Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Really the Answer?


The leadership of the University of Tennessee put the kibosh on a request to switch to gender-neutral pronouns on campus.

The controversy began with a university newsletter article advocating the use of gender-neutral pronouns like “ze,” over the traditional he or she. The article, written by the school’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion had encouraged their use by students and faculty to create a more inclusive campus. The school’s president also indicated a new directive was being issued to the school’s vice chancellors “not to publish any campuswide practice or policy without his approval after review with the Cabinet,” which implies the “guidelines” were published without the knowledge of the school’s administration.

I’m not sure that an article that simply encouraged using such words was something that necessarily warranted approval from the school’s administration. But the article caused enough backlash that the administration felt it had to step in and take action.

The article, for the record, suggested that people substitute the pronoun sets he/him/his and she/her/hers with one of the following sets that would work for either gender: ze/hir/hirs, ze/zir/zirs or xe/xem/xyr; or to use they/them/their as singular pronouns.

So if Susan left a book in the classroom, instead of saying, “She forgot to take her book home,” you’d say “Ze forgot to take hirs book home,” “Ze forgot to take zirs book home,” or “Xe forgot to take xyr book home.” Or, even worse when referring to a single specific (already identified) person, “They forgot to take their book home.”

The first impasse with regard to making this work is that no one can agree on a single set of gender neutral pronouns to use. Three different sets won’t get it. Before the rest of the world can reasonably be expected to adopt gender neutral, there needs to be one universal set to work with.

But then even if you toss out the “created” words that most people will simply never accept, the familiar plural pronouns used as singulars simply do not make sense.

You’ll lose people in the confusion these words create before they even have the opportunity to understand what they represent.

Let me stop here for a minute.

One of the things I really love about my audience is its diversity. There are young and old readers here (though more in the middle-aged to older category), Christian and atheist, liberal and conservative, heterosexual, homosexual and transgender. My readers come from the United States to nearly every corner of the globe.

If I thought long enough about it, I’m sure I could find additional qualifiers to describe people.

But the point, I think is made.

I have an audience whose members are different from one another. That’s a good thing, because it means we have a better chance to understand each other. At the same time, there are some things we just will never fully grasp about each other’s differences. Call it a failing of humankind — that’s what I call it.

I think it would likely be fair to say that I understand the transgender group slightly more (and only “slightly” more) than some in my audience, because I tend to be more willing to listen to other opinions compared with what I’ve seen from a handful of members of my audience. Those differences interest me because I’m curious about people in general.

But the fact is this: I was born male. I’ve never felt a desire to be female. I’ve never, for a moment, believed I was in any way born into the “wrong” gender.

It’s important I tell you that, I think, because it’s important that I’m clear about my take on the transgender community: I don’t fully get it. I probably never will.

People who are transgender, likewise, will likely never fully get what it’s like being born into a gender you feel is the “right” one.

But here, I can only give you my perspective, as a politically middle-of-the-road guy, who tries to be as open-minded as he can.

My perspective is no less correct than yours; but by the same token, your perspective is not more correct than mine.

Here’s the problem: gender-neutral pronouns attempt to hide something that cannot really be hidden.

When you ask people what the first thing they notice about a person might be, if they’re honest, they’ll usually either say a person’s gender or race. Harvard researchers found that as soon as we encounter a person, we immediately notice both: race and gender.

Tests discovered that portions of the brain respond differently to different races and different genders. Researchers suggested that evolutionary biology may play a role in this, in that we may condition ourselves to behave in a certain way around one race versus another or one gender versus another. What was interesting, however, is that when test subjects were asked to concentrate only on a person’s gender, the part of the brain that seems to detect and react to perceived race still reacted.

This suggests to me — and as you’ve probably guessed, I’m no scientist — that there’s some basic, unconscious function in operation here.

I might suggest that it might relate to the most basic biological response in terms of seeking potential mates. There appears to be no apparent way to “turn off” this basic brain function, even though it might be great if we could.

