The Gay Agenda* #3: Those Pesky Pronouns

When I was a wee, impressionable child, the BBC and Time-Life Films released the documentary series The Ascent of Man. I became hooked on all things prehistory and travel themed. I read Peter Mathiessen’s The Tree Where Man Was Born. I worked my way through Richard Leakey’s Origins, which won the “Man in His Environment Award” in 1977, and which Time magazine billed as “the bestseller about how man became man.” I checked out multiple books (whose titles I have long forgotten) about Lascaux, the art of stone age man, and the importance of sympathetic magic to man the hunter. Somewhere along the way I started asking what any rational, female child would ask, “where wereany-women-400px the women?” “They were there,” I was reassured, “the words man and mankind, are inclusive, they mean both men and women.” “But,” I objected, “it specifically says ‘he’.” Again came the reassurance. “In English, ‘he’ is the default pronoun. It includes everyone.” “So,” I reasoned, “when it says, ‘man made stone tools,’ it means ‘humans, men and women?’” I still love the answer I got. “Well, technically, yes, but, realistically it was almost certainly men.” It has a charming Spinal Tap quality. In the course of asserting how inclusive they are, they observe, “We don’t literally say it. We don’t really, literally mean it. No, we don’t believe it either … But the message should be clear, anyway.”

As I worked my way through public, undergraduate, and graduate schools, my perplexity (ok, I’ll be honest, my cynicism) deepened. I was required by many (not all!) professors to use the default “he” in papers. Saying “he or she” was deemed “awkward” and an “assault on the beauty of the English language.” Take a moment to repeat the words “he, him, his” to yourself aloud, a few times, and appreciate their intrinsic aesthetic appeal. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.) Using “them” and “they” was verboten because it was “too confusing.” Did I mean that something was done by one individual or more than one? So, the number of individuals (at least at the level of distinguishing between one versus two-or-more) was important for clarity, but subsuming the gender of all individuals under the masculine pronoun was a non-issue? one-million-years-b.c.-In anthropology classes. Where we talked about gendered division of labor. Little wonder that male hunting and male provisioning of females (who, presumably, only existed at reproductive ages, and did nothing but ovulate, lactate, and, maybe, sweep the cave occasionally) were seen as the driving forces of hominid evolution by such luminaries as Raymond Dart and Owen Lovejoy. They said they were considering what women were doing. (They just didn’t literally mean it.) Anyone who suspected that “what women were doing” might be an interesting (dare we hint, possibly even important?) line of inquiry, or that the universal use of “he” actually influenced the assumptions that researchers (not to mention popularizers) made, was being “unrealistic” and “oversensitive.” Pointing out that the use of the default masculine in English pronouns functioned as a form of linguistic coverture was, of course, completely overreaching.

You (I should say, thou, assuming each reader is a single individual, I wouldn’t want to be confusing) may be breathing a sigh of relief that thou now livest in a much more enlightened age. I regret to to share with thee, that the issue of pronouns is still a source of heated debate. Thou wouldst think thatCaveBearClan people in academia would be satisfied now that women have infiltrated every major, and some schools even offer courses like “women’s studies” and “women’s history,” but, no. Advocates of political correctness gone wild (wild, I tell thee) insist on suggesting that, if we look a bit more critically at our assumptions about gender and sexuality, things might, perhaps, be a bit more complicated (and dare we suggest, more interesting?) than we had previously supposed. It is too much. It makes one positively long for the good old days when men were men, and didn’t need to fret about anything more than finding a good mammoth to poke with a spear and present to a woman before impregnating her (assuming you could distract her from those pretty pink berries.)

Why, just recently, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness had the temerity to request, on the school’s website, no less, that students and faculty might, just might, consider the use of gender-neutral pronouns for those individuals who would be more comfortable with them. They even posted alternatives to “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers,” and suggested asking individuals which pronouns they would prefer! (Gasp!) I’m certain thou art as shocked as I am that anyone would consider altering a language as untouched by time as English, in order to make people feel welcome and included in a learning environment. In response to the furore this unleashed, Joe DiPietro, the President of the entire University of Tennessee system (not just UT Knoxville) has pulled the offending memo. He observed, “The concern across the state from a really wide group of people, not just policymakers, was like nothing I’ve seen in my time having the privilege to serve the university.” He said that it was “the biggest controversy” he’s ever faced.

