez at 7:21 PM on January 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


One rarely takes offense.
posted by The Whelk at 7:22 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I use 'one' all the time, actually. But it's a pronoun for a dummy or generic human subject, rather than a gender neutral pronoun.
posted by hoyland at 7:23 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I reconnected with a childhood friend a few years ago who had gone from female to male. The part I always had trouble with was talking about past stories, back when 'he' was a 'she'. Luckily 'they' were pretty good natured about it and would laugh and tease me whenever I froze up mid-anecdote and mentally wrestled with the dilemma of how to proceed.
posted by mannequito at 7:23 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


People should be able to choose how they are identified. Want me to call you Jill? OK by me. Ms? Terrific, save a keystroke. African-American? I love alliteration. They? What do I care?
posted by shothotbot at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Because every little special snowflake thinks up a new pronoun, they're the first fucking person to do it, insists you call them by it and gets all pissy when you don't/when you forget/when you just can't be fucking bothered with the latest pronoun in vogue.

Except there are, oh, two common sets which are pretty much variants of each other. With a small exception for mathematicians, who might see Spivak pronouns once in a while. Wiki will name you about 8 sets of gender neutral pronouns and you'll never see/hear six of them.

when you just can't be fucking bothered willfully decide to be a jerk
posted by hoyland at 7:25 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


So okay, lemme see if I've got the current scorecard right:

Expressing one's identity as gay: Good. Should be encouraged.

Expressing one's identity as gay in terms conservative people don't like: Good. Should be encouraged.

Expressing one's identity as gay in terms other gay people don't like: Bad. Should be universally denounced and reviled.

Expressing one's transgendered identity with the pronoun of one's own choice: Good. Should be encouraged.

Objecting to the use of a specific pronoun due to decades of strict education and universal cultural agreement stating that the pronoun is inaccurate for reasons wholly unrelated to gender and sexuality: Abhorrent. Oppressive. Inexcusable.


...'kay, think I've got it now. Let me know the next time the rules change, so I can keep it updated. Thanks.
posted by mie at 7:26 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hell, on first pass (granted, I'm tired as hell this evening) I read Rae Spoon, paired with they/them, as a band name, not a personal name.

I actually wasn't sure about that construction, to be honest. I had originally written "refer to Spoon as 'they'" but replaced "Spoon" with "them" because I was worried that it would seem like I was editorializing in favour of the magazine's stance (which I mostly disagree with but, as a bit of a grammar nazi, understand).
posted by asnider at 7:26 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The part I always had trouble with was talking about past stories, back when 'he' was a 'she'. Luckily 'they' were pretty good natured about it and would laugh and tease me whenever I froze up mid-anecdote and mentally wrestled with the dilemma of how to proceed.

This is kind of tricky. But one thing I'd point out is that in most anecdotes, you can change the pronoun of the person you're talking about and it still works. (This is dangerous if it's a story about, say, your friend's college roommate, who are usually of the same gender, but you can always pass it off as "I went to one of those schools that allows opposite-sex roommates".)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:28 PM on January 25, 2012


Objecting to the use of a specific pronoun due to decades of strict education and universal cultural agreement stating that the pronoun is inaccurate for reasons wholly unrelated to gender and sexuality: Abhorrent. Oppressive. Inexcusable.

Except the singular 'they' wandered its way into English completely independent of trans people. I mean, what do you want people to do? You'll throw a fit at 'zie', you'll throw a fit at 'they'...
posted by hoyland at 7:28 PM on January 25, 2012


I mean, what do you want people to do?

Pick a gender.
posted by Dasein at 7:31 PM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


I must admit, I read Coyote's take in the last link, and the usage did seem quite jarring, even though I should have been expecting it, given the context:

A couple of months ago my friend and collaborator Elisha Lim (they drew the book covers for Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme and for One in Every Crowd, my latest two books) was ...


I agree, but I think it's because no pronoun seems needed there. Instead of they, "who" feels like it's better there.

They is good. In my current law school life, there are many people who style themselves as grammar mavens, relying on half-truths and outdated concepts (see e.g. "there is never an acceptable usage of the passive voice"). Often those people say that singular they is flat-out wrong. Luckily, I have bookmarked the Department of Justice disagreeing - it's fun to watch them reconcile their grammar rule with their "defer to the government" rule.

It's kind of sad to see Xtra less progressive than, among all the examples people are giving above, that bastion of conformity, the DOJ.

Now the DOJ article says that singular they shouldn't be used when there's a definite singular noun, such as the Attorney General. Although honestly I expect that when we get a high-ranking official who refers to themselves as they, it'll just change.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:31 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Pick a gender.

Tough? Given the hassle people outside the gender binary get, somehow I don't think you're going to win that one.
posted by hoyland at 7:33 PM on January 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


Pick a gender.

I'm a probabilist. So every day I'll flip a coin to determine my gender.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:34 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Pick a gender.

Why should someone have to pretend to identify with something which they, in reality, do not, just to appease other's prescriptionist grammar paroxysms?
posted by polywomp at 7:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


Here we go again! Lord, will we never be free from the awful burden of trans oppression?
posted by octobersurprise at 7:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


On reflection, I'd like to clarify something.

I think everyone should be treated as whoever, whatever, they are and/or want to be. You want to be "he?" Fine. You want to be "they"? Fine. You want to be "wombatscubablender"? AWESOME. Seriously: I changed my name about twenty seconds after I was legally eligible to, I am all about one's right to be called by whatever name one feels is theirs.

Taking a grammatical policy that has been lectured, pounded, hammered into the brains of generations of students and PARTICULARLY writers and editors, so thoroughly that the assumption is considered akin to the law of gravity - and deciding that because society hasn't 100% overthrown this concept RIGHT NOW DAMMIT, a writer or editor following the same rules they've been following for a lifetime MUST be committing an act of transphobia? Blisteringly, insanely, ridiculously STUPID, that's what that is.

As for condemning someone and insisting they change their views on their homosexual identity - because it might be damaging to the civil rights movement - for the freedom to express one's homosexuality on one's own terms... Yeah. Don't even. Seriously.



...I just thought that, since many people think that supporting a cause means never ever disagreeing with its proponents no matter what, I'd clarify my position a bit more closely.
posted by mie at 7:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Granting "why not call people what they want to be called" and thinking about actual practice, it seems there is a restriction (in current usage) on using "they" in the singular.

I'm only used to using it to refer to a non-specific person, who could be of any gender. When there is a specific person being referenced, it sounds "off" to me to use 'they'.

Ignoring what practice should be going forward, does it seem the same to others, or are there obvious counter-examples I'm missing?
posted by benito.strauss at 7:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, it could be argued that 'this' really started a month or two ago when an Xtra editor used a trans performer's birth name in a discussion on Facebook, and refused to apologize when she challenged him on it.

Part of the challenge with handling trans issues respectfully in the media is that there is incredible diversity of opinion among the trans community about terminology and representation. I imagine there was similar friction about language in the early days of lesbian & gay organizing.

That said, an organization like Xtra really needs to try harder and should take a 'do no harm' philosophy over rigid policy. They should be leading the way in respecting individual choice in how people wish to be named or gendered. Frankly, Xtra is not exactly a paragon of journalistic integrity -- the idea that they have firm editorial policies on anything is kind of laughable.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:39 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


...On further reflection?

I NOW DECLARE MY PERSONAL PRONOUN OF CHOICE TO BE WOMBATSCUBABLENDER.
posted by mie at 7:40 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I mean, oppression by trans people. With their "cis" and their "theys" and thier god knows what else.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:41 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am confused by mie's comment before last. I do not understand why wombatscubablender thinks pronouns have something to do with homosexuality.
posted by hoyland at 7:42 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pick a gender.

Turquoise!




