Robin Dembroff and the philosophy of nonbinary

After Robin Dembroff wrote “Macho leaders are a weakness”, I thought- Robin? Sometimes a woman’s name, normally a man’s. It’s a woman. So I went to Google Images to find out, and am abashed. They are nonbinary. Watch them argue that gender is socially constructed.

They argue gendered pronouns should be abolished. For everyone. We can still gender ourselves, but others should not gender us, so as to avoid misgendering anyone. Misgendering is an insult, but not gendering is not necessarily. Not gendering trans people, but gendering everyone else, is stigmatising. Binary trans women want to be called “she” because cis women are, but if cis women were called “they” trans women would not be stigmatised by being called “they”. It is different treatment that is offensive, not the use of “they”. And evidence suggests that degendering English would reduce gender discrimination and gender essentialism, they say, though any such evidence will be contested.

That led me to their open access paper on the subject, introducing me to the concept of unpronouning someone. You unpronoun a person by referring to them by circumlocution, perhaps by name or title, because you do not want to use their chosen pronouns. This is a microaggression, less objectionable than misgendering but still off. In that paper they define transgender as including genderqueer- “(sometimes) ones gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth”. However if gendered pronouns were abolished no-one could be intentionally misgendered or unpronouned.

Degendering English would not get rid of gendered oppression, essentialist misogyny or the oppression of trans folks, but it would help. It would take away one way of denying someone’s gender identity. Misgendering would be impossible. Referring to me as “they” now may be a way of denying that I am female, calling me indeterminate instead, but if everyone was “they” it would not be a problem.

Misgendering, and refusing to use chosen They pronouns, is disrespectful. It denies our social identity. It denies trans women resources, such as access to women’s space, and threatens criticism or ostracism for dressing as a woman.

Misgendering reinforces the ideologies, concepts and norms disrespecting trans people.

People apply stereotypes to others in an effort to understand them. So individuals might want to have some choice over what stereotypes others apply. Misgendering takes away our choice: I want to be seen as a woman, and I epilated my legs this morning to conform to a feminine stereotype.

People often use they to refer to someone whose gender they don’t wish to divulge or don’t know: because singular “they” does not imply any particular gender. Using they for everyone would mean people could keep their gender identity private- for example, if they intend to transition but have not yet.

Dembroff cites studies showing that there is a correlation between grammatical gender and the prevalence of gender essentialist beliefs. The more gender-loaded a language is, the earlier children give themselves a gender category: this is linked to the development of gender stereotypes in children, and essentialised beliefs about how gender explains stereotypical group traits, or children’s use of gender categories on making inferences about others, or forming preferences based on endorsements by people of their own gender. This reinforces the stereotypes. Language affects how you see the world.

If you use gendered pronouns you imply that gender is relevant to what you are discussing. If you use “they” you imply it isn’t.

Why be nonbinary? Dembroff finds gender stereotypes suffocating, and nonbinary identity liberating. They have never fitted gender stereotypes, and always produced doubt in others of what gender they were- anger at them using women’s loos, doubt in an airport security attendant of the pink or blue button- but they are tired of gender. The boxes are stifling, and enforced with violence. Society imposes them based on perceptions of your sex.

Arguments about whether I am a woman are “metalinguistic negotiation”- arguing about what the word “woman” means, not about what is true in the world. Nonbinary people are not saying they don’t have genitals, but that their genitals should not stereotype them in ways they don’t want: they claim freedom to own or subvert any stereotyped gendered behaviour. Like Tiresias, “Old man with wrinkled dugs”, they can move between worlds which others find rigid. They need not be androgynous.

Nonbinary identity, they say, is political. It helps people understand ourselves shorn of stereotype and expectation. Nonbinary is anti-essentialist, enforced on no-one. “I am a person wearing people clothes.” That is different from choosing an androgynous presentation- you can present how you feel in the moment.

Patriarchy enforces social control over sexed bodies, favouring males who conform to dominant masculine norms. Nonbinary undermines that. Nonbinary questions the politics of patriarchy and the unthinking unquestioning assumption that patriarchy is just the natural way.

Dembroff accepts that some people identify as having a particular gender and want to stretch that gender, to be able to do what they like. Rather than insist that men and women can be and can do anything, I and other nonbinary persons question why we categorise people as women and men at all. There is no need for conflict between these two positions, though often there is.

I thought it would be a woman objecting to the toxic masculinity of such as Bolsonaro, Modi, Trump or Johnson dealing with the virus. I wanted to know. I am rebuked- and I am liberated- they are a person, holding person views. They are trans in the widest sense, like I am.

16 thoughts on “Robin Dembroff and the philosophy of nonbinary

  1. I actually had an odd experience with universal “they” pronouns recently. I have several friends who are non-binary and use they as their pronouns and I’ve always seen the logic of English language eventually shedding gendered pronouns entirely. Then I started (briefly, thanks to the coronavirus) working at a place where the director used they for everyone.

    It bothered me. It made me feel misgendered.