And this is where I will drop any attempt at snark or humor, because I am genuinely dismayed (albeit, sadly, not surprised) that so many of the citizens and lawmakers of Tennessee consider the enforcement gender-pronouns-1024x585of gendered categories to be the, single, most pressing issue of the day. Let me give you some representative quotes.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) said that it was “the clearest example of political correctness run amok” and that UT officials should “take quick action to resolve this issue” or “the legislature will most certainly weigh in” (on a memo posted to the Pride page of the Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness’ section of one school’s website.)

Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) claimed that being asked to consider the life experiences of people other than himself “suggests a lack of institutional control, and I believe the Senate Education and Government Operations committees should investigate and review.” He added that state taxpayers “should not expect to be paying for this kind of stuff.” (Doubtless, it set the state back by millions of dollars. It’s so hard to restrain the snark in response to that!)

David Fowler, a former Republican state senator, and current president of the “Family Action Council ofpronouns Tennessee” posted an online letter calling for people to phone DiPietro and “NeUTer UT’s Political Correctness.” (Did you see what he did there? Isn’t that clever?) “This is not just some crazy thing that will pass,” he proclaims. “It reflects the new worldview running higher education in Tennessee, namely the view that there are no differences between men and women and that sex is not binary based on x and y chromosomes, but some kaleidoscope of variations imagined in one’s head.”

There’s much more, including from Evangelist Franklin Graham, and a diatribe couched in rationalism, but filled with fear and loathing, at the Federalist, but I think you get the gist. There are many assertions of wasted money and accusations of “politics,” but the Federalist author gives away the real fear, observing that “changing language changes society.” While this may be true, (Thou feel’st it as well, dost thou not?) what, in this instance, is so appalling about the social change at issue? The idea that you can’t make snap judgements about someone based on assumptions centered on their chromosomes or genitals? (That one’s a berry lover. No mammoth for her!) The possibility that life might actually be messy and complicated, and require some meaningful thought or effort? The concept that a variety of peoples’ life experiences have value and legitimacy?

Interestingly, this also came up with respect to science fiction and fantasy. PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, quotes a SF/F reader who complains that, “it’s when the story is used to push the one particular viewpoint that I have an issue with it. See, for example, the protagonist in Lock In, whose gender is left unspecified throughout the entire book. Scalzi’s been praised for doing so, but to me, it leaves me unable to form a mental image of the character.” In comments there’s a healthy debate about what constitutes relevant levels of detail to progress a story, preferredgenderpronun1and whether there are people who have imagination deficits, but, of course, the big issue is that the idea of not being able to make assumptions about a person based on their gender is inconceivable to some people. This is a problem, not least, because it reflects an unwillingness to assess the world based on new evidence, as well as an inability to even try to empathize with anyone who isn’t represented by the default pronouns of the day. With respect to SF/F, commenter Cat Valente astutely observes, “for some people, a story that communicates an experience that they are unfamiliar with, whether a gendered one, or racial, or sexual, or even literary, jars them out of the story and makes it harder to get wrapped up in it. I can even use my powers of empathy to understand that, because it jars me out of a story when I come across a message about how shitty and/or unnecessary women are, because I am a woman and I like to not feel like I am shitty and unnecessary. But unfortunately, for some people, me just writing a story that draws on my life experience IS political, because my experience isn’t theirs, and the central presence of women in a story is, for them, a political act.”