...I think I'm really starting to like this.
posted by mie at 7:42 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


pretend to identify with something which they, in reality, do not

This is what I don't get. Trans implies a transition from something to something. What are those somethings? Male and female. If you're choosing to change gender, presumably it's because you identify with the other gender.
posted by Dasein at 7:43 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am confused by mie's comment before last. I do not understand why wombatscubablender thinks pronouns have something to do with homosexuality.

Reading this comment is confusing, because I keep thinking "wombatscubablender" must be someone's name.

Similarly, He Kexin was on the Chinese women's gymnastics team in the 2008 Olympics. "He" is her family name. She is female. I remember being momentarily confused by articles that referred to her by her family name, because in English it reads like a male pronoun with a capital letter for no good reason.

(And yes, I know, it's not pronounced like the third-person singular male pronoun! But it's spelled that way.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:45 PM on January 25, 2012


This is what I don't get. Trans implies a transition from something to something. What are those somethings? Male and female. If you're choosing to change gender, presumably it's because you identify with the other gender.

Genderqueer. Gender isn't necessarily binary.

(Coincidentally, there are cultures where gender is traditionally not binary, before you start going on about people making shit up.)
posted by hoyland at 7:45 PM on January 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


I've got a friend who's a good guy, really, and in favor of GLBT rights 100% and all, but was brought up in a certain way, and who can be very stupidly selfish in some ways. He's the type who has knee-jerk reactions to the term "cisgendered" for instance (jesus god not to bring that discussion up here again.) There's a bar we used to go to for Karaoke, which is a straight-friendly gay bar run by a bunch of drag queens, and this friend was resolute in using whatever pronoun he damn well pleased in referring to them, and when we got into a discussion about it, I finally came around to the argument of their personal liberty and dignity to be called whateevr they prefer, and that seemed to get through.

But calling a singular person "they" would probably make his head explode and set back that argument.

It shouldn't, in a rational world, and what this random friend of mine thinks is worth nothing in this fight, really, but if I were advising on use of pronouns, I'd advise against "they," is I guess all that I'm saying. But then again, if that's what you legitimately prefer, fuck the small-minded haters.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:46 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


before you start going on about people making shit up.

and so what if people are making shit up? All shit was, at one point, made up.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:46 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Pick a gender

Why the hell do you care? When did anybody else's life choice, when it doesn't effect you (except, perhaps, in some minor confusion in use of gendered language) become yours to demand?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:47 PM on January 25, 2012 [24 favorites]


If you're choosing to change gender, presumably it's because you identify with the other gender.

Or maybe it's because their preferred gender is both, or some of each, or none of the above, or something else altogether. Is that really so tough to wrap your mind around?
posted by ottereroticist at 7:49 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you, hoyland, for respecting my personal identity choice.

(No, I'm not making a point, it's just awesome, dammit. WOMBATSCUBABLENDER. Hell yeah.)


...Did I say that? I don't think I said that - I certainly didn't mean to. Lemme re-read and see if I misspoke what I meant to say - but no, hoyland, that was not my intent.
posted by mie at 7:50 PM on January 25, 2012


THON THINK THERE ARE SEVERAL SOLUTIONS FOR THIS PROBLEM.
posted by whitneyarner at 7:50 PM on January 25, 2012


Why the hell do you care? When did anybody else's life choice, when it doesn't effect you (except, perhaps, in some minor confusion in use of gendered language) become yours to demand?

No one's demanding anything of anyone's life choice, as long as they don't demand anything of the way people use language.
posted by Dasein at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


...Did I say that? I don't think I said that - I certainly didn't mean to. Lemme re-read and see if I misspoke what I meant to say - but no, hoyland, that was not my intent.

I got lost as to where homosexuality came into it. Actually, I may have totally misunderstood the intent of your first comment. Now I'm just confused.
posted by hoyland at 7:54 PM on January 25, 2012


When did anybody else's life choice, when it doesn't effect you become yours to demand?

He's just stuck on himself 'cause he thinks he speaks Being.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:55 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


No one's demanding anything of anyone's life choice, as long as they don't demand anything of the way people use language.

Language itself makes demands. Common usage is that we refer to women as woman and men and men. Now there is a new demand: what to call people whose identities aren't established in that simple binary?

The people who are suggesting alternatives aren't making language demands. They are responding to them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:58 PM on January 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


That completely did not follow.
posted by Cathedral at 7:58 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zhe are not amused.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:03 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


If somebody else wants to take a crack at this, feel free.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:04 PM on January 25, 2012


I just came in here to say that a lot of "correct" English grammar is bullshit made up by rich people to they can sound better than poor people and a shitload of it is based off of Latin, and if Latin is so fucking great why is it dead

UP WITH THE SINGULAR THEY
posted by NoraReed at 8:04 PM on January 25, 2012 [28 favorites]


I think it comes down to a clash of memes, and prescriptive grammar is a very powerful meme, with hooks right in many people's sense of self-worth. It's not easy to give up rules - such as the idea that "singular they" is wrong - that at some level you've been taught make you socially superior to people who don't follow those rules.
posted by raygirvan at 8:05 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


One likes to see things in one's Recent Activity.
posted by box at 8:06 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


English grammar is bullshit made up by rich people

And they've been referring to themselves in the plural for ages.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:06 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can be confusing, hoyland. Sorry 'bout that. Basically, two separate issues entirely - this, and the Cynthia Nixon thing - both involving the same sort of hypocrisy that I find so loathsome when the right wing does it (or the left wing, or ANYONE - but the right wing seems to be really good at it :/) so the two got mingled together in my head, and in the post.
posted by mie at 8:07 PM on January 25, 2012


If "one" can be a pronoun, why not "pi"? I think that's my new pronoun, because it's plural and irrational.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:07 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


If somebody else wants to take a crack at this, feel free.

Were you saying that acknowledging the existence of people with non-binary gender identities necessarily makes new demands on language because our 'current' language (or current proscribed language) does not allow for such identities?

It got confusing because that wasn't the sense that 'demand' had been used in the post until your comment.
posted by hoyland at 8:08 PM on January 25, 2012


so the two got mingled together in my head, and in the post.

Ach so. How's that for language use?

I think that's my new pronoun, because it's plural and irrational.

Personally, I think I experience a strong desire for algebraic pronouns.
posted by hoyland at 8:12 PM on January 25, 2012


Personally, I think I experience a strong desire for algebraic pronouns.

"phi" would work as a pronoun.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:13 PM on January 25, 2012


"phi" would work as a pronoun.

Think of all the time you'd spend explaining how to pronounce it, though. And you wouldn't be able to remember your own pronunciation preference.
posted by hoyland at 8:14 PM on January 25, 2012


I once had a professor who thought that "fee" and "fie" were separate letters, which looked like φ and ϕ (or maybe it was the other way around).
posted by madcaptenor at 8:15 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ah, NoraReed beat me to it. That's exactly it; English prescriptive grammar had its roots in the time of the rise of the middle class, when people were climbing over each other to get up the class laddder. Any pundit with their two cents to add on using language in ways that would make you sound higher-class was listened to, despite much of what they came up being entirely down to personal taste, and completely against the evidence of usage. "Singular they" is a classic example. People used it for centuries before the downer on it started, and have continued to use it despite that downer.
posted by raygirvan at 8:15 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Comment removed - Maybe we draw the line at shithead examples?]
posted by jessamyn at 8:17 PM on January 25, 2012


Trans implies a transition from something to something.

MtF and FtM are two possibilites. There's also MtA/FtA (to androgyne), MtI/FtI (intersexed), or one of my favorites, MtWTF/FtWTF.

One can also be transgenderd without transitioning; it can mean "transgressing" or "transcending." Generally as an umbrella term for people who don't consider themselves cisgendered.
posted by Foosnark at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I once had a professor who thought that "fee" and "fie" were separate letters, which looked like φ and ϕ (or maybe it was the other way around).

Oh god, that's worse than the time we had x, X and χ on the board simultaneously.
posted by hoyland at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's my solution. Just use "it". That would make everyone happy, right?
posted by notme at 8:30 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have yet to hear a gender neutral pronoun that doesn't kinda set my teeth on edge. Conceptually, I'm all in favor, but it turns out the reality kinda bugs me.

