Ana Mardoll is a transgender, genderqueer writer and activist. "I have a gender, but it's not a simple binary male/female setting," she told me in an email, adding, "the label I use most often for my gender is 'demigirl', because that fits me the best." She's comfortable with the pronouns "she" and "her," along with "xie" and "xer."
"Xie" and "Xer" aren't the only gender-neutral ways to refer to people. There's also "zie," "sie," "ey," "ve" and a slew of others.
If you're not used to using these pronouns, you might argue that for clarity's sake, we should stick to one non-binary pronoun, like they. You might say that confining gender-neutral pronouns is an elegant and inclusive solution to the problem of a swiftly evolving language. But you'd be wrong.
Mardoll caught my attention when, in a series of tweets, she deftly explained why shying away from inclusive pronouns is just another way to rob trans and non-binary people of their identities
Mardoll's tweet storm has literary roots. She explained in an email that she's "plotting a book of short stories right now that are a sort of homage to the old trope of 'no man born of a woman can do X'." The idea is to use that trope, which uses gendered language to create literary loopholes, to reimagine the role of genderfluid people in fulfilling such prophecies. "I'm taking the concept in a different direction: one where transgender people exist and the people uttering the prophecies don't always think to take us into account," she wrote.
Mardoll invited readers to take a look at her early drafts, and asked them to fill out a survey listing their reactions to her use of gender-neutral language. "I wanted to have six sets of beta readers; my goal was to match transgender readers to relevant stories so they could 'fact-check' me," she wrote. "I also welcomed cisgender readers to take the survey, because it would be valuable to get feedback from them on what was confusing and what wasn't, story-wise."
The frustration that led her to her series of tweets sprang from one of the survey participants' responses. "I was a little annoyed when a reader pooh-poohed the whole idea on my blog, claiming that neo-pronouns 'break immersion,'' she explained. By saying that pronouns outside of he, she and them distract from the story, the respondent effectively dismissed how important specific language is to identity. "I don't begrudge anyone who can't or doesn't want to read something with neo-pronouns in them. But it's like saying you don't want to read a book with people who have red hair, you know?" Mardoll said, adding "Some of us readers DO have red hair and want to see ourselves in our reading. It's the same thing with pronouns."
Mardoll also pointed out that the term 'neo-pronouns,' for new pronouns, is misleading. "Many of them have been around since the mid-1900s. They've also been used in literature for years, including in science fiction books that look at societies with more than one gender and/or non-human cultures."
Mardoll added that she understands the tendency to shy away from neo-pronouns. "If anyone can have any pronoun and if they can change it at any time, how can we ever communicate? It's a natural fear," she said, adding, "But it's also wrong, in my experience. I run with a LOT of neo-pronoun users. You forget their pronouns sometimes, and they correct you, and everything goes on just fine."
We are all, as a whole, taking strides to make our language more inclusive. In December of last year, The New York Times' Philip B. Corbett, an associate masthead editor for standards at the publication, commented on The Gray Lady's sly use of the non-binary gender honorific Mx. in a recent piece.
The Washington Post has also made careful steps toward recognizing non-binary people by using more inclusive language. Also in December of last year, The Post began using "they" as a singular that identifies non-binary individuals.
These are important steps, as language is so often tied with legal rights. As writer Maria Bustillos pointed out in The Awl back in 2011, male designations like "mankind," and in legislation "he," may have implied gender neutrality but were used to argue that women deserve fewer rights than men. "It turns out that a lot of jerks who didn’t care for the idea of women practicing law or voting were willing to use pronouns as a serious argument in order to deprive them of equal rights," Bustillos wrote, reiterating, "yes, to use pronouns as a weapon against women, and to take their specious arguments to the courts, and to get their way too." Gender-neutral pronouns may serve to protect non-binary individuals in ways we might not yet know.
But language is also inherently personal. When I asked Mardoll to explain why pronouns are important to her, she compared the act of misgendering someone by getting their programs wrong to calling someone by the wrong name. "The ability to name yourself is one of the most powerful things we have," she wrote, adding "I always ask people to imagine a little kid at school, standing up to introduce himself. He tells the class that his name is William. He's proud of that name; it was his dad's name and his granddad's name. But his teacher steps in and says 'no, that's too hard a name, we'll call you Bill.'"
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.