All of this is on a parenting blog, because I have an Offspring at college who is gender-fluid. Back in the day when I was creatively making all sentences plural, so that I could avoid using gendered singular pronouns, the idea that swedesh-gendersanyone might not fit the gender binary was scarcely whispered behind closed doors, much less put on a website (yeah, there weren’t very many websites yet, but you get the point.) While Tennessee legislators and commentators may consider the idea that Offspring can choose xyr pronouns jarring, I find their open hostility to the identity and reality of someone I love, frankly, frightening. If using alternate pronouns is going to change society, it cannot happen soon enough for me. So, go out there and find out what pronouns people prefer, and use them (and that includes any “standard” ones)! This shouldn’t be an item only on the gay agenda. It should be on everyone’s.




eta: *“The Gay Agenda” is a series of posts reflecting my response to a broad range of issues relating to gender, sex, and sexuality. While these are distinct aspects of each person’s identity, socially and culturally they are intertwined strands of misunderstanding and institutionalized power differentials. The title “Gay Agenda” is meant to draw awareness to the fact that members of a culture are sometimes inclined to view anyone who does not abide by social expectations as having a hidden agenda, rather than as simply existing in the world as they are. Because the term “gay agenda” is used in all seriousness by some groups, I have used it as the series title. It is not meant to imply that topics will be limited to “the gay!”


featured image from via The Current
any women? cartoon from can it happen here?
One Million Years BC poster
Clan of the Cave Bear poster
University of Tennessee’s gender pronoun chart
Colorful pronouns chart
preferred gender e-card from queerty
language and gender
Swedish gender neutral hen

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Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.


  1. September 15, 2015 at 1:33 pm —

    I agree with the general thrust of the article, but I mostly want to say to the author, if you’ve never read Elaine Morgan’s “The Descent of Woman,” you really should.

    The intro here sounds almost like a quote from the intro to the book, in the way it describes a woman wondering “Yes, but what were all the cave-women doing all that time?” Except Morgan then goes on to speculate at length and in fascinating and sometimes hilarious detail about the answers to that question. The book has been criticized because it *is* mostly speculation (Morgan is a journalist, not a scientist) but it totally rocked my world, being (more or less) my introduction to the theory of evolution and to feminism at the same time, after a very religious upbringing.

    Morgan is a partisan of the “aquatic ape” hypothesis, which holds that we are hairless for the same reason as most of the other hairless mammals: spending a lot of time in the water at some point in our evolutionary history. That also explains our larynxes and breath control and subcutaneous fat and hooded noses and so on, she says. I gather that this theory doesn’t have a lot of mainstream support, so take it with a grain of salt when you read it. ( But it sure is fun to read about, especially with Morgan’s focus on how the needs of the female of the species could have been responsible for driving certain evolutionary changes in this environment. If nothing else, she’s awesome at letting the air out of the puffed up, hyper masculine image of our ancestors as ruthless hunter/warriors who spent all their time killing things. Her ancient humans, sunburned and sore and annoyed at the screaming baby who wants to eat *right now*, are much more relatable. 🙂

    • September 16, 2015 at 1:58 am —

      I’d forgotten Morgan. The aquatic ape idea doesn’t hold up, but she did move the male-centric discussion. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. September 15, 2015 at 2:26 pm —

    It is so very telling that English makes male default. I have read many articles that use he/his to refer to human kind, but I do’t think I have ever read an article that is exclusively she/her.

    As for the UT-Knoxville flier, when I first heard that state Senators were worked up over this I was shocked. You can’t tell me there are not more important things going on in TN for the government to worry about.

    • September 15, 2015 at 3:41 pm —

      It’s actually worse in other Indo-European languages. Some nouns have both a masculine and feminine form, or can be either masculine or feminine. But in the plural, one guy makes it masculine.

    • September 16, 2015 at 2:01 am —

      Slightly tangential, I *still* hear man and mankind used as a default. I really bugs me. How hard is it for people to type an extra two letters or articulate a short syllable? (Maybe catastrophic in the Tennessee legislature)

      • September 16, 2015 at 11:21 am —

        Blame the changes between Middle and Modern English. Mann was originally gender-neutral, with the male being wæpmann (or wer, hence werewolf) and the woman being wifmann.

        • September 16, 2015 at 8:01 pm —

          Interesting. Is that the same wif that shows up in wife and midwife?

          Apparently we need to move on from Modern English. Post-modern English, anyone?

          • September 17, 2015 at 5:22 pm


            A big part of what happened, especially with the removal of the epicene singular ‘they’, was because of the same grammarians who didn’t want us to ever split infinitives because Latin infinitives are one word. And in general, the Latin-worship of 18th-century grammar is annoying.