That fact doesn't stop me from using people's chosen pronouns. The real possibility of hurting someone emotionally is much more important for me to avoid than my own minor irritation at grammatical weirdness.
posted by mollymayhem at 8:36 PM on January 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


Except there are, oh, two common sets which are pretty much variants of each other. With a small exception for mathematicians, who might see Spivak pronouns once in a while. Wiki will name you about 8 sets of gender neutral pronouns and you'll never see/hear six of them.

Failed gender neutral pronouns over the years.
posted by Talez at 8:36 PM on January 25, 2012


Bunny Ultramod: "Pick a gender

Why the hell do you care? When did anybody else's life choice, when it doesn't effect you (except, perhaps, in some minor confusion in use of gendered language) become yours to demand?
"

I suppose one could argue such normalization as a way to prevent hurt feelings on behalf of one or both parties, as well as a way to avoid the inevitable torches and pitchforks that always seem close at hand when such mistakes are inevitably made. Mind you, I am presupposing good intentions on behalf of the "offending" party.

However, the general societal trend towards self-classification with its pursuant "Respect my identity!" issues disturbs me. As I see it, we are all humans, and we need to remember such.
posted by Samizdata at 8:38 PM on January 25, 2012


Damn, Xtra!, just use the pronouns the subjects prefer and asterisk them. Explain at the bottom of the article.
posted by Kloryne at 8:40 PM on January 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


Is that really so tough to wrap your mind around?

Well, yeah. I suspect I have no idea what someone means when they say they are both genders. But I also don't understand why anyone would like Billy Joel. The point is to end bigotry, discrimination and oppression. I'm not sure the battle over pronouns really achieves much in that department. It seems driven to "raise consciousness", but I'm not actually sure that's needed to accept that everyone has the right to live their life how they see fit. Personal freedom and compassion is a more compelling argument to me than whether gender is binary or not. Because, ultimately, why does that matter? Who am I to judge someone who thinks about gender differently?
posted by spaltavian at 8:42 PM on January 25, 2012


I get SO sick of you cis-WOMBATSCUBABLENDERs always thinking you know how things work.
posted by Samizdata at 8:45 PM on January 25, 2012


I'm trying to imagine a perfect language that is always internally consistent and can never be altered to adapt to (or help bring about) social evolution. I figure it would have about twelve words, and die out after a few months save for two or three isolated pockets, like maybe Anal Boring Talk monasteries populated by pure Laconic Disciples of the Rigid Word.

Clearly, a gender-neutral pronoun is needed. However, using the plural pronoun is most certainly confusing for the reader.

Ah, the reader, yes. Of which there is, of course, just one. And whose gender is oddly non-specific.

Folks, English is all graft. Deal with it and move on. I mean, christ, if it were up to you people we wouldn't even have adverbs.

But then, I'm pretty sure most of the discomfort here isn't really just about grammar.
posted by Mike Smith at 8:45 PM on January 25, 2012 [17 favorites]


Talez: "Failed gender neutral pronouns over the years."

I don't see "they" anywhere on that list of failed pronouns.
posted by koeselitz at 8:50 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ricochet biscuit thinks that ricochet biscuit does not have to use pronouns at all if ricochet biscuit does not feel the need.

Problem solved. Xtra is welcome.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:53 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


I prefer "they", even though it's not grammatically perfect, to the sheer awkwardness and weirdness and "huh?" that comes from "hir" and "zie." Though oddly enough, "zhe" doesn't bother me somehow. I guess because I can figure out what it's trying to do without thinking "wait, wtf is this word and what is it referring to in grammar?" Because I have never gotten why there are so many variants of those and how they are supposed to be used anyway.

I guess it could be worse: at least we don't assign genders to all words like they do in France. Why a table has to have a gender, I don't know.

On the actual article topic, I don't see why it's a big effing deal not to use "they" or a surname. People can generally figure out what you mean by that.

And since we're having this fight/argument/whatever for the second time in a few days or whatever here, can I ask if anyone knows of a Politically Correct Guide To Refer To Trans People online somewhere? The gold standard reference that we clueless cispeople/the media should all be using so as to not offend? I'm not asking this facetiously, it just seems like there's a lot of questions that come up. For example, I did not know I should be retroactively changing someone's gender in past references at all times.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:53 PM on January 25, 2012


For example, I did not know I should be retroactively changing someone's gender in past references at all times.

Some trans people will tell you you should. Some trans people will tell you this is stupid. As they say, one's mileage may vary.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:55 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think they should be used with singular verb forms.

Something kind of weird: I confess I actually really struggle with acceptance of transgendered folk and their issues, and this whole idea of using singular they as their pronoun (coupled with my own idea of using they with singular verb forms) somehow makes it suddenly easier. Like, massively & significantly easier. It's as though my difficulties really had little to do with transgenderedness in and of itself but more to do with the fact that it is mechanically awkward to talk about them.

But if, when I'm talking about someone transgendered they has their own pronoun -- problem solved! In my admittedly not particularly typical brain, at least.
posted by lastobelus at 8:59 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


So if I happen to deeply respect grammar (for whatever reason), and have a passionate emotional attachment to it and I choose to identify myself as a strict grammar prescriptivist, then shouldn't others be expected to try to avoid hurting me emotionally by agreeing to use my preferred grammatical rules?

I know copy editors who fit the description I just laid out. Whose feelings are more important?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:07 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of my good friends recently came out a genderqueer and requested we begin to use the pronoun "they" in reference to them. I'll admit, it was difficult at first. Sentence construction was tricky, when I even remembered that was their preference. I had several conversations with friends where we all expressed some struggle to acclimate. But we adjusted. Remarkable quickly. And having the occasional stranger look at me askance when I refer to a single person as "they" is well worth it for my friend to feel that their identity is being respected and honored among the people they are close to.

It's like when I befriended a Chinese exchange student in college and he introduced himself to me as Aaron, only to tell me his given name a week or so later. The latter was much harder for me to pronounce. It was occasionally difficult and inconvenient. But I never called him Aaron after that.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 9:08 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


But if, when I'm talking about someone transgendered they has their own pronoun -- problem solved! In my admittedly not particularly typical brain, at least.

However, many trans people have a preference for he or she, as coincides with their gender. (Binary gendered people in binary pronouns shock!) It would be offensive to use 'they' for anyone you know to be trans.
posted by hoyland at 9:09 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sqwwaaaaak ... zzzzzztt ... crackle ... crackle ... zzzzzzzzzzttt ...

"Coast Guard calling ... Coast Guard calling, Floundering Minnow! What is your situation? Come in, Floundering Minnow" zzzzzzt.

ZZzzttt Sqwaaaack ... "Floundering Minnow here, Coast Guard", zzzzzzztttspprrppkkltzz ... They went overboard 6 minutes ago! They have EPIRBs and strobes!"

zzzttttt.... crackle... Copy that, Floundering Minnow, we have located your first man-over-board are dropping second swimmer to search for other party.

etc.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:10 PM on January 25, 2012


Except you'd specify how many people had gone overboard no matter what, I should expect.

Unless that was a clever, but obscure reference to the 'What are you thinking about?' German Berlitz ad.
posted by hoyland at 9:14 PM on January 25, 2012


φ, ϕ, fo, fum
I smell the blood of an English♂,
Be he alive, or be he ⚰
I'll grind his ☠ to make my bread
posted by NoraReed at 9:15 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


modernnomad: "I must admit, I read Coyote's take in the last link, and the usage did seem quite jarring, even though I should have been expecting it, given the context:

A couple of months ago my friend and collaborator Elisha Lim (they drew the book covers for Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme and for One in Every Crowd, my latest two books) was ...
"

I don't mind the singular they at all, but I agree it's jarring here, mostly because the whole sentence would go over more smoothly by dropping the parentheses and just writing:

...my friend and collaborator Elisha Lim, who drew the book covers for my two latest books, was...

