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.