Nowadays, the preferred-gender-pronoun question comes up quickly when I speak about being intersex. I see it as a positive indication that we’re moving beyond Intersex 101, and folks are starting to wonder what we’re actually like, as people. I tell them that, just like non-intersex people, we have a wide range of gender identities and use all different pronouns to describe ourselves.
Personally speaking, my pronoun issues began in 1997, when I first realized my limitations with “he” and “she”. After a lifetime of living unquestionably as a “she”, for a whole year — since I’d stopped wearing makeup, women’s clothes, and doing all those little things girls do to make themselves pretty– people had been regularly referring to me as “he” or “sir”.
At first I corrected everyone because I wanted to expand their ideas of what women could look like. After a few months though, it became a pain, so I stopped. I missed being able to just get to where I was going without administering lessons in gender diversity, you know?
Speaking of gender diversity, I’d also learned the year before that “intersex” is the word to describe the physical difference I’d long been aware of. After letting the realization sink in, making people say “she” didn’t feel entirely accurate anymore.
I realized that I’d be best served by something that defined me as neither man nor woman, but what I am and felt: intersex and genderqueer. (In case that word is new to you, “genderqueer” describes people who don’t feel like men or women, but rather, in between, both, or neither. It wasn’t in use yet back then, but it’s the best current word to describe how I felt.)
So a friend and I brainstormed about a new pronoun for me. I suggested “ve”, but nixed it when she told me it reminded her of aliens because of a science fiction series “V” that we’d watched in high school. She then suggested “ze”, which I liked as well. Little did we know (remember, this was pre-google), that at right around that same moment a paper was published (in the fall of ’97) titled, “Ze, Zer, Mer”, in the APA (American Philosophy Association) Newsletters.
I was very amused to just recently realize that the author of this paper was unaware that people like me exist– on planet Earth anyway. As the opening sentence states: “…there are no singular pronouns in the English language that are commonly used without regard to gender to refer to humans, androgynous creatures (such as we find in science fiction and perhaps will find in fact on other planets), and persons without a gender…”. (Btw, I like the paper and find it very forward-thinking, I just couldn’t resist sharing such comical evidence of the fact that very few people knew about intersex folks back then.)
While I’m not from another planet, I sure felt like I was using ze back then. No one I knew or had even heard of in San Francisco’s notoriously cutting-edge gender scene was using “ze”, and I only did so in certain settings, on and off, until 2001. I remember the end because there was an event I read at where I used “ze” in my bio, and read a poem about third gender pronouns titled, “Viva Ze Revolution” (which in retrospect, was pretty bad, lol).
Today, “ze” is used quite often by genderqueer folks, but the option that’s gaining the most traction is the singular “they”, ”them” and ”their”. It makes sense, given that we’ve already been using this when we don’t know a person’s gender. For example, “I don’t know anything about the professor, but they’re coming to visit and I have to pick them up from the station.” But back to 2001….
I stopped my foray into gender-neutral pronoun use for three reasons:
- going it alone sucked;
- call me overly nice, but I didn’t feel like making all the people in my life – most of whom had known me for at least ten years – change their deeply engrained use of the English language to accommodate me; and, most importantly,
- I started feeling and looking like a “she” again.
I’ve long said my gender identity is “gender fluid”, which for me means that it vacillates back and forth like the ocean tides, from feminine to masculine to both, neither or in between. I feelall genders, so I don’t really care what pronoun people use for me. These days, I mostly get “she” (which I’m totally happy with as an old school feminist), the occasional “he”, and even an occasional “they” or “ze”, given that I’m so out as intersex. But regardless of what people call me, I don’t bother to correct them, because none of these pronouns feel off or insulting.
In my ideal world, pronoun use wouldn’t be an issue: English would have one pronoun for all humans (like spoken Cantonese and Mandarin). Some people have created this for English as well, like author Marge Piercy in her 1979 novel Women on the Edge of Time, in which people in 2137 use “per” for all persons.
I love this genderless single pronoun approach, as it doesn’t force me to choose. For while “ze” and “they/them” are deemed gender “neutral”, their use implies that one doesn’t identify as “he” or “she”, which specifies a gender identity. However, avoiding gender identification by having a single pronoun for all humans doesn’t really work unless all humans use it.
Truth is, while for most people (including most intersex people), having others use the right pronoun to describe them is very important, since it’s not for me, I basically can’t be bothered to change the one I was raised with. And with my current to-do-list, I don’t feel quite up to dismantling our deeply embedded linguistic system of gender identification by pushing for one human pronoun for all. At least not right now. Maybe I’m just lazy. 🙂