(As you can see, avoiding awkwarding up your sentences just because you want to namedrop your books also helps readability.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:16 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


To stay safe from the pain (of the world progressing around you); learn to find the space between.


Dasein:This is what I don't get. Trans implies a transition from something to something. What are those somethings? Male and female. If you're choosing to change gender, presumably it's because you identify with the other gender.

-No, no it oshanica! That may be "what" "trans" "implies"... to you (and it seems you are not using it in a sensical, full manner).

Trans/Across, spanning the spaces, bridging the people and places... Transatlantic telephone calls cross a MASSIVE SPACE that IS NOT the two so called "terminals" (or is one to assume that the voices come from Aether?). Not Translation, one language to the other or Transformation, one state to another... for each of which the 'space between' is not some 'magic' bridge (transliteration is a bridge between language translations).

All bridges between things, people, languages, spaces, telephones, internets... have far more of their 'existence' in the time and space between.

Or rather, to think in those "polars", the binaries; perhaps conceptually related tangentially to transformation... but transformation has a "middle phase" between, and across... sure, some may be living at the "poles" of the world... but between are a LOT of continents.

One would seem not to believe in Geography if you deny that there are continents between the top and bottom of the world.


Dasein:No one's demanding anything of anyone's life choice, as long as they don't demand anything of the way people use language.

Ah, so it is just getting human variation in Your precious, precious set in stone, hard-boiled, frozen, staid, static, immobile immutable irascible... words (which are being used imprecisely to begin with [written language, the root dominationist Religious ideation]).

At this point I want to recommend to one the work "Communication and Empire", by Harold Innis.
posted by infinite intimation at 9:18 PM on January 25, 2012


Osha...what?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:22 PM on January 25, 2012


Here's my solution. Just use "it". That would make everyone happy, right?

Not likely. "It" is very impersonal and generally considered incredibly rude. There are probably some people who prefer to be called "it," but I don't imagine there are many people like that.
posted by asnider at 9:25 PM on January 25, 2012


It might be from the Canadian verb "to laminate", which means, "one is being a rules lawyer, whilst simultaneously using hyper-limited "internal" readings of words as if that mattered to the collective, shared reality which everyone else has to navigate and bring towards progressive places. And a typo.

But really, when I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby was... doing what he was doing, so as to be a "news-story"... how many of the "major publishing labels" stumbled all over Thizzier's Selve's to keep the "Chummy" (Scooter).
At times, according to various news accounts, and as documented in a federal directory cited by Ron Kampeas and others, Libby has used "Jr." after his name.[8][29][30] At other times, however, as listed in his federal indictment and United States v. Libby, which give his alias as "Scooter Libby", there is no "Jr." after Libby's name.[6] Libby has been secretive about both his actual first name (what the initial "I" stands for) and about the origin of his nickname "Scooter". In an article published in The New York Times in late April 2001, Eric Schmitt divulged Libby's "two secrets", saying parenthetically: "It takes a phone call to Mr. Libby's older brother, Hank, to learn that the 'I' stands for Irv. His nickname 'Scooter' derives from the day Mr. Libby's father watched him crawling in his crib and joked, 'He's a Scooter!'"[1]
In their February 2002 interview on Larry King Live, King asked Libby specifically, "Where did 'Scooter' come from?"; Libby replied: "Oh, it goes way back to when I was a kid. Some people ask me if ... [crosstalk] ... as you did earlier, if it's related to Phil Rizzuto [nicknamed 'The Scooter']. I had the range but not the arm."[39]

I suppose everyone who feels so strongly here fell all over trying to shut that man down for being so demanding, and ruining our language... oh, wait, no. That didn't happen in the press, in our collective culture, or, well, anywhere.

Why didn't he just PICK a name for I. to be, how could we talk to him if he never told us, how did we manage?
posted by infinite intimation at 9:34 PM on January 25, 2012


"Whose feelings are more important?"

For me? In this particular argument, the feelings of people who are specifically targeted for hate and murder are more important. It's not really a close call either. When transgender people are not constantly threatened with scorn and injury, they may have less of a claim. When people are getting editor-bashed as part of fraternity hazing rituals, they may have more of one. That is not currently the world we live in.

I think a language that has an established precedent of allowing notable people to use the first-person plural in reference to themselves can stretch to accommodate the third-person plural for people who prefer it.

There are basically two non-asshole moves here: use the terminology they prefer in an interview with them, or don't interview them. This isn't someone not using preferred pronouns in passing. Xtra invited them into their house. It's just good manners to extend your guests courtesy.
posted by Errant at 9:42 PM on January 25, 2012 [13 favorites]


I was brought up to never correct anyone else's use of English.

It is good rule.
posted by dydecker at 9:49 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I could get used to this, but don't ever expect me to compromise on they're/their.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:53 PM on January 25, 2012


"WOMBATSCUBABLENDER"

Is that supposed to parse as WOMBAT-SCUBA-BLENDER or WOMBATS-CUB-A-BLENDER?
posted by Mitheral at 9:56 PM on January 25, 2012


Pick a gender.

This has been quoted at the beginning of so many replies. Can I just mention that I keep seeing it as the first line of a somewhat more interesting variant of the "Choose Life" speech from Trainspotting?
posted by baf at 10:09 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Xtra! refused to refer to artist Elisha Lim as "they" instead of "she", claiming that using "they" to refer to individuals, rather than groups, would confuse readers.

Stepping aside the internet and the internets reaction to this grand linguistic crime; how foolish do "they" think "their" readers to be? Magazines use ridiculous formatting conceits all the time (they, with an asterisk, or followup question exploring the topic, if appropriate seems far less confusing/onerous/demanding even than naming your magazine "Xtra!").

Evidently a mix of foolish, ignorant and helpless (with no resources, or faculties to help, when cast ashore with *un-common use of common word*).

Yet they thought their readers would "care about", or "get" the artists in question? Such a position doesn't even make sense. How would (the [apparently] helpless, and easily confused) readers be able to "comprehend" the Abstractness of "art"... or an artists statement, if her picture is so good why can't she tell me in one sentence what I am supposed to DO with it*, when evidently they (the readers) could not even possibly parse something so terrifyingly *new* as the given preferred pronoun?

What kind of a weird article actively interviews a person... with all the complexities, and the intimacy of asking questions, and recording answers, from the words of the interviewee, and the sharing that goes with that, and yet hold some line in the sand that an explained/qualified "they" is "too confusing". Isn't that like, something that someone reading about the person being interviewed might want to read, or to know about? To understand?

And if they don't know what asterisks* are in the editorial department; how can they produce a publication that interviews people, in articles.

*to note where something that may be un-familiar can be explicated, outside the 'flow' of a given article (speaking of which, how do I know that "article" isn't the grammar word?), how do such helpless readers know the difference between grammar articles and magazine articles? Xtra? That isn't a word.

ConFuusing.
posted by infinite intimation at 10:40 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It never ceases to impress me how many people were lucky enough to learn English at the precise moment when it was functionally and aesthetically perfect, but poised at the top of a terrible descent. Lucky, lucky people. BUT ETERNALLY VIGILANT.
posted by emmtee at 10:56 PM on January 25, 2012 [25 favorites]


The nice thing about "they" over invented words like "zhe" is that it's a normal english word and in a lot of cases you can just use it without it seeming stilted, or confusing, or worse, othering. A new word may sound weird and alien, and if it's referring to someone who's already struggles to feel like there's a place for them in society, they may find that association harmful, both in terms of how it affects them and how other people react to it.

