On gendered pronouns: I was wrong

I wish to apologize. And clarify. And argue for what I think is right

Topics: Since You Asked, Gender, Gender Issues, Gender Roles, Gender Equality, Language, transgender issues,

On gendered pronouns: I was wrong (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

I would like to make an apology.

In this recent column my prose was offensive. It was pointed out to me but, as often happens, it took a few days to sink in. I can see now that I was wrong to take the tone I did and to say the things I said the way I said them. I apologize for my tone of overbearing, hectoring intolerance and arrogance, and for the careless ignorance that underlay it. I berated the letter writer for doing something that was quite well-meaning — carefully avoiding gendered pronouns in the text.

Now, just to clarify: I thought I was talking about language in a humorous way. I really did. But I was wrong. The “God gave us …” part: That also was meant in an ironic vein. I can see now, though, that it didn’t come off that way. That’s the only clarification I wish to make.

I do have some sincere and serious thoughts about the matter in general. I would like to argue for greater explicitness in such matters. I would ask that letter writers with progressive thoughts on gender in language express those thoughts explicitly. I would ask that letter writers not just avoid using gendered pronouns but openly draw our attention to the issue.

Over the years, many alternatives have been suggested, and I would be interested to see some of them in operation. I plan to educate myself by reading “The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing” by Kate Swift and Casey Miller — and by studying this Wikipedia page.

There is some benefit to simply “enacting” one’s beliefs. Society does change in that way. We do notice how others solve linguistic problems and pick those habits up.

But I do believe that in the arena of written speech, we can do more good by being explicit. I do not think I am alone in wanting to know, Is the word “spouse” being used because the marriage partner is neither husband nor wife?

I am interested in the gender of people. Aren’t you? The absence or refusal of gender is surely the most interesting and newsworthy of all. I want to know.

I am not a fan of keeping things mysterious. I want to know what is the deal.



And here is a more subtle point. If people who do not feel definitively gendered do not feel safe stating it, then that is a problem. The avoidance of gendered pronouns, without explicit reference to why, feels like hiding. It feels like shame. I would prefer an open dialogue. I think that’s healthier. And it is more interesting.

I was talking with my psychiatrist about the role of therapist and client. She was talking about how ideally everything that happens in the therapist-client relationship is in the interest of the client. Unlike a therapist, I have no explicit pact with any letter writer or any reader. I do not promise to help you get better. You are not paying me. There is no fiduciary relationship.

But the longer I do this job the weaker becomes my oft-made rationalization that “I am just a writer.” That assertion does not account for all that comes up in this strange enterprise. The title “advice column” presumes expertise and professionalism. It could hardly be otherwise. My only experience in helping others is in talking peer-to-peer, sharing only my own experience. I am no expert in healing arts, the law, psychology or medicine. Yet people invest importance in my replies. I have sometimes pretended otherwise, hiding behind the fact that I am “just a writer.” So I must acknowledge that my simplified version of this trade does not address all its complexities and realities.

May I also say that we would not be having this discussion if gender roles were not important? I believe people who are changing society, broadening rights, ferreting out injustice, do best when they name themselves. I believe that if you are a person who is uncomfortable with gendered speech then, for the sake of social change and progress, please make this explicit. Please say, “I am purposefully not using the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ because I think they are wrongfully narrow.”

I grew up in a homophobic society and it is possible that behind this lapse lay some of that society’s corrosive residual; I also grew up in a racist culture and that, too, lives within me. The way forward is to watch for evidence of such damage, to know what we carry in our hearts, and to help each other see where we are wrong.

A letter writer did that for me.

Here is some positive spin: It is a great thing when social progress outstrips our own pace of understanding! For much of my life it has been quite the opposite. Social progress inched along. So the world is going in a good direction. People are becoming more free, more kind, more aware, more accepting of difference. I can only salute that, and try to keep up.

By reading and responding, you are helping.

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