I recently attended a Safe Zone training program at my university. It is designed to help faculty and staff be more aware of LGBT issues and thus create a more welcoming atmosphere. After completing it, one gets a Safe Zone badge that one can stick on one’s door so that anyone who comes there knows that you are accepting of them.
One of the exercises we did at the beginning was the familiar ice-breaker where one pairs up with one’s neighbor and quickly learns enough about them to be able to introduce them to the whole group. But just after we completed the sharing and before we introduced each other to the whole group, the facilitators threw us a curveball and told us to do the introductions without using the pronouns he/she or her/him. It was not easy and there were many stumbles.
In a time when we are moving away from an understanding of gender as a binary concept to that of a continuum, the issue of gender pronouns becomes significant since some people may not feel comfortable with using the standard male and female choices. Some new neutral ones like ze and zir have been suggested and there are others. It is also becoming increasingly common to use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third party pronouns even when talking about a single person.
Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher sees the gender nuances in language that are emerging as a ridiculous indulgence. But as Sean Carroll says, “Language matters, and matching how we speak about people to how they think about themselves is an important part of human dignity. I don’t know what the best linguistic solution is for the knotty realities of human gender and sexuality, but I welcome the attempts to do better. Perfect equality has not yet been achieved, but I like to think we’re moving in a good direction.”
It is going to take a while for the dust to settle and a new consensus to emerge as to what becomes the standard among the various experimental forms being used currently. The beauty of language is that it does evolve in response to changing situations.