And it's not like we never had a need for ungendered singular personal pronouns aside from transgendered people. There's lots of ungendered nouns that can operate as antecedents. "Anyone," "a student," "an astronaut". It feels clumsier, distracting, and politically fraught to just pick "he" or "she" for those.
posted by aubilenon at 11:08 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


In response to this situation, Rae Spoon and Elisha Lim recorded "Stand By Your Trans" which is absolutely awesome. So there's that, I guess.
posted by rosken at 11:08 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I prefer zhe or hir over they. Sometimes a singular they does flow, but in this sentence, for instance:

A few weeks later Calgarian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon would turn down an Xtra! cover and interview because they wouldn't respect "they" as their chosen pronoun and explained it in their blog.

I'm unclear on whose blog has the explanation. Normally, I'd assume it was Xtra!'s blog, but the "their chosen pronoun" shows the sentence is using singular as well as plural they, so the ending is unresolved.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:17 PM on January 25, 2012


I like sie and hir. I use sudden CHANGES of VOLUME to HELP PEOPLE adapt to how JARRING they apparently ARE.
posted by emmtee at 11:24 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I heard about the debacle sevenyearlurk linked to a couple of weeks ago, and don't really have high expectations for Xtra. It is awesome that they published Ivan Coyote's piece on respecting pronoun choices, but I am gonna go ahead and just give the awesome credit to Ivan.

Also, holy shit I had never heard of Rae Spoon before but they are so awesome I cannot even. This is the most adorable video I have seen all week and I have spent a significant number of hours this week watching videos of sleepy kittens, so.
posted by bewilderbeast at 11:26 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


That example sentence is just bad, but only because they're reusing the same pronoun to refer to different things. If we keep that structure with different entities:

... Plato turned down an interview with Socrates because he wouldn't use "he" as his chosen pronoun and explained it in his blog"

it's just as terrible and confusing. It's not a singular-vs-plural problem, it's a you-can't-use-pronouns-like-that problem.
posted by aubilenon at 11:27 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm an acquaintance of Spoon's. I've met them a handful of times through mutual friends and found them to be a talented, pleasant and genuine person.

... you all could parse that sentence, right?

Sociolinguistics explains how higher-status, dare I say more "privileged" patterns of language use are more resistant to change than lower-status forms. Consider how mouldy and fossilized speech can sound in high-power enclaves, for lack of cross-pollenation and for insider identification purposes. Online, I see language conservatism used as a class marker near-daily on facebook, where friends who correct others' usage without solicitation seem to be inspired by aspirational motives and/or insecurity.

In this discussion, and the other day's [trainwreck/teaching moment] about "cis-", I wonder if the same thing isn't going on. There's the relatively privileged group, the ones who never get hassled by aggressive strangers about which public bathroom they're lining up for, hoping to keep the bits of English that relates to the nexus of their privilege just the way it is. "Keep language clean" - kind of comes off like "think of the children!" in terms of justification for anything, yeah?
The thing is, I think these defenders of the status quo sincerely believe that this is about language, because they haven't been exposed to the kinds of circumstances that make those language changes vital and necessary and more important than the brief inconvenience they might cause to some copy editor. Those Brahmins in the video above probably don't need to speak to anyone outside their families if they don't feel like it, either.

I don't know. Some of the things I've read here have bothered me, in a way that the things I've read in these parts in X years of lurking generally haven't. I guess I'd rather see it all as an impersonal manifestation of sociolinguistic phenomena than as a bunch of individuals hearing trans people's requests for a few simple and fundamental concessions to their self-respect and saying "nah, too much work, fuck that".

And I agree with dydecker; don't correct anyone else's English unless they're paying you for it!
posted by metaman livingblog at 11:28 PM on January 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


"This is what I don't get. Trans implies a transition from something to something. What are those somethings? Male and female. If you're choosing to change gender, presumably it's because you identify with the other gender."

Transalpine Gaul was a territory across the Alps.

As for the ever pervasive fear that those nasty trans folk will call you out on slipping up on gender usage, well, I work with a couple of 'em and even had our trans etiquette training not a month ago, and the general consensus is that if you try to call folks what they like then they tend to forgive you if you slip up and move on. Now, granted, none of 'em were loraxes, speaking for all the trans folk, but that's been my experience too.

I can also say that as someone with a journo degree, I always found the mandated construction of "he or she" clumsy, and was prone to using "they" whenever I could get away with it prior (AP still doesn't like it, far as I can tell). But I admit to chaffing over zie and hir and some of the rest — a little too precious for my tastes — though I've come to realize two things: First off, it costs me incredibly little to try to call people what they like. I fuck it up sometimes (I have a coworker who gives their gender as "stegosaurus" with maybe only a little bit of joking), but it's not a huge deal if you move with good faith. The other thing I've realized is that trans folk get so fucked with on a daily basis over things core to their identity that really, it makes me feel like an intentional asshole to not just ask 'em what they like to be called and try to do that. Takes less effort than trying to remember to water the houseplants, and I manage to do that OK too.

Finally, I'll mention that I didn't really think much about this — and was much more dismissive of it — until I met and worked with genderqueer folks. I know that follows the general path that all of my normative privilege takes, or that anyone's takes — people tended to support segregation until they knew black folks personally, people tend to be against gay rights until they know a gay person personally, and genderqueer can feel like another imposition on your life which you've already filled up with worries all on your own. But because genderqueer folks are a minority of trans folk, and because trans folk are a minority of the LGBT community, and because LGBT folks are already a minority in general society, I'm taking a moment here to hope that you can get this without having to make friends with some trans folk on your own. There just aren't enough of them to go around for every stodgy gender-conservative to have their own trans friend to gently birth them into the world of acceptance and understanding. It's a totally small thing for me, it's a totally small thing for you, and it's actually kind of a small thing for the trans folk I know, compared to all the rest of the shit that they're up against. But when you have everyone be dismissive of something that's an innate part of your identity all the time, that's really shitty even if every turd's a small one. Here's to hoping that you don't have to go through the onerous process of getting to know a trans person before treating them like a person.
posted by klangklangston at 11:37 PM on January 25, 2012 [21 favorites]


vegartanipla There's a big problem here, which is cause in part by the fact that "they" already has two somewhat different strictly correct meanings in English, a plural pronoun used with an antecedent ("I asked Ted and Betty to come along to the movie but they didn't want to") and another sort of pronoun used without antecedent that is in a sense a plural version of "one" ("They say Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is unwatchable"). Then there's the not strictly grammatical "he or she" meaning ("Everyone should vote for the movie they most want to see").

Yet another meaning for "they" I think is loading it on a bit, particularly when there is so much room for confusion about exactly whom is being referred to. There is arguably though a need for a nongendered pronoun at least as a term of art in writing about the noncisgendered. (I don't think it's quite a pressing a need as, for example, that for "Ms." four decades ago, but I do think the new pronoun(s) should be, as "Ms." was, newly minted rather than recycled from pronouns already in use.
posted by La Cieca at 11:37 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I'm unclear on whose blog has the explanation. Normally, I'd assume it was Xtra!'s blog, but the "their chosen pronoun" shows the sentence is using singular as well as plural they, so the ending is unresolved."

"A few weeks later Calgarian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon would turn down an Xtra! cover and interview because theyXtra! wouldn't respect "they" as their chosen pronoun and explained it in their blog."

FTFT
posted by klangklangston at 11:42 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


For people who believe that their structures are sacrosanct, allow me to introduce you to the wisdom of Abed:

"Once you know who you are and what you really like about yourself, changing for others is not such a big deal."
posted by Errant at 12:03 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Singular they has a long, long history in english & the prescriptivists can go stick their heads in a pig. That is all.
posted by pharm at 12:13 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Perhaps it's because I'm a Brit but this seems like a storm in a teacup. Singular "they/their" is widely accepted and extremely common over here. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I'm something of a grammar Nazi.
posted by Decani at 12:52 AM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sometimes people choose to identify themselves in non-standard ways that complicate matters for editors, whose job it is to keep language more or less in line with what their readers are expecting, and won't confuse the heck out of them.