            It can be a problem also if you’re writing speculative fiction. Like on Steven Universe, all the Gems (save for human/Gem hybrid Steven) are asexual, but they use female pronouns and are designed for varying degrees of femininity.

  3. September 15, 2015 at 11:04 pm —

    I studied German in college and the gendered nouns make it so much harder. I would much prefer to just get rid of the masculine and feminine forms of everything and switch it to neutral. /germanrant

  4. September 16, 2015 at 2:12 am —

    It’s informative how different languages treat pronouns (including just not having any). I studied Latin, Spanish, and a little French, all related and gendered. Then I did a bit of Chinese and a fair amount of Japanese, and could no longer plug and modify. I had to completely rethink things I’d taken for granted (not just about pronouns).

    I talked to a friend who speaks Farsi about pronouns when I wrote this post. No gendered pronouns, but relationships are defined by gender at several levels (e.g. the daughter of my mother’s sister.)

    • September 16, 2015 at 11:28 am —

      Lakota is similar in that regard. But also there are a lot fewer pronouns used. Typically in Lakota, personal pronouns (which are not gendered) don’t show up much except when all three arguments are expressed (e.g., “I made a cape for you.”, the arguments are “I”, “cape”, and “you”.) or as the object of a postposition. (Adpositions show up after the word in question.) Other pronouns do show up more often, e.g. “Who released my horse?”

      Kinship terminology isn’t Sudanese like Farsi, though, but Iroquois, e.g. (since I’m a man) my brother’s son is my son. (If I were a woman, my sister’s son would be my son instead.)

      I’d use Lakota characters here, but every time I do, WordPress just gives me question marks.

      • September 16, 2015 at 7:47 pm —

        Very interesting! I love hearing about the grammar of non-latin-based languages. Too bad tech companies don’t seem to be interested in adding more language characters to their software though :-/

        • September 17, 2015 at 5:28 pm —

          Yeah, in this case, it’s not so bad, because Unicode has IPA characters. Or the alternative of using wedges. But WordPress refuses to implement for some reason.

          It’s particularly difficult because then you’ll see them avoid the simple fact that pictorial writing is still writing. While it’s easy to see writing going from pictographs to logographs to rebus to an alphabet or abjad or syllabic (and more recently with image macros, rage comics, and emoji), there’s really no linear evolution, and in fact languages will keep a few from each style. (Notice, for instance, we still use the atmark, pound sign, and ampersand.)

  5. September 16, 2015 at 1:37 pm —

    I have been working on the pronoun thing with Hipster Teen now that they identify as demi-pangender. it’s simpler for me to ask “which pronoun today?” and use they/them as the default. but it’s far easier to ask this one small thing and respect the person than to make them feel dehumanized. I have never understood why it’s such an issue for some people.

    • September 16, 2015 at 7:59 pm —

      “it’s far easier to ask this one small thing and respect the person than to make them feel dehumanized. I have never understood why it’s such an issue for some people.”
      Exactly! And cannot be repeated often enough 🙂

  6. September 18, 2015 at 8:11 am —

    I often wish my language had a good gender-neutral pronoun, like Swedish. Or even something like singular they. We have the ‘made-up’ (as if all words aren’t made up) versions, but they all just sound like the feminine versions, frankly, and that’s exactly what I can’t stand hearing anymore after 33 years. ‘He’ would not technically be much more correct, but that’s not what people assume I am all the time and is a lot less grating.

    • September 18, 2015 at 1:46 pm —

      Sympathy. Eventually, if one set of words or the singular they comes into common use, I think it will sound more natural, including sounding like what is meant: a pronoun that doesn’t specify gender. In the interim, I like the fact that UT and other institutions encourage asking people their preferred pronoun. It normalizes both the concept of gender as complex, and also the practice of empathy and consideration.

  7. September 18, 2015 at 8:24 am —

    On a related note, I can’t change my username for comments. Anyone know how to fix it or delete this profile so I can create a new one with the same e-mail address?

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