I know what you’re all thinking. “What does this Male Hetero CIS think of gender neutral pronouns?” Yes, I will acknowledge that I don’t really have any skin in the game, and that I’m privileged enough to have my gender be considered the neutral pronoun for the last few thousand years.
It’s awkward, though. In the past people just used the ‘he’ for any unknown person. It was sexist, certainly, but it was the norm, and as a kid I never questioned it. I suspect it’s a throwback to the time when people assumed that the reader was male, under the assumption that women didn’t read, or at least read less than men did. It might have even been true at the time. I don’t know the stats on literacy versus the sexes in history.
Back in the 90’s when I really started writing, I discovered the awkwardness of finding a gender neutral pronoun. ‘He’ was definitely not going to work. ‘It’ was considered an option for some people, but I always found it strangely degrading. Referring to a person, or in fact any living creature, as an ‘it’ seemed insulting. I don’t like it when people call my dog an it, so I don’t think a person would like it. The other one that people were considering was ‘per’ which was an offshoot of ‘person.’ Logically, I thought it made sense. ‘The person went to per house.’ I didn’t mind it at all, and I know a number of people tried to incorporate it into their writing. Speaking, though, was difficult, and it didn’t really catch on. In the end, that one disappeared.
Here we are, twenty-some years later, and there have been a number of changes. The dictionary now considers plural pronouns to be acceptable as a gender neutral singular pronoun. ‘The person went to their house.’ We were always taught never to use the plural pronoun in a singular form, but it works for me. It sounds good to the ear, is easy to incorporate in the language, and when reading it, it’s not particularly jarring.
Universities have started accepting other gender neutral terms as well. The ones that seem to be used most commonly now are “E,” “Ze,” “Ni,” “Ve,” and “Xe.” I think that the knee-jerk reaction to all of this change is to resist it. Personally, I look forward to a time when one or all of these become commonplace. Right now I think if we were to use these in our writing it would seem awkward, but in the right story it might be cool, even furthering the possibility that it becomes used in everyday speech. I also accept that I may be speaking from a privileged position, though, so really, maybe it’s important to push the gender neutral terminology. For me, I think pluralizing a pronoun is the least intrusive way to represent the variety of possible genders. I don’t hold firm to that statement, though, and may change my mind as society changes.
In my book of short stories, Lemons on Venus, the title story has a trans-gendered character. I didn’t use the term trans-gender in it, as I wrote the story in 2005, and it wasn’t a term that was widely known. Her preferred pronoun was feminine, so it wasn’t really an issue in the story. That said, upon rereading there are probably a few different things I would change looking at it from the present perspective. I was sensitive to her and to the community, but terminology changes, and attitudes change. Even the fact that I thought it was big of the hetero love interest to accept a trans-gendered partner, whereas now it’s much more common, at least in popular culture. It might have been more common than I knew of at the time, but just less spoken of.
So my advice is to fit the terminology to the story, be sensitive to the changing landscape of genders, and write what feels right to you. If in ten years time you look back and see that maybe you should’ve used different terminology, remember that at the time, you made the best decision you could given the information you had.
Feel free to disagree with me in the comments. I’d love to know your take on it.