The extent to which this is mandated by biology or identity is hard to pin down; in the end, the principle is less a trans issue and more deferring to self-identification. So if we respect danah boyd's desire to stay uncapitalized, we should also respect Elisha Lim's desire to stay pronominally ungendered. (Though I think Xtra's compromise measure is pretty sensible: It avoids applying an unwanted term, and also avoids throwing readers for a loop.)

As an aside: I went to uni with Elisha, who I remember being as cool, kind and level-headed as could be. That doesn't seem to have changed.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:59 AM on January 26, 2012


So Elisha Lim wants to be referred to as "they" and Xtra magazine say the usage is confusing. Well I think they are correct.

And you can read that statement whichever way you want.
posted by seanyboy at 1:54 AM on January 26, 2012


I haven't got a dog in this fight, really. If you care, I'm a cisgendered nearly divorced woman, but by gum, I have nearly all my life (or since I learnt French in high school) desired a non-gendered pronoun, like lui. What I keep in my pants, and what I think about it, is nobody's business but mine. Also the people I like to hang out with, their gender really not important but people make assumptions all the time, based on stereotypes. So I spent all night talking on the phone to a friend, why does it matter if it's a him or a her?

We can say it's inappropriate to bring up people's racial identity, or their ethnic background or religious propensities in discussing, for example, their potential employment (great! I agree) but tell me how you're going to avoid mentioning their gender, huh?

To top it off, I'm formatting an academic text for beginning teachers where one of the academics states "when you meet someone, you may forget their name, but you don't forget their gender" as an excuse for whatever s/he writes next. Bloody hell.
posted by b33j at 2:04 AM on January 26, 2012


dasein: "presumably it's because you identify with the other gender."

The problem here is assuming that there are only two genders. Gender is actually a much more subtle, nuanced thing than that. Instead, think of gender as a spectrum, or (better) as the flow of colors in the world: infinite combinations are possible, both in static and dynamic ways.
posted by jiawen at 2:05 AM on January 26, 2012


That's the most depressingly vague description of anything I've ever heard. Gender is a shape in a multi-dimensional space? You may as well just get rid of the word.
posted by seanyboy at 2:28 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


to make myself clear. I've no problem with multiple genders with language to describe those genders along social and physiological axis, but by giving it too much fluidity, you deprive it of any use.
posted by seanyboy at 2:32 AM on January 26, 2012


by giving it too much fluidity, you deprive it of any use
That's a really interesting point, seanyboy, which made me ask myself, what use is the gender label?
posted by b33j at 2:42 AM on January 26, 2012


b33j: For social interactions, I can see only one use for the gender tag. To separate people into the two groups: "people I would have sex with" and "people I wouldn't have sex with"

That comes with its own set of problems, but socially, it is the only reason for me to use gender.

And by problems, I mean problems.
posted by seanyboy at 2:52 AM on January 26, 2012


I've no problem with multiple genders with language to describe those genders along social and physiological axis, but by giving it too much fluidity, you deprive it of any use.

I entirely disagree, and the reason I disagree is because I spend possibly way too much time thinking about race. Amalgamations of what we consider to be races enhance and expand the human experience and definition; we almost never say that someone of mixed or unclear racial identity deprives the notion of race of any meaning, and the few people who do say that are almost always anti-miscegenist assholes.

Variation and nuance under the race label expand our understanding of what race is and how it impacts in small and large ways our daily experience. Why should gender be any different? For a long time, race in the US was considered a binary proposition between blacks and whites. It's only relatively recently that we have socially come to understand that there are many other races involved in that dynamic. So why should we settle for a gender binary, when we know that virtually nothing else exists in a this-or-that mentality? Once we accept the falsity of a gender binary, why should we then expect that it will only be a trinary or quarnary? Fluidity of definition does not render definitions meaningless; rather, it expands what we understand to be possible. As we comprehend greater possibility, we are more able to accept the heretofore marginalized and ignored, because they have places in our conception that we can now accept. They were always there; it is our failing that we didn't see them before.

On preview: the problem I have with your gender definition is that it revolves around your desires. I do not think the world orients so neatly or conveniently.
posted by Errant at 3:00 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I gave was not my definition of gender. It was the only reason I can see why I personally would need for a gender definition in a social situation. As stated, this definition does have huge problems. You've touched on some of those problems in your response. Needless to say, you're not telling me anything I hadn't considered.

Interesting that you bought race into it. I'm wary of comparing gender and race usually but your analogy has merit. I agree with you, but again I think you miss my point. I don't have a problem with a clearly defined way of discussing either race or gender. My issue was with a definition so vague as to be actually useless.
posted by seanyboy at 3:13 AM on January 26, 2012


"They", as all good grammarians know, is a transensitive pronoun.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:17 AM on January 26, 2012


Anyway - this is about using "they" as a preferred personal pronoun, so apologies once again for drifting away from the subject.

I have a question. Any people here who prefer "they"? When I'm talking about you, do I say "They is..." or "They are..."?
posted by seanyboy at 3:37 AM on January 26, 2012


My issue was with a definition so vague as to be actually useless.

Well, so the question is then: what do you believe the utility of gender should be?
posted by Errant at 3:43 AM on January 26, 2012


I have to say that this stuff from Xtra feels like outright misogyny to me. If there's a little bit of a hint of having previously been a woman, are one now, or could possibly be in the venn diagram intersection... then we're going to be complete and utter bastards because we can.

I may have it all wrong, but that's how it feels. Like how Australia's government policy treated people who just had a "touch of Aboriginal" in their family tree. Like shit. Because they were powerful and they could. It's pretty disgusting.
posted by taff at 3:43 AM on January 26, 2012


The problem here is assuming that there are only two genders. Gender is actually a much more subtle, nuanced thing than that.

Is it? Probably so, but most people don't think this way and tying acceptance of trans individual with adoption of this world view only slows down the former. You actually don't have to agree with any new perspectives on gender to learn not to be bigot.
posted by spaltavian at 4:22 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's an interesting issue, and I have to say that I don't really think much of an English language writer who can't work out how to do this without being confused or confusing. Ultimately, I don't know if "they" will make the cut as a generally-used genderless pronoun, but it easily could, and the internet may help drive that in a big way, since we are often referring to unknown users whose names or handles are ambiguous, and the assumption that every poster is male unless their name reveals otherwise is becoming increasingly deprecated (to use the parlance of our medium).

I end up using "they" more and more frequently because of this, and it feels less and less odd. What interests me is the question of other languages, where gender is more baked into the sentence structure. Say you still use the indefinite plural, do you use the feminine or masculine adjective when the language doesn't have a grammatical neuter? Son buenos or son buenas?
posted by taz at 4:39 AM on January 26, 2012


klangklangston: I've come to realize two things: First off, it costs me incredibly little to try to call people what they like. I fuck it up sometimes (I have a coworker who gives their gender as "stegosaurus" with maybe only a little bit of joking), but it's not a huge deal if you move with good faith. The other thing I've realized is that trans folk get so fucked with on a daily basis over things core to their identity that really, it makes me feel like an intentional asshole to not just ask 'em what they like to be called and try to do that. Takes less effort than trying to remember to water the houseplants, and I manage to do that OK too.

I really wanted to post something like this, but this says it perfectly (emphasis added).
posted by Infinite Jest at 5:10 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


May I 'umbly suggest: 'e drew the cover. Problem solved.

(But really what Klang said.)
posted by ~ at 5:26 AM on January 26, 2012


what do you believe the utility of gender should be?

Errant: I think it's useful in biology (medicine, surgery, etc). I think it's useful for me to work out who I want to have sex with. I think it's a reasonably good shorthand for describing a majority of people (for scene setting purposes). It's useful for discussing itself about itself.

(I don't mean to be glib with this last one. I'm trying to find a way of categorising things like sexism where gender is used as an artificial differentiator. The only way of discussing sexism is to then make use of gender.)

