Gender Identity and Language: An outsiders perspective

This article presents what I think is a linguistic problem resulting from an increased freedom to express a trans- or queer- identity. It‘s aim is simply to engage with this challenge from the hugely privileged position of a white, middle-class, cis-male. I know there are parts of gender identity which I simply don’t understand (as I hope I have made clear – indeed it is the crux of the problem), but that cannot invalidate anyone else’s experiences, nor should it. It would not be unreasonable to question whether I should be writing this at all. My only response is that there are issues that I, and society as a whole, have to engage with. If, in so doing, I have caused offence, please accept my apologies, and (if you feel able), please do explain what I have missed. I know I still have a lot to learn.

My thanks to the friends who commented on earlier drafts. These thoughts are my own.

In recent years, a number of people I know have come to see themselves as gender queer, by which I mean they do not see themselves as fitting into their assigned gender at birth, or in some cases, into any gender. These realisations have come to people from all sorts of backgrounds, at different times in their lives and in different ways. First and foremost, I would like to tell each and every one of you that you are remarkable people (if for no other reason than you have undertaken some pretty hardcore self-reflection), and I am lucky to know you. I know I am often guilty of neglecting self-reflection, and I commend those people who have undertake such scrutiny as to make what can be life-altering decisions.

But, as someone on the outside, I confess a certain confusion. You see, I don’t think my gender has ever been that important to me (except inasmuch as it has almost certainly subconsciously coloured my sexual orientation – I am a guy and have been brought up in a hetero-normative society, so while I maintain there is no reason I couldn’t fall in love with another guy, it is perhaps less surprising that to date I haven’t done so). I have never been particularly conscious of my gender. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I feel like a man. Although I know some people who identify as gender-fluid are more male or female from one day to the next, this is beyond my experience.

Partly this is because I don’t think my life would be substantially different if I were female. Certainly, it wouldn’t have stopped me being a musician, it wouldn’t have stopped me studying history, going to Cambridge, or volunteering in Ghana. That is not to say that my life is not easier for being male (and I live in one of the more gender-equal societies in history) – female sopranos cannot sing in most church choirs, I might have lacked academic role-models, and travelling as a woman can present all sorts of challenges which men simply ignore. Still, my life, in broad brush strokes, would be equally possible were I female. This mean I am not very aware of my gender. Its simply not something which matters to me.

All that colours how I think about gender in general. When I use a gendered pronoun, or think about someone’s gender, I don’t think of something innate or ‘real’. Such ideas have no meaning for me, nor, I suggest, for many other cis-gendered people, and that means they are not linguistically useful. Words are valuable because they allow people to communicate a shared concept. If the concept is not shared between all parties, as in the case of innate gender, which I believe is mainly meaningful to people who have been mis-identified previously, the word has limited utility. From a linguistic point of view, the only value of the concept of gender, is as a shorthand for a set of visible attributes, because that is the only understanding which can be shared by everyone.

When I say ‘male’ or ‘female’, when I refer to ‘him’ or ‘her’, I am imagining a set of attributes (perhaps within two circles of a Venn Diagram), and saying that, based on visible attributes, this person fits better into one circle or another. I would argue that this is how gendered language is generally used. What attributes go into a circle will vary over time and between societies – there is no absolute gender, unless you mean what’s between your legs, which is a., not a useful descriptor as most people don’t go around with their trousers down, and b., none of my business, unless we have a very specific kind of relationship. Still, as a linguistic shorthand it largely holds up. I am aware that the traditional attributes of women in Japan differ from those of women in Ghana, and adjust my thinking accordingly.

Of course, people are fantastically varied. Very few people would fit neatly into a circle of ‘typical attributes’, hence the circles of my Venn Diagram would overlap, and many people, either by chance or choice, cannot be identified based on visible attributes at all (falling outside the circles altogether). There are also people who feel more comfortable presenting themselves as a different gender to that which they were assigned. And that is fine. People are free to present themselves however they would like. And that presentation will likely mean I use a certain pronoun unless I am told otherwise.

But, as I have been told by some of the lovely people who agreed to look at this in earlier drafts, being trans- or gender-queer is not about appearance. It is about who you are. It is about your identity being limited or denied. As I said before, this is not something I can really understand. But I can see that it presents a real problem if gender is understood normative, rather than just descriptive. When we start to say this is what a man should be, how a woman ought to behave, that is when we have a problem. Doing so undermines language, by providing an alternative definition, without making it clear which one is in use. Far more seriously, it allows systems of oppression develop.

As I said earlier, I am very lucky to live in a society which has made significant progress towards gender equality. But there is still a long way to go. Women are still far less likely to study certain subjects at university. Men still commonly get paid more than their female counterparts. There is an expectation that if someone in a couple is to stay home and raise children, it will be the woman. I know that the feeling of being limited to a specific role is not the only reason that people feel limited by their gender identity – I know it is more innate than that – but these institutionalised biases are the closest I can come to an understanding of why gender identity matters so much to some people. (It may also partly explain why my anecdotal evidence suggests that people assigned female at birth tend to do come out as trans- more than those assigned male, though it may also be that it is much harder, much more dangerous to choose to be openly trans-feminine in what is still a patriarchal society).

That leaves us with a question. How can we continue to use language in a way that is meaningful? Using language to describe innate gender does not aid communication, but using it descriptively does not do justice to how people feel. Normative use of gendered language damages people’s freedom and entrenches oppressive societies. Somehow we must cut the Gordian Knot.

The way I see it, there are three options. First, alternative pronouns proliferate, while ‘male’ and ‘female’ become more narrowly defined. In this scenario, everyone must choose their own pronouns, and we must act accordingly, learning them as we learn names. Given that I am bad enough at remembering names, this fills me with fear (although I know my trans- and queer friends will forgive my errors) . At the other extreme, we could do away with gendered pronouns altogether. This is less likely to cause offence, but can deny people for whom their gender matters an opportunity to be affirmed. From a communication point-of-view, it is also of little value; it makes it harder to identify people in a crowded room. The tall, blonde person is by definition less specific than the tall, blonde man. Given that this post is first and foremost about how we can continue to use language in a useful way, I don’t think this is the solution.

Personally, I would favour a middle ground. We use ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘he’ and ‘she’ in less closely defined ways to communicate. We, as a society, accept that we cannot use gender as anything other than descriptive – we return to my Venn Diagram perspective. Of course, there would still need to be space for people who don’t fit in either circle (a gender neutral pronoun), but linguistically, we could accept that gendered language reflects only the speaker’s impression of an appearance, nothing more meaningful than that. This gives us the benefit of reducing the number of people being referred to (which is, I would argue, the reason gendered language evolved), without inadvertently undermining a person’s innate identity. What a person feels internally remains true, and no external language can change that, but neither can it adequately capture it, so personally I think we should abandon attempts to do so.

Of course, if you tell me to use he/she/they/any other pronoun I will do so. Anything else is rude and heartless, and it is vitally important that we affirm everyone’s identity. But I hope this perspective is something which can be considered. Language is only what we choose to make it. If tomorrow, we could all stop thinking of gender as normative, the world would certainly be a more free and equal place (not to mention a happier one), and it might just help us communicate.


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