    I’m not especially masculine and I’ve had doubts about whether I’m totally binary, but the “he” pronoun was a relief when I finally started hearing it. It felt right. I chose it, and went through a lot to get it. Then I started working in this place that billed itself as being trans-friendly, asked my pronouns up front and made it standard practice to put down preferred pronouns in all the forms and on everybody’s nametags, so learning pronouns was normalized… and I was never hearing “he.” Just “they.” I felt robbed. I wondered why they bothered asking my pronouns in the first place if I was just going to be a “they” whether I wanted to be one or not.

    Maybe that’s just me. Maybe the majority of the world will shift over to non-gendered language across the board and everybody will get used to it quickly, including me. I’m not sure. It’s just that in the moment, it felt like I’d lost something that I fought hard for.


    • Prof Dembroff is nonbinary. I wonder how many cis people would feel stripped of an identity, either of sex or of gender, by universal They. Prof Dembroff says it would reduce gender stereotyping, and the alternative is to strip the two categories of gender stereotypes- which would make transition more difficult, if people still wanted to do it (we have discussed that before). For us, the correct pronoun is recognition and affirmation.

      I use nonbinary as permission. Oh, I can behave like this because I am nonbinary, and like that at another time because I am a trans woman therefore a woman. I fear other people might use the category to restrict me only to nongendered spaces. But I don’t think there is a rigid distinction- some people are binary trans, some people are nonbinary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder about this all the time. The only conclusion I have is that, as a society, we are going through a process. Good questions are being asked and interesting possibilities are being raised, but nobody really knows what gender will look like on the other side.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I notice I have started using “they” at times when in the past I would have used a gendered pronoun. Perhaps the move to nongendered Pronoun use is already underway.

    I do wonder how much effect it might have though. I’m thinking how Japanese doesn’t have gendered titles (no Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms etc), and pronouns are genderless (apart from the equivalent of “I”) but are avoided as far as possible. Yet gender roles are strongly “type cast”. The gender of the speaker can be determined by their use of language – there are some forms of speech that are unique for each gender and also some language varies depending on relative social ranking. Frequently in conversation between genders, men adopt a higher ranking and women adopt a lower one.


    • I imagine if speakers used different forms of speech that would indicate difference to them more strongly than gendered pronouns. As well as pronouns divided by gender we have titles, different words for particular jobs- actor/actress- or roles, testator/testatrix- but those are going. Mx is not popular now, and mostly for trans people, but it might spread. The Guardian (which has started putting in a few New Zealand stories, and not just the ones the whole international press covers) uses actor for men and women. So there could be a linguistic move in parallel with changes in roles and stereotypes, and pronouns could be part of that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t heard female gender related job descriptions/titles for a very long time. I can’t recall when the last time I heard of read or read ‘actress’ from a NZ source – probably not this side of the year 2000.


      • no one has used ‘actress’ this century! I love this article, and is exactly how I feel about the world, but I was accused of transphobia the last time I said so. I am not transphobic. I am non-binary, I have always been non-binary, though I didn’t have the language for it until fairly recently. Funny old world, innit?


          • Thank you for the affirmation – I was gutted by the accusation, and have tended to be quiet, since. It happened again the other day, I was pounced on and told I was ‘tone policing’ (for objecting to death and rape threats – to anyone, by anyone) that I shouldn’t be speaking in a public forum, as I was triggering people, and that I should take my offensive questions, if I had to ask them, somewhere private. Also, should add CW on my posts. I had made a comment on a friend’s facebook post, so not entirely a ‘public forum’


            • Rape threats and death threats are wrong, whoever makes them, and to whomever. I feel a deep loathing for the most vocal transphobes, but it’s not just that it is impolitic, making us look bad; it is that it is wrong.


  3. Some language, like Hungarian, don’t have gendered pronouns, but the feeling of gender is the same as in other parts of Europe, and words like “friend” will be gendered (barát : a male friend; barátnő [friend-woman]: a female friend).

    A question: how would Prof Dembroff address a person in the street, hailing words like Madam or Sir being out of question?


  4. You may be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that the language shapes our realities.

    In the mid-20th century, the word “man” was used to make a generalized statement about humankind. Likewise the pronoun “he” was used whenever a sentence referred to all people. Before the 1960s women were seen as subhumans (for example they could not open a bank account or apply for a credit card in the U.S. unless their husband or father signed the paperwork).

    A universal use of “they” could advance a greater social equality and elimination of sexism.

    But that comes with a caveat. In the Japanese and Korean languages traditionally there were no gendered pronouns (they were invented in the 19th century to translate Western literature but they are rarely used in common vernacular). But Japan and Korea remain two of the most sexist countries among the developed major nations, with rigid and essentialist gender norms being strictly enforced through both written and unwritten rules. So the lack of gendered pronouns may not lead to a gender-free paradise on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome, Willow. Thank you for commenting. I am not familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from rigorous study, but accept the idea that language shapes reality from general reading. So language can expand understanding- the term “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, which is new to me, might help me direct that reading. I don’t think general use of “they” pronouns would abolish all sexism, but it would help. I know language can liberate: claiming the word “gay” helped gay people liberate themselves from the self-disgust condemning words imposed, and helped others see them as ordinary human beings rather than as diseased or criminal. It does not work by itself, but it does a lot of good. I am sorry your comment went in the Akismet spam filter, it takes genuine comments sometimes.


All comments welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.