Spring 2017: “Gender Pronouns” Middle School Winner Alex Gerber

Read Alex's essay, "A New Design for Language," about the social and grammatical limits of gender-neutral pronouns—and how to get beyond them.

Alex Gerber, an eighth grade student of Jessica Consiglio at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, IL, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “’They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words.” In this article, Cole, founder of the Brown Boi Project, welcomes the expanding list of gender pronouns. Pronouns can help us all learn to see and respect each other’s identity. Instead of cultivating fear, shame, and embarrassment around not knowing the right thing to say, Cole encourages us to create new approaches to language so we feel freer and more open with each other.

Writing Prompt: Is there anyone in your life—you included—who is not comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she”? Write a letter to Cole on how you feel about this expansion of gender pronoun language. How do you deal with this cultural change?

A New Design For Language

Dear Cole,

My mother has a friend whose daughter has recently decided she does not associate with either gender. This switch seemed strange to me at first. I asked my mom what people who identify with both or neither genders are called. I know about transgendered people, but not identifying with a gender is new to me. My mother said this is called “genderfluid.” Okay, so now I know what genderfluid means, but what do I call that person?

“They” seems like an appropriate name to call everyone, so no one gets associated with the gender they do not identify with; however, I don’t know how this could become an international change. Would everyone switch to using “they”? It doesn’t seem possible. For example, in Spanish, “they” is either “ellos” or “ellas,” which implies male or female. How could all languages that have masculine and feminine pronouns for “they” switch to using one pronoun? I’m not saying I don’t want to change the language we use to accommodate people who are genderfluid; I just don’t know how likely it is to occur.

When I first read the part of the article where you talked about replacing gender-specific pronouns with words like “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam,” I thought this was a good idea. These words are already used in this context when talking to others. For example, some people call their friend their “homie.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wouldn’t work to call everyone by those names. Calling friends “peeps” or “homies” seems natural and normal, but I don’t know how practical these names would be when talking to someone professionally or to someone you are trying to treat with respect. For example, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to a teacher, “Hello, homie!”, and I don’t know how appropriate it would be for adults to call their bosses “peeps” or “fam.” Also, what about Mr., Miss, Mrs. and Ms.? Should all gender-specific pronouns be replaced with nongender-identifying pronouns like “ze” and “emself”?

Although it sounds like I am opposed to the idea of using “they,” I believe “they” could be the solution to the language issue for people who do not identify as male or female. It would help decrease the misgendering of genderfluid people. Maybe everyone could call people by nongender-associated names. I think the best answer to this problem would be to eliminate gender-specific language all together, but that is highly unlikely to happen. Maybe new words could be invented to avoid these gender barriers, but they might take a long time to integrate into our language.

As I continued to think about “they” replacing gender-specific pronouns, I started to notice that I frequently use “they” when talking about a specific person. For example, if I am asking a friend about what another person likes, I would say, “What do they like?” instead of, “What does she or he like?” When I think about it that way, this shift in language doesn’t seem so unattainable.

Thank you for writing the YES! Magazine article, “‘They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words.” Since I have read your article, I have been more aware of the language I use. I believe that there does need to be a change in the language we use so no one has to deal with the burden of being called the wrong pronoun. I wish all people could be conscious of what pronoun they use when talking to or about someone. After all, there are many things people cannot control in their lives, but their gender pronoun should not be one.



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