The article that prompted the controversy at the University of Tennessee explained that gender-neutral pronouns are meant to be more welcoming to “people who do not identify within the gender binary.”

But our brains — before we even realize it — have already categorized someone within “the gender binary” as soon as we see them. What some people seem unwilling to accept is that how we label someone as is not necessarily how they label themselves. They argue, for example, that there’s only “male and female” and nothing in between. But for some people, for example those who identify as “males” but are biologically female, (or vice versa), what are they supposed to do?

Writer Rick Moran calls gender-neutral pronouns “insanity.” He writes, in part:

The fact that they don’t recognize the damage they are doing to themselves and the art of communication doesn’t obviate the need to fight this assault on common sense and communication.

I’m not sure what “damage” those who struggle with gender identity are doing to themselves in seeking a “more inclusive” vocabulary. I would guess they think the damage is the gender into which they were born and with which they do not fully identify; to them, I would think, the gender-neutral route is one way to attempt to repair that damage.

At the same time, I can see Moran’s point, albeit a quite insensitively-expressed point, about the language itself.

Facebook, which introduced 58 gender options when people complained “male” and “female” weren’t good enough, received still more complaints that there weren’t enough choices even among the 58 options, and has now opened the door to “custom” options.

The gender-neutral pronouns won’t take off because the mainstream will never understand them. Frankly, most in the mainstream won’t even make an effort to do so. But when more than 58 options become necessary to express a wide-ranging gamut of gender possibilities, I think we’ve reached a point where both sides need to stop and think for a moment.

I can only imagine that for those who do not feel they can possibly conform to “the gender binary,” gender is a seemingly-infinite maze of complication. But if there are people who are experiencing confusion themselves — and I don’t mean that in a funny or sarcastic way at all — how can they expect the mainstream who does not feel such confusion to even begin to grasp what they’re going through?

How many in the mainstream have even heard of terms like “pangender” or “neutrois,” much know what they could possibly mean.

I wish I could tell you I have an easy, button-down solution to this problem.

I’m sorry to tell you, instead, that my take is that common sense requires some understanding and patience on both sides of this issue.

One side, populated by those who do not understand any gray area outside of the male/female world, or why there even could be a gray area, need to understand that for some people, their entire lives are spent there, and that for them, “male” and “female” doesn’t adequately express who they truly feel they are, despite what their biological sex characteristics might dictate they should be.

But the other side, populated by those in the gray area, it seems to me, must understand that the majority of those around them just don’t have a clue, and no amount of insistence on radical changes to our language is going to suddenly make everything clear. Likewise, there needs to be an understanding that our brains are wired a certain way, to make a “male/female” judgment when we see a person before we even realize that judgment has occurred. When they refer to someone who presents as male as such, but that person identifies as something else, that isn’t meant as an insult or an attempt at exclusion. It’s simply the way the brain has processed it.

When people need to come up with a custom gender explanation for themselves because one of 58 possibilities won’t accurately describe their reality, how can anyone believe one gender pronoun is going to do it?

I wish I knew what the right answer was. I just can’t believe gender-neutral pronouns will do it.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

1 Comment

  • Shh… I could lose my “trans activist” license.

    But I hate gender neutral pronouns.

    They is [Word keeps on trying to correct “is” and replace it with “are”] not bad when “they” are in the room but once “they” leave the room it because very confusing and I know several people who use “they.” When I am with the person who uses gender neutral pronouns I end up using the person’s first name to avoid confusion.

    I am not a language expert but from what I under is that most other languages have gender neutral pronouns but not English.

    There has been a lot of research going into understanding the transgender brain, there is a section of the brain called BSTc that develops differently and my guess is that the people who are gender neutral do not have a fully developed BSTc region of the brain.

    Here is a YouTube video that I use in my diversity training that might help understand it a little bit more.

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