“Which personal pronouns do you prefer?”

Man, woman, why the need to specify?“Which personal pronouns do you prefer?”

I was caught off-guard the first time I was asked that question. I quickly had to remind myself what a personal pronoun was, and then I wondered if I’d missed something.

“Ahhh… the usual.” I said with a slight smile, partly out of embarrassment, and partly because it sounded so over-the-top silly!

“OK. So he, him, that kind of thing?” the interviewer, a person who identified as “male”, asked me.

“Yeah. That’s fine.”

Granted I was being interviewed as a potential volunteer for a queer resource centre, but still….

Had things really gone this far? Are people really that sensitive? Am I going to have deal with this kind of insanity as a volunteer for this organization? I imagined complaints being filed against me because I referred to someone as “he”.

Shortly after my interview I met my co-facilitator, Jackie (not her real name), a person who had most probably been called Jack at some point in her (his?) life. Suddenly I was faced with the difficulty of trying to ascertain which personal pronouns I should be using. I didn’t have the courage to ask, and for the next couple of months I paid the price by having to skirt around personal pronouns for fear of using the wrong one.

Once considered to be the most basic, simplistic of questions, “What is your sex?” has taken on the multi-dimensional nuances of many of the other nebulous considerations of our day, such as is your wife a man or a woman?

I attended a workshop put on by the Vancouver School Board (where I have two teenaged kids in high school). The email invitation stated, “Join us for refreshments and to learn more about supporting the teens we know and those teens’ gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender peers.”

As the group of fifty or so adults mulled about eating the snacks provided and chatting before the workshop began, a young man named Eric (not his real name) nervously flitted about talking to people and getting ready. Eric offered me a glass of water, which I accepted. I noticed Eric had very fine fingers, and my first thought was that he had at some point in his young life been a she, despite a manly 5 o’clock shadow, sideburns, a short haircut and boyish clothes. At the very least I pegged Eric as being gay (he later self-described as a “feminine man”).

Even Eric was surprised by the turnout. He had anticipated a small, intimate group gathered around to share personal stories and experiences. This was not to be the case, as there were too many of us. We all sat in a large circle, nervous smiles on our faces as we were all very concerned, eager to help out, wanting to be supportive.

I was delighted by the unanimity of the participants’ desire to understand and be part of a solution. I was very aware that absent from the meeting was any anger, dissent, religious (or otherwise) protestations, or outrage over the discussion of LGBTQ youth. This is Vancouver, B.C. after all, where, for the most part, we live in a rarefied air of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.

To get things started, Eric had us partner up and spend one minute each talking about someone we loved or admired without using any personal pronouns. This time I was more open to the discussion, and could see its merits.

The exercise did require a lot of thought: it’s not easy talking about someone without personal pronouns. The exercise was marginally effective (I kept using “this person” as a descriptor), although Eric punctuated the experience nicely by having us consider why a youth would be speaking in this way. One reason: to cover up the sex/gender of the person s/he was discussing, quite possibly in glowing terms, which would tip his/her hand as to their own orientation: your daughter has a crush on a girl.

I wondered about my own kids, going over past conversations to see if they had exhibited this type of behaviour. I couldn’t remember any, but then again, our household is as queer and sex friendly as they come: my father has been openly gay since I was 8 years old; and I have been openly bisexual for the past four years. Our family mantra is, “What’s wrong with sex? Nothing! But use a condom. Always.”

Another exercise we did was to complete the sentence, “If my child admitted s/he was LGBTQ, I would feel _____________.”

I was stumped. How would I feel?

My kids (son, 17, daughter, 16) seemed straight. But what if they weren’t? What if my son was “carrying on” with one of his buddies, as I had been? I smirked at the thought. Good for him! What if my daughter admitted to being in love with her best friend? I guess I would feel… nonplussed? Too apathetic. Proud? Not really. No prouder than if they were straight. Intrigued? Intrigued may be a bit too prurient in reference to my daughter’s sexuality. I would wonder how she’d come to this conclusion. What were her experiences, inner process? Her own feelings?

I asked my neighbour what she’d written. Her answer: “I would be honoured that they had trusted me enough to confide in me.” Wow. That’s good.

We then went on to discuss the alphabet soup of sexual orientation available to us these days. Things got interesting when someone asked the difference between transsexual and transgender. Eric lit right up with the question, and began his presentation of the “Genderbread Person“.

Even though my field of expertise is in sexuality, the various aspects of gender identity were elucidated with the Genderbread Person clarified things like never before.

The Genderbread Person breaks down self-identification to four groups:

- Gender Identity
- Gender Expression
- Biological Sex
- Sexual Orientation

Most of us in the workshop sat there staring at the diagram, re-orienting ourselves in this new universe of mix-and-match gender/sex identification. The nice thing about the Genderbread person diagram is that it identifies all the previously hazy areas of gender and/or sex identification.

Just to be clear: “gender” refers to the expression of one’s sexuality, and is mostly cultural – men don’t cry; girls wear pink; boys like sports; girls like to play with dolls. “Sex” refers to physiology: girls have breasts, vaginas, xx chromosomes and can give birth; boys have penises, testicles, xy chromosomes and can impregnate girls.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, “Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female is one in 100 births. Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance is one or two in 1,000 births.” Those are big numbers.

Sex, gender expression, sexuality, sexual identification – these are all much more fluid than we have been willing to admit – or tolerate. We are beginning to see that human expression need not be as rigid as we’ve allowed, and that in fact there have always been many who do not fit into these binary ideas at all. Of course this does wreaks havoc with binary concepts like man/woman, gay/straight, married/single.

Non-binary sexual identification and expression are indicative of the expansion of our consciousness. We have begun experimenting with self-expression which transcends the male/female dichotomy.

We are moving toward a more expansive future where it’s considered “normal” for people to mix and match physiological male/female attributes with gender expression: born with a physiology which is then altered to feel more comfortable to the person’s gender identification. This kind of gender-bending, gender-bashing is already happening.

We are not our biology: our biology is us. We can decide how we want to express our humanity. In this regard, the future is beginning to look interesting.


One Response to “Which personal pronouns do you prefer?”

  1. FreeSocrates
    23 January, 2013 at 07:29

    Wow, that’s quite mind blowing. Something I’d never ever think about.

    Maybe we need to come up with new pro-nouns, that is the wonderful thing about the english language that is not similar to other languages – we can add words when we need to and remove others that come outdated. Here’s one for starters:

    him + she = shim

    Shim is a lesbian transgender bi-sexual man.


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