Abandon All Hope… Or, Let’s Play the Pronoun Game

Beads spelling out "non-binary"
By Iris Lagerweij | December 6th, 2021

She/her, he/him, they/them, mx., mr., ms., neopronouns… Where are you even supposed to start? Preferred pronouns are here to stay, but the way we treat the concept and everything connected to it is something that has been codifying over the last few years. Starting in 2017 (see graph below), there’s a clear upwards trend in things like Google Searches of people who want to know what they mean. So, how are we dealing with preferred pronouns, and what does that mean, exactly?


A trend that has popped up in recent years is going to a Trump rally and asking his supporters to explain their thoughts on certain issues, and then pointing and laughing at them when they say something stupid. It’s very easy to do when you hear someone say something like, “I can’t believe they’re teaching our kids about pronouns,” because pronouns are, of course, an integral part of languages. However, this kind of cheap shot, while it might feel vindicating in the moment, doesn’t really get us anywhere: it is very clear what Trump supporters mean when they disparage the concept of “pronouns.” And while trans people shouldn’t change their behaviors in order to convince transphobes to be less transphobic, I’m still inclined to think that these sorts of videos don’t contribute to a healthy or productive debate.

Worse still, there is a kind of basis for what they’re saying – to a certain extent. “Gender is a social construct” is a phrase that has been thrown around so often in recent years the sentiment it expresses has become lost over time. In its simplest form, the only thing this sentence conveys is this: gender, like money, and science – and, crucially, language – is something that we have collectively made up, arbitrarily decided, and assigned values to. There’s nothing in nature to suggest a type of body is meant to wear a type of clothing. Similarly, there are no words that naturally refer to a type of person: the only ones that exist, as with all words, are ones that we have made up. 

Why would this support transphobic arguments? Well, one could say then, that we use pronouns to refer to a specific person with specific features as a kind of shorthand. If these words lose their original specificity, then it can lead to regular confusion. If someone at a table were to “look like a man,” and you told the waiter “I am meeting her,” then it’s logical to assume that this waiter might get confused – after all, these pronouns already have meaning, and already refer to specific characteristics in a person. 

However, that’s where the more ideological instead of literal meaning of things like “gender (or language) is a social construct” comes in. Crucially, if we argue that something is a social construct, that means that we all have the power to change it – as long as enough people believe it means something different, the original meaning of a word will just fade away — examples of this are words like “gay” and “queer,” which used to mean “happy and “strange,” but are now almost exclusively used to refer to sexuality. Additionally, if a trans person were to transition in a way, and they would “look like a woman,” then it would be more logical to refer to them with she/her-pronouns, as once again, these pronouns refer to visible or social characteristics. 

This structure falls apart when confronted with the presence of non-binary people or binary trans people whose goal isn’t to “pass,” however. As the name suggests, non-binary people fall outside of the male/female gender binary that is so prevalent in European and American societies. As such, non-binary people tend to prefer gender-neutral pronouns, whether these be the singular they or neopronouns (this isn’t true for all non-binary people, and some of them could prefer combinations of pronouns, like she/they). If we were to apply the same linguistic structure to non-binary people, and attach specific social characteristics to gender-neutral pronouns, then we would first have to create a mental idea of what a non-binary person would look like – otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to assign them pronouns as “shorthand.” However, because non-binary people can “look like anything” and prefer a range of pronouns, this can quickly get difficult and require a radical overhaul of the entire system. No wonder, then, that conservatives seem so opposed to this; after all, as their name implies, they want to conserve the status quo.

Plus, not all progressive “measures” taken to accommodate preferred pronouns are very inclusive. Although there are often good intentions behind them, things like the pronoun circles, wherein everyone is encouraged to share their preferred pronouns upon meeting each other in a classroom or business setting, can easily become very stifling. As an example, a trans person might feel like a pronoun circle is happening solely because they are trans and present – or a pronoun circle might force a closeted trans person to out themselves as trans or misgender themselves publicly. 

So, then, what would be the solution? How can we accommodate preferred pronouns and non-binary genders within our current language structure? I have absolutely no idea. Non-binary genders and people allow for, to quote an important sci-fi show from the 60s, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, which might make it impossible to come to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone. It’s a sensitive topic, and will likely remain so for a considerable amount of time, and the only thing that can offer any sort of comfort is your own good intentions. But, as we all know, the road to hell…