What’s ‘ze’ big idea?

This post popped up on my Facebook feed recently: https://www.rt.com/uk/369991-ze-oxford-university-transgender/ – it can be summed up as Oxford University Student’s Union would prefer students to use ‘ze’ as a pronoun where they do not know the gender (or lack of it) of the person they are speaking to.

As someone agender, this idea of a gender neutral pronoun is an interesting one to me. It seems fitting that as ‘he’ and ‘she’ are specifically for those who identify as the male or the female gender, then there is one for those who don’t identify as either of those. This also recently came up as one of my new Dungeons and Dragons characters, Xan, is entirely androgenous and is currently being refered to as ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ depending on what the other characters think they are at the time!

As demonstrated above, English does have the gender neutral ‘they’ which can be used either singularly or pluraly according to (appropriately) the Oxford English Dictionary:

2. In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she.Especially in relation to a noun phrase involving one of the indefinite determiners or pronouns any, each, every, no, some, anybody, anyone, etc.
This use has sometimes been considered erroneous. [I can see why it may be considered this way but I disagree – see below]

3. As indefinite pronoun. Cf. them pron. 5.
 a. People in general; any persons not including the speaker; people strattera adhd. Cf. one pron. 17a.they with an active verb is freq. used colloq. instead of the passive voice.
Freq. in they say: people say, it is said. as they say: see say v.1 1b.

There’s also many examples of usage through the ages as a singular pronoun on Wikipedia. I’ve recently been involved in some spats on various sites about how ‘they’ can not possibly be used as a singular pronoun, but I think usage defines a language and as ‘they’ is in common usage as a singular pronoun then it should be accepted as one.

However, ‘they’ is, in many ways, insufficient as a gender neutral pronoun. As it can also be plural (and to some people is only plural) it fails to convey an accurate meaning in the words, as ‘They are going to their house’ could mean that one or several people are going to the house they own – it’s impossible to say which version of ‘they’ is being used. Additionally it also does not convey any informnation about that person’s identity. ‘They’ is used for male, female and other genders when people are unsure of someone’s actual gender, and additionally sometimes even when you do know the gender: “Where’s the girl who was here?” ‘They’ve just gone to get a drink.” So while I think ‘they’ works in some cases, and indeed, I know several people who use ‘they/them’ pronouns, it is not a definitive statement that you view your gender as not male or female, but something in between, that swings between the two, you feel you don’t have one at all (as in my case) or, indeed, that you view it as something entirely different.

There are, of course, other words that could be considered, but the use of ‘he’ as the generic default leans to much towards the male gender being the ‘primary’ gender and you veer into feminist theory and toxic masculinity, and ‘one’, again, can mean male, female or neither (as well as sounding stupidly posh!) That leads us to the idea of a new word for a third, neutral, gender, and possibly a fourth or fifth for those who fluctuate between male and female or feel they are an entirely new gender. Currently I know of a couple – ze/sie, ze/hir, xe, and I know there’s many others. As always, language shifts to fit the society that is using it – a society with two genders won’t evolve a word that doesn’t need to exist until it becomes needed – such as when the idea of gender being fluid and not just strictly limited to male and female gains traction and an accepted reality in society. Eventually, much like in medieval English, and more recently with words like ‘hoover’ and ‘google’ becoming generic words for their subjects, the decision on the pronoun to use as a gender neutral one should become obvious as one becomes used above all the rest.

This doesn’t, of course, preclude people who want to be ‘special’ and use a unique pronoun just for themselves. While I fully agree with having a gender neutral pronoun, and possibly ones for other specific circumstances, I disagree with people deciding to use something entirely non-standard for the sake of it. A language has to be consistently applied to be understood and while there will be some flux until the gender neutral pronoun is decided, people creating their own causes confusion. Individuality is a thing to be celebrated, but choosing to use a different pronoun when there is one established that means the same thing is not helpful to someone who doesn’t know what you mean; yes, language evolves to fit the society it is used in, but not on an individual basis.

I think we do need a gender neutral pronoun within the English language, and will be pleased when a consensus is reached on one, whether that is ‘ze’ or another option. However the way I interpretted Oxford’s proposal is that ‘ze’ should be used where gender is unknown – including, for example, if a person appears female, as they may be a transman pre-transition and you would misgender them by using ‘she/her’. This has two problems.

One, if you are talking to a trans* person who has transitioned to their identified gender, or a cis person, then by calling them ‘ze’ you are denying them their identity by not using ‘she’ or ‘he’ – especially for a trans* person who has gone through the difficult process of transitioning where using ‘ze’ implies you can’t tell what gender they are. While using ‘ze’ avoids misgendering in one way, it also causes misgendering and suggests you can’t tell what gender a trans* person is, which might be damaging in itself. It’s been suggested that people might not like being refered to as ‘they’, but as it’s a third person pronoun, you’re highly unlikely to be directly referred to by it, so I don’t think that’s a relevant issue. This is about refering to people in third person.

Secondly, is that we don’t need a pronoun for ‘unknown gender’ – we have one in ‘they’ which covers male, female and  other. Once you are aware of someone’s prefered gender, you can then use ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘ze’ (in this case), or continue to use ‘they’ if that is preferred. If ‘ze’ begins to mean ‘unknown gender’ we then still have a problem for those who know their gender – and it is non-binary, or agender. It would be better to have a new pronoun for a third gender, rather than replace ‘they’ with a new word that means the same thing. As definition 3 from the OED states, ‘they’ is an indefiniate pronoun any way.

In conclusion, I think that there is a careful balance to be reached so no person feels misgendered or feels that their gender identity is not recognised and supported. This would be, in my opinion, best done by using ‘they’ as a generic pronoun when a person’s gender is not known, and ‘ze’ (or whichever pronoun becomes the standard) for those who are non-binary or agender. This doesn’t resolve the problem of cis or trans* people feeling that they are not being recognised as the gender that they physically present as, and the opposite issue of the problem of non-binary or genderfluid people who may present differently depending on how they feel and yet use ‘they’ as their pronoun who would be misgendered by using ‘he’ or ‘she’ depending on their appearance.

Society and language have a long way to go until trans*, non-binary, genderfluid, agender, and all the many and varied ways that people can identify as are accepted as positive and normal. It is only recently that the concept of genders other than male and female have come to the notice of the general public (with the help of the Internet and the improved communication methods around the world);  I would think this has led to an increase in people realising that they identify as one of those instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ – I haven’t looked into it, but I’m aware that I wouldn’t have considered myself being agender until I heard it was possible. This means that it’s come as somewhat of a shock to society, especially to the older generation (i.e. people older than me), so it may take a while for it to become fully accepted, and a while for a single gender neutral pronoun to stick. While I respect some people may wish to stick with ‘they’, I do hope that we end up with a pronoun such as ‘ze’ which cannot mean any gender, but is recognised as meaning a different gender than the binary ‘he’ or ‘she’.

I do hope though that one day everyone feels accepted and welcome to identify as they wish, from male and female, to genderfluid and agender – after all, we’re all people, we’re all on this planet together, and I truely feel that gender is innate, not a choice, but what we do to recognise that, as it should be recognised, is up to us.

There’s been an update from Oxford SU here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/13/oxford-student-union-denies-telling-students-to-use-gender-neutral-pronoun however I don’t think that invalidates this blog post as it’s something that should be discussed.

(Apologies for the corny title – it came to me while I was watching CBeebies and ‘What’s the big idea’…)


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