When I was a very small child, I was cosmically in tune with the universe, insofar as I had a genuine belief that everything – even obviously inanimate objects – was alive, and both conscious and sapient. (I still hold the same opinion about non-human animals.) I did the schoolwork in Year 3 which suggested the opposite, but I didn’t believe it.
My mother helped shape my beliefs by using the word “hurt” as a synonym for “damage”.
“You’ll hurt it,” she’d say. “Don’t do it like…” (and then whatever I was doing wrong, likely to cause damage, like trying to shove one of my plastic dinosaurs into an electric plug to “power him up”.)
In time, I adopted this figure of speech, except for the pronoun, which I substituted for a gendered one every time (“Stop doing that! You’ll hurt him!”).
“It’s not a him, it’s an it,” my mother would say in a tired way. “And you can’t hurt it.”
“But I’m just using your phraseology,” I said, “and the message is clear, so why should it matter what pronoun I’m using?”
Only I didn’t say that.
Today is International Pronouns Day, which aims to raise awareness that people have different pronouns. There are multitudes of pronouns out there, and if you don’t like them, you can just make one up. My pronouns, in case you’re wondering, are he / him / his; I chose these pronouns when I chose my gender, and while I don’t like the connotations, they are easy pronouns to use. So I use them.
For a while – and I won’t say when, exactly, but for a while – I occasionally taught English to foreign students. It wasn’t a fantastic way to make income, but it was a way to both instruct people in the ways of language and indoctrinate them politically, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to do that. (I wrote “UKIP” on the board once and added synonyms: evil, bad, beware, that sort of thing.) One of the things we discussed, of course, was the use of pronouns:
It is (…not a him, it’s an it.)
And, perhaps not surprisingly, none of the students knew of any gendered pronouns other than he and she. Because why would they? They hadn’t been taught them. Quite why they hadn’t been taught them was beyond me, but in 100% of cases, none of the students asked. And none of them mentioned any third gender, or genderfluidity, or trans identity, or agender, or… well, anything other than male or female, really.
Until of them them did.
A young female student (she/her, cisgender) asked, at one point, what to call a trans person. She had seen a news article about Chelsea Manning on the way in, and she was confused by the use of a female “she” pronoun to describe someone who was born, and still biologically was, male. Suddenly, the ball was in my court. I had the opportunity to give a speech about the fact that gender is a concept (which it is), not an identity (unless you make it so), and doesn’t need to stay the way it was when you were assigned it at birth (because, well, you can change it).
But that would have taken the whole three hours. As her teacher, I had been asked a specific question, and I needed to give a specific answer.
I spent a while writing third-gender pronouns on the board – they/them, he, xe, xhe, zhe, ze, hir… maybe a few more as well, this was years ago – and was pleased to see that she was, indeed, noting these all down.
“There are so many of them,” she said eventually. “What do you do – ask everyone what their pronouns are when you meet?”
I couldn’t, in all truthfulness, say that I did that. I didn’t like to assume – I still don’t – but it wasn’t my usual conversation opener.
[That right there is the sort of thing that International Pronouns Day is trying to normalise. A noble aim and something we, as a sex-positive community, should be striving for.]
Fortunately, I had an answer.
“If you’re not sure,” I said carefully, “you might be able to just use the gender-neutral pronoun they, until you find out. But I’ve found most people don’t mind being asked.”
“What about animals? You call them it, right?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” I said hurriedly. “An animal, any animal, including a human, is a he or a she or a they or a…” (and here I indicated the board and its list of pronouns) “…a plant, or an object, is an it.”
“But I’ve heard people use the word it to describe an animal!”
And we spent the whole three hours talking about that.