I'm probably missing some obvious things, but then I don't know really know how other people use gender. I guess different people get different things out of it for different reasons, but for me, the only area gender is useful to me in any logically excusable way is as a tickbox for me to use to help determine who is a potential mate and who is a potential rival.

(we can keep circling this around as much as you want BTW. I say what gender means to me, you question why I've personalised it, I broaden my explanation, and then you ask what it means to me personally. Repeat until dizzy. It's a fun game)

We're sidetracking again too. I'm happy to talk around this subject with my faux intellectual style, but the truth is - If you want me to address you a certain way - I'm going to do my best to do that. Not exactly sure why anyone wouldn't do the same.
posted by seanyboy at 5:29 AM on January 26, 2012


We use the same pronoun for singular and plural second person: you. (Some dialects also use y'all, but that is generally not encouraged.) Confusion happens, but is rare. Singular "they" is much more likely to be accepted than any new pronoun. We will still manage to communicate.
posted by Nothing at 5:35 AM on January 26, 2012


> A mistaken editorial decision is one thing, but to make an express policy of not honouring a
> request that's so minor to fulfill is pretty gauche.

Minor requests are marked by its not mattering much whether they are honored. As here.


> The problem here is assuming that there are only two genders. Gender is actually a much
> more subtle, nuanced thing than that.

It might be good if a word could capture and convey all the subtleties and nuances there are. But they don't and they can't. Humans keep their linguistic (and mental) categories to a manageable few by considering perfectly clear example cases and ignoring intermediate and/or undecidable ones.
posted by jfuller at 5:36 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's useful in biology (medicine, surgery, etc).

Wait, do you mean gender, or sex?

I see the use of "they" here on metafilter a lot when someone is talking about another mefite but doesn't know their sex/gender. It would be interesting to see the infodump on this, if there were some way this particular use of they and their could be teased out.
posted by rtha at 5:47 AM on January 26, 2012


Great to see this here. I was the one who had initially arranged Rae's cover story with Xtra, and Rae and I decided to decline it in the wake of the controversy. A former Xtra journalist contacted us and ended up interviewing us and writing a great story and posting it online here.
Our event is this Friday in Ottawa if you want to come.

posted by Theta States at 6:34 AM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Our event is this Friday in Ottawa if you want to come.
Our event is this SATURDAY in Ottawa if you want to come.

posted by Theta States at 6:44 AM on January 26, 2012


I wanted to point out sevenyearlurk's link, which I thought what this post was going to be about. An Editor at Xtra straight up refused to respect a transperson's request to not refer to their birth (and other-gender) name in public, and refused to apologize, and claimed that the subsequent uproar in the trans-community was overblown and bullying.

Since then, a couple of other people in the Toronto trans-community have come out with their own experiences dealing with Xtra. Here's another post on it. I'll try to dig up more info when I get home tonight.

Takes deep breath, dives into discussion.
posted by Phire at 6:51 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The point is to end bigotry, discrimination and oppression. I'm not sure the battle over pronouns really achieves much in that department.

On the internet, especially here, all you have are words. And you can do a lot with those words, include or exclude people, make them feel welcome or not. What's more, words changes thought and thought changes behaviour.

All tawdry accusations of political correctness aside, there is something to be said about being careful with your language, especially when it comes to something as important as somebody's identity. My own personal bugbear is people who insist on spelling their names in lower case as that just wrong and physically hurts, but if they want to do it that way, who am I to deny them that?
posted by MartinWisse at 6:52 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a question. Any people here who prefer "they"? When I'm talking about you, do I say "They is..." or "They are..."?

When referring to a named person use "is" (Elisha Lim wants you to refer to them as them. They is adamant about this.); otherwise, use "are". Because "they is" is jarring for a lot of people so when you can away with it, it's easier to go for the full plural.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:56 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a question. Any people here who prefer "they"? When I'm talking about you, do I say "They is..." or "They are..."?

I shouldn't be answering, really, as I'm not someone who prefers 'they', but I'll barge in in some privileged, presumptuous way. (Actually, I'm not sure I even know anyone who prefers 'they'. I know a couple of people who want their names used rather than pronouns, which dodges your question.)

Two things. One is that Facebook used not to try so strenuously to make everyone have a gender and would use 'they are' for people who had not specified a gender, so, in some sense, it's an indication we've already settled this question. The second (and someone already said this) is that 'is' and 'are' don't map perfectly onto singular and plural--we have 'you are' in both the singular and plural. Using 'they are' for a singular they can be ambiguous, sure, but it's not going to break some cardinal rule of language that we haven't already broken. (Of course, English isn't unique in this kind of ambiguity--a capital letter in the pronoun separates the third person plural and the singular and plural second person formal in German.)

May I 'umbly suggest: 'e drew the cover. Problem solved.

Sadly, the Spivak pronouns didn't catch on. (But were used in print in a couple of math books, should you ever need to win an argument by appeal to publishing.)
posted by hoyland at 6:56 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


rtha: I guess I mean "sex" and I've been using gender and sex interchangeably. Thanks for the heads up.

So gender's a pretty useless concept then. Unless we're using it to talk about itself.
posted by seanyboy at 6:59 AM on January 26, 2012


Thanks MartinWisse. Given the rise of "they is" as an urban/underclass indicator, this seem pretty hilarious to me. Jeremy Kyle will never be the same again.
posted by seanyboy at 7:04 AM on January 26, 2012


I am a writer, editor, and the daughter of an English professor. I've had grammar rules drilled into my head not only at school but at home since early childhood. I mentally correct road signs, restaurant menus and internet posts all day long. When I accidentally publish a typo (which, hey, happens to everyone -- it's way easier to spot someone else's error than your own), I feel a twinge of physical pain.

So I understand the writers' and editors' reluctance to violate the rules of grammar. I understand their desire not to confuse their readers, and their reluctance to appear as though they do not know the rules of their profession. But there is a very easy way to solve both of those problems:

At the beginning of the article, upon first mention of the subject's name simply write, "Elisha Lim (who prefers to be referred to by the pronoun 'they') . . ."

And then just refer to the person by the pronoun they prefer for the rest of the article.

It's not that hard. Writers make notes in articles that they will be referring to a subject by a pseudonym all the time. How is making a note that a person prefers a certain pronoun any harder? It isn't. The reader confusion / one true grammar argument sounds to me like a cover for bigotry.
posted by BlueJae at 7:25 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


(See? I totally left a comma out of that comment and now I'm freaking out.)
posted by BlueJae at 7:27 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


BlueJae: "(See? I totally left a comma out of that comment and now I'm freaking out.)"

Now people will just look for it!

I'm looking for it.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 7:40 AM on January 26, 2012


As a reporter, the idea of interviewing someone but not respecting their wishes about how they'll be represented is abhorrent.

Blisteringly, insanely, ridiculously STUPID

You know, mie, you could just say that you disagree. Because when you resort to hyperbole like this over something so mundane it just makes you sound like the kind of person that always talks to me on airplanes or at bus stops, who has really strong opinions about shit they don't really have any business talking about.
posted by hermitosis at 7:53 AM on January 26, 2012


Also this "rules of grammar" stylesheet nonsense is no excuse for what happened. As a full-time writer and editor, I can tell you that exceptions are made constantly, particularly in special or original cases, basically at the whim of whomever's in charge.
posted by hermitosis at 7:56 AM on January 26, 2012


(See? I totally left a comma out of that comment and now I'm freaking out.)

It seems more like you put a few unnecessary commas in, or is that a difference between dialects? (Foo, bar, and baz as opposed to foo, bar and baz.)
posted by MartinWisse at 7:59 AM on January 26, 2012


I wanted to point out sevenyearlurk's link, which I thought what this post was going to be about. An Editor at Xtra straight up refused to respect a transperson's request to not refer to their birth (and other-gender) name in public, and refused to apologize, and claimed that the subsequent uproar in the trans-community was overblown and bullying.

