Understanding Them (Pronouns)

I had a bit of a realisation, this week. I’ve long sometimes found it especially challenging to maintain a mental map of the preferred personal pronouns of people who don’t use “he”, “she”, or “they”. Further than that, it seemed to me that personal pronouns beyond these three ought to be mostly redundant in English. “Them” has been well-established for over six centuries as not just a plural but a singular pronoun, I thought: we don’t need to invent more words.

Over time – even within my lifetime – it’s become noticeably more-commonplace to hear the singular “they”/”them” in place of “he or she”/”him or her”, or single binary pronouns (e.g. when talking about professions which have long been dominated by a particular gender). So you might hear somebody say:

“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”

Venn-Euler diagram showing the "set of all people" containing the subsets "he", "she", and the singular "they".
This seemed a perfectly viable model.

It seemed to me that “they” was a perfect general-purpose stand in for everybody who was well-served by neither “he” nor “she”.

I’ll stress, of course, that I’ve always been fully supportive of people’s preferred pronouns, tried to use them consistently, ensured they can be represented in software I’ve implemented (and pressured others over their implementations, although that’s as-often related to my individual identity), etc. I’ve just struggled to see the need for new singular third-person pronouns like ze, ey, sie, ve, or – heaven forