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They, Them, Theirs…why pronouns matter

With major universities announcing the option for students to use pronouns other than him or her and the American Psychological Association (APA) formally adjusting their style guidelines to include “they” as a singular, gender neutral pronoun, the next generation is growing up with an entirely different understanding of gender. If you are hoping to engage with people in a meaningful way, buckle up and get familiar with these concepts.

Personal pronouns have long been used in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities as a way of capturing and reclaiming a very personal, innate sense of self. However, as people begin to challenge a gender binary and begin using neutral descriptors, words other than him or her are becoming increasingly more visible among those who don’t necessarily identify as either cisgender (innate understanding and experience of gender is aligned with physical gender characteristics) or transgender (innate understanding and experience of gender is not aligned with physical gender characteristics).

One reason behind this move toward neutrality, other than gender being viewed as largely a social construct, is the shift in perspective of gender as an “either or” proposition. In this respect, honoring each individual’s personal pronouns is absolutely necessary. You don’t have to understand it, but you do have to uphold their humanity (as well as your own) and use the words that others have determined to reflect their essential selves.

If we look at this from a developmental perspective, each fetus begins with the same basic programming. It’s not until around 8 weeks gestation that the hormone testosterone is expressed if a Y chromosome is present. Meaning the absence or presence of a specific hormone, as well as the level of hormone itself, shifts the development in another direction. Essentially, we all start out the same but some are exposed to a catalyst that modifies the course of development and eventual assignment of a gender at birth.

To put it differently, men have nipples but many people can’t wrap their heads around the idea that human development is a complex process with several variables; precluding the notion of a strict “male” or “female” label based on observation of external sex organs. Nature just doesn’t work that cleanly; nature is complex and fluid, so is the concept of gender.

Another component of conversations around gender neutral terms comes from the perspective of cultivating spaces that are truly inclusive. Promoting the use of gender neutral terms acts as a mechanism for removing some of the unconscious stereotyping that limits potential. By referring to “mom” instead of “parent”, the unconscious assumption presented is that women are the default for this role. Similarly, using “he” in professional content to describe a customer, engineer, or executive removes everyone else from the picture. Instead of a person, we’re given a blank slate against which all of our socially ingrained assumptions can be projected, depending on the use of “he” or “she”. Changing him or her to they keeps our socially biased filter from influencing the information that follows.

This is where gender identity and pronouns become a significant part of the discussion. Each culture has been socialized to believe gender roles since before we were born. From the moment external sex organs can be identified and stated as male or female, each person is set on a trajectory that will largely determine their access to resources, relative safety in the world, earning potential, and expectations around marriage and child birth. That’s quite a heavy burden for a fetus or minutes old baby. We are sent down a pink or blue path that tells the world how to treat us and how we should treat ourselves. If you think your family doesn’t have deeply ingrained roles or expectations, try doing the opposite of what’s typically done by those of your gender.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

My point in all of this is not to highlight how much of what we’re doing was hard wired into us and everything is completely wrong. Rather, it’s meant to open our eyes on how liberating it would be to remove the limitations ascribed to individuals when stuck in a single track. Imagine the untapped potential in the next generation that will be possible because their environment wasn’t quite as obsessed with who should or shouldn’t hug, cry, defend their country, train for the Olympics, or hold their friend’s hands while crossing the street. If your visualization of any of these items changed when thinking about men and women, that’s gender as a social construct.

It’s not a blurring of the lines, it’s bringing much needed clarity to one of the more complex and influencing factors of the human experience.

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