Although I didn't follow it closely, my understanding is that this might have been a more difficult situation to sort out - although the same fundamental issue of respect for identity and representation is still at the heart of it. In this case, the editor was posting something on his own facebook wall, and had known (and was allegedly bullied by) the trans person in question in high school. So it hits on that challenging boundary of whether one has to edit their own history to be respectful of someone else's present situation -- but in this case I think the semi-public nature of the editor's facebook wall changes the dynamic.

I would also note that, for all its many faults, Xtra does cover many trans and genderqueer issues and stories that are otherwise utterly ignored by mainstream media, and have been advocates on issues like sex reassignment surgery coverage under provincial health care, sex workers' rights and safety as well as promoting general visibility of trans activism and communit(ies). They screw up - arguably a lot - and they need to be better, but I think they should be treated as an ally that is struggling rather than as an enemy. That said, I know it's not my job as an ally to tell other communities how to manage their activism -- so I'm just going to try to watch and learn.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:03 AM on January 26, 2012


MartinWisse: "It seems more like you put a few unnecessary commas in, or is that a difference between dialects? (Foo, bar, and baz as opposed to foo, bar and baz.)"

Hey. HEY.

Oxford comma 4 life.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 8:04 AM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is the most adorable video I have seen all week and I have spent a significant number of hours this week watching videos of sleepy kittens, so.

This is indeed an adorable video. Spoon has a charming voice.
posted by winna at 8:07 AM on January 26, 2012


That's what I was taught by my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:07 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


They screw up - arguably a lot - and they need to be better, but I think they should be treated as an ally that is struggling

Did you see the "forum" they broadcast online? They brought in some fabulous Toronto people that told them repeatedly all of the mistakes they had made and gave them trans 101 training on the spot.
Xtra people continued to deny their record, refused to apologize, and wow did it ever make amazing televsion. But it was tragic that the forum even occurred.
Xtra doesn't think it is struggling, they (and Dan Savange...) think trans people are biting the hand that feeds.
posted by Theta States at 8:09 AM on January 26, 2012


I may be giving the current editors more benefit of doubt than they deserve.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:27 AM on January 26, 2012


As an editor, there are many abuses of grammar that make me want to rend my garments and tear my hair, although I do try desperately to only care about them if they appear in something I'm editing, and I'm mostly a descriptivist when I'm not being paid to adhere to a particular house style. Even then, house styles change all the time - they aren't written in stone, and even the vaunted NYT house style has undergone a number of changes over the decades and the world has not ended.

While I was drinking my coffee earlier and perusing facebook, this popped up in my feed:
I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
Horrible, right? The person who wrote it is clearly ignorant (although the sentiment is awesome) when it comes to the Rules of the English language. The original can be found here (it's in the penultimate sentence of the first letter).
posted by rtha at 8:31 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


> So I understand the writers' and editors' reluctance to violate the rules of grammar.

This is not about the rules of grammar. Anybody who thinks it is is confusing "grammar" (a formalized explanation of how native speakers use their own language) with "what Mrs. Thistlebottom drilled into me in elementary school."

As a fellow editor/descriptivist, I second rtha's comments above.
posted by languagehat at 8:42 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


All tawdry accusations of political correctness aside,

Was that meant to characterize my post? I made no such accusation. I think it's possibly confusing the map for the territory, not PC run amok.
posted by spaltavian at 9:20 AM on January 26, 2012


I was taught to be a strict prescriptivist, and I mean STRICT. When I was in high school, I would have lost an entire letter grade on a paper for a single noun-pronoun disagreement. My high school prided itself -- still does -- on graduating people who really knew how to write, and it is not an exaggeration to say that my language prescriptivism has been a real part of my personal identity.

But I've been growing increasingly uncomfortable with it over time, and metaman livingblog really encapsulated why when they said "I see language conservatism used as a class marker." That is absolutely why we were taught to be such strict prescriptivists, to demonstrate that we were of the correct class. (Private school. We also had tea in the headmaster's parlor every afternoon and had to stand when an adult entered the room. It's an excellent school in many ways, but it's also virtually a parody of itself.) The refusal to relax one's personal language usage in order to accommodate increasingly fluid ideas of personal identity sends a subtle but powerful message; it says "I don't give two shits about you and what you want, and I don't have to, because I get to make the rules around here."

I don't really have a good solution. I'm not going to stop snarking on grocers' apostrophes, and you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold dead hands. But when it comes to terms of personal identity, man, it seems like all you lose by accommodating someone's identifying terms is that class enforcement.
posted by KathrynT at 9:34 AM on January 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


My general sense of Xtra is that they do a good job with L and G issues, less so with B and T. (Or so my B/T friends tell me.) Less surprising, really, since that's a divide that exists pretty prominently within the LGBTQ community at large, but still disheartening. My personal opinion is that if the editor had an issue with previous bullying experience with the subject of the feature, then they shouldn't have been assigned to the article, or should have recused themselves when they were.

I don't remember if it was in the link I posted, but I recall an anecdote from a trans-person that sort of highlights the type of problems that exist within the staff. The person was being interviewed by two staff journalists, and they went out for drinks after work. Over beers, one of the staff members commented that they didn't understand why trans-folk wanted to legislate protections for things like unisex bathrooms, because it was pointless to the larger cause.

That seems like the kind of thing you should learn not to say, if you're working for a magazine that purports to promote equity and safe spaces for all. But, I agree, these issues are always more complex than they seem.
posted by Phire at 10:08 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I threw a fit about the singular "they" here on MeFi a couple of weeks ago, but I've given it some more thought since then. I have decided that I am happy to accept the singular "they" (as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun that is a homonym of the plural "they") provided that it takes a singular verb. MartinWisse's comment satisfies me perfectly.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:41 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


jfuller: "It might be good if a word could capture and convey all the subtleties and nuances there are. But they don't and they can't. Humans keep their linguistic (and mental) categories to a manageable few by considering perfectly clear example cases and ignoring intermediate and/or undecidable ones."

But we also create new words to more accurately reflect the variety of the world, and we learn, and we try to embrace new concepts.
posted by jiawen at 2:14 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


NOW magazine and The Grid - two non-queer Toronto newspapers - managed to use "they" as a gender neutral pronoun in their reviews of Rae Spoon's new album without any trouble. From The Grid:
Spoon is transgender and favours the gender-neutral pronoun “they”

Simple, elegant, clean. If you are an anglophone, it is really not that difficult once you use it or hear/see it used a few times.

Frankly, Xtra should be embarrassed. As a queer paper, they should be on the FOREFRONT of queer and trans issues - not insisting loudly and publicly on lagging pitifully at the back.
posted by sea change at 2:32 PM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


My general sense of Xtra is that they do a good job with L and G issues, less so with B and T. (Or so my B/T friends tell me.)

Sadly, mainstream queer media outlets that don't do a shitty job with B & T issues are few and far between.
posted by Zozo at 3:15 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


An argument for the singular they. I think it makes the most sense simply because it is the least jarring pronoun option, especially in spoken language. Even though it sounds a little incorrect, it's begun to feel more correct, and it neatly solves the whole issue. Declaring a new pronoun like "zhe" is never going to work unless the government demands its use, but everyone can suffer a little bad grammar.

You know, pretty much all new grammar rules start out as "bad grammar."
posted by lubujackson at 3:58 PM on January 26, 2012


The near future Ian McDonald book River of Gods posits an neuter gender (made so by surgery and chemical therapy) who prefer the pronoun "yt".
posted by shothotbot at 4:48 PM on January 26, 2012


"...we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share..."

--President Obama, 2012 State of the Union address

I realize that instance of "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun flows more smoothly than other some others do, but still.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:45 PM on January 26, 2012


infinite intimation: "Why didn't he just PICK a name for I. to be, how could we talk to him if he never told us, how did we manage?"

Call him Ishmael?
posted by Samizdata at 11:05 PM on February 9, 2012


« Older in which the owner of The New York Knicks, James D...  |  It's a day of high jinx, high ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments