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I work as an educator at a school associated with the Christian Reformed Church. I am also a regular reader of The Twelve. I’m writing anonymously, somewhat to protect myself, but much more so to protect my institution. Sadly, I’m sure you will understand why. . .
The other day I received an invitation to a webinar on “The Use of Pronouns in Higher Education.” You and I both know this wasn’t going to be about first or second person pronouns. It would surely focus on third person pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they.”
Whoever could have anticipated that these simple words could become so polarizing?
“They” is particularly the center of attention. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary named “they” as the word of the year for 2019 and added it as a third person singular pronoun to the dictionary along with the neologism “themself.” Other guardians of the English language have also done this. How could a plural word become singular?
But long before this became loaded with polarizing tension, most of us already used “they” as a singular pronoun in common speech. We say, “Someone left their coat on their seat,” rather than “Someone left his or her coat on his or her seat.” “Their” removes all the clumsiness and in this instance sounds okay to our ears.
However, when “their” doesn’t refer to an unknown person but to someone specific, it doesn’t sound right. Sentences like these, taken from Time magazine, about the gender diffuse actor Asia Kate Dillon, stand out: “Through their work, Asia has carved out a new space . . . this speaks to their integrity.” That’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to many people, me included.
Of course, this is about more than grammar. I’ve come at this from the grammar angle, hoping to initially remove a little of the heat from the conversation.
The question isn’t just whether or not we accept the preferred pronouns of those who don’t identify as male or female. The bigger question is whether or not we accept those who don’t identify as male or female. Do they have to change before they can be in the church?
I have heard things about gender in the last few years that have made my head spin, like there are at least 114 possible genders; gender is a spectrum; gender is a social, not biological, construct; and if you are over the age of 35, you intuitively think in binary terms, but if you are under the age of 35 you don’t see what the big deal is. I am over 35, so it’s all a stretch for me, and I know there are lots of arguments over the validity of those claims.
I am no expert in the science of sex and gender, but Sara Sybesma Tolsma, Elizabeth Heeg, and Laura Furlong all are. They are members of the Biology Department at Northwestern College and their article on the biology of sex is revelatory. Things aren’t as simple as many of us wish they were, either with plants or animals or humans
No doubt many will want to comment and set me (or the Biology Department at Northwestern) straight, but I’m not actually writing about biology.
I simply want to say four things about who gets to decide what pronouns to use that have come to my mind.
1.) Belonging, evangelism experts will tell you, precedes belief. The question for the church, then, is does the church want to have anything to do with gender diffuse people? Belonging, which can be expressed through pronouns, seems like a place to start.
2.) Is there anyone reading this who can remember the uproar when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali? I remember people who insisted on still calling him Cassius Clay. It was both disrespectful and dehumanizing. It said, “I won’t recognize you if you don’t play by my rules.” Calling him Cassius Clay backfired—over time those who called him Cassius Clay were seen as hateful, backwards, and small-minded.
3.) The church has been talking about gender neutral pronouns at least since the 1960s, when the women’s movement pointed out that “he” isn’t always the appropriate pronoun for God. Bible translations like the NRSV arose because of this. It was hard for those raised in a patriarchal system when it started, but now when I hear God talk using only male pronouns I think, “If your image of the infinite God limits God to a finite human gender, your God is too small.” As Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell has already brilliantly written in this space, God is not binary. How we think about God affects how we think about God’s creation and God’s creatures.
4.) Late in his life, Bing Crosby did a couple of things that strike me as extraordinary. He hosted David Bowie on his Christmas special and together they sang “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s become a sort of holiday classic, so strange, so bizarre, it works. Bravo Bing. He also covered the Beatles song “Hey Jude.” This lacks the charm the David Bowie duet has. Although Bing did handle the “bom-bom-bom-bom-dee-da-dum” transition from the verses to the sing along chorus with a certain aplomb, the whole thing reeks of desperation. There is so much wrong with it. The world had passed Bing by, but he didn’t have the wisdom to withdraw from the stage. He should have. So I wonder, as I age, how to be the awkward-yet-slightly-still-cool Bing singing with David Bowie rather than the clearly over-the-hill Bing singing “Hey Jude.” I wonder if the church has any interest in questions like that. Most of the time I don’t think it does.
Can we accept someone like Asia Kate Dillon on their terms, or do our needs require us to accept her only on our terms? Grammar, in this instance, becomes both a shield for our own uncomfortableness and a weapon to control someone we don’t control.
It’s hard for me. It’s easier to roll my eyes, ridicule, and make dismissive comments about being arrested by the political correctness police than try to understand or accept people on their terms
I fear I hear the faint echo of “Hey Jude” in the distance. What’s it going to be? I am doing my best to try.
Thanks for this. This was risky for whoever you are. But you’ve helped clarify some things. These new practices are challenging and require some grace and charity in the application of. I want to learn how to make my language more inclusive and welcoming as well, and I want to respect how people want to call themselves. At the same time I can understand those people who find the whole thing ludicrous. I don’t, Thank you for your courage and candor.
I try to respect everyone’s pronoun of choice. The hardest for me is a young African American whose pronoun of choice is ‘it’. I’m 75, trying to understand.
That would be a particularly challenging one, and I thank you for writing this and for doing your best to honor the agency of others even when you don’t quite understand.
A new book by Dennis Baron titled “What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She” got a positive review in this past Sunday’s NYT Book Review section. Baron is an aging college professor who has learned from his students. https://nyti.ms/3azCFPp
Back in 1987, I spent a summer semester at U of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, part of the program including sessions with Prof Dennis Baron, reading and discussing his then-latest book, “Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language,” a history of attempts to reform language in America, from Ben Franklin to Edwin Newman and William Safire. I remember him as being a kind and gentle soul, quick-witted and a generous and gracious host. I’m glad to learn that he is still writing about English, let alone still alive on this good earth.
I’m also a grammar gal. Here’s what I wrote after a “non-binary” ordination in the UMC: https://christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/grammar-queen-m-is-a-them/
Thanks so much for your explanation. I appreciate it.
What about the fact that the majority of people in the world already speak a language that does not distinguish gender (“he” or “she”) in spoken pronouns? What about the fact that spoken English until the 13th century also did not distinguish gender in pronouns? Does this suggest that it’s not the end result of this process that is so painful, but rather the transition, the change?
Right. Hungarian has no gendered pronouns at all, and very little gender distinction in its language at all. About English to the 13th Century, that’s news to me.
Not sure if this is too late to enter the conversation, but my wife is a Spanish teacher and someone who is learning and trying to change with empathy for the way binary pronouns are exclusionary and sometimes hurtful. However, in teaching Spanish, she has encountered a variety of problems. So much of the language is gendered (binary), and the pronouns are gendered. She has students who are not ready to commit to a gender binary and are more comfortable with they. In the English language this may be grammatically awkward, but still more than possible to make the changes necessary. In Spanish, it is not so easy. I don’t have an answer, but given that Spanish is the second most spoken language in our country and only growing, it may be an area to begin to address the issue.
Thanks for posting this! Concerning the complexities of God’s human creation, I highly recommend the documentary Intersex & Faith which explores the stories of several people of faith who were born somewhere between male and female due to an intersex condition. Here’s the link https://storiesofintersexandfaith.com/ – the trailer is available, though the film costs money to get. It’s not outside the budget of a church or college, though.