a blog by J.M. Cottle
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What’s in a pronoun?

If you happen to take a look at my About page, you’ll see that my preferred pronoun is the singular ‘they’. This means that instead of saying “Jay put on her coat” or “Jay put on his coat”, you would say “Jay put on their coat”.

This is not that unusual. We already use ‘they’ when we’re referring to someone without knowing their gender. Look, I did it right there — “their gender”. Some snobby grammarians would tell you that it’s incorrect, but they are wrong. Personally I think it would be best if we took gender out of it altogether and referred to everyone as ‘they’ all the time. There are already some other languages that don’t use gendered pronouns, such as Persian and Finnish, and they seem to be getting along just fine, so I don’t see why this wouldn’t work for English.

For now, I have to deal with a language that uses gendered pronouns, and so far I’ve been told by at least four people that my pronoun is awkward. They’ve said that it makes me sound like I have multiple personalities, that it doesn’t flow in a sentence, and that it’s hard because they’re talking to people who already know me as ‘she’. These are my friends and they are all open-minded about gender, which makes it even harder to hear. If my friends aren’t comfortable with my pronoun, what chance do I have of getting anyone else to use it?

This made me realize that my pronoun is not just about me. Of course, a person’s pronouns are mostly about them, and if someone tells you they prefer a certain pronoun then you’d better use it. It’s rude and unkind to ignore someone’s pronoun preferences, even if they use one you may never have heard before, like ‘sie’, ‘zie’, ‘xe’, or ‘ey’.

But… have you ever noticed that you’re the only person who doesn’t actually use your pronoun? And that asking people to use a pronoun that requires an explanation is basically asking them to come out for you? I don’t like doing that. I don’t like making a huge deal about my lack of gender. I just want gender to leave me alone. Especially in everyday life when I’m trying to eat my lunch or whatever and I’m not prepared to launch into Gender 101. I would love it if people commonly asked each other “what’s your preferred pronoun?” and no one took offense.

What’s a person to do? Well, sometimes it seems like the most practical option for me is to use ‘she’. Most people are going to use it anyway, so it’s the only pronoun I wouldn’t have to explain at all. This would allow me to stop making a big deal about my lack of gender.

But ‘she’ hurts. It feels like a tiny sucker punch when someone uses it, especially if I’ve already come out to them. So I could ask people to use ‘he’, which is equally incorrect but at least doesn’t cause the same pain.

If I’m going to use a pronoun that requires explaining, though, I might as well use one that’s correct. So I could work on normalizing ‘they’, helping people feel less awkward about using it.

For now, I ask that you use ‘they’ online. It’s easy to type something, even if it would be strange to say it aloud, and I’m out as genderless online anyway. Offline… things becomes blurrier. Until I have decided for myself, feel free to use whatever pronoun suits the situation if you’re talking about me offline.

4 Responses to What’s in a pronoun?

  1. “But… have you ever noticed that you’re the only person who doesn’t actually use your pronoun? And that asking people to use a pronoun that requires an explanation is basically asking them to come out for you? ”

    Yes, maybe that’s why I find it so awkward to ask – I have no problem being out or talking about being trans, but this is like imposing something that seems unnecessary.

    It’s especially difficult in Spanish, when you DO have to gender yourself while speaking, and thus maybe inadvertently out yourself in mid-conversation…. It also makes for inelegant pauses while I decide which (tiny yet significant) vowel to use at the end of a word.

    • Oh yeah, French has the same issue. I haven’t spoken French for a while, but I always felt like I wanted to use the masculine words because they were the default. We’re lucky not to have to worry about that in English, at least.

  2. Jillian, I hate to be the mean girl, but it’s awkward. I have been making an effort to refer to you as “they” or “this particular person” offline (and James has a wonderful time correcting me when I mess up and call you “her”), but it’s hard for those of us in mainstream society to adjust to a person not having a gender. As your friend, I understand that this is important to you, but this is a tough battle to fight with most people. I really appreciated you explaining where you’re coming from and I hope the people closest to you will respect your wishes.

    • I definitely understand, Brittany. Say thanks to James for me!

      Ever since you asked if I would like to be a ‘he’ I have been considering switching to it. I may do a test run with a friend or two and see what happens. Especially with my short haircut, this seems like it might be a viable option. A ‘he’ named Jillian, haha. I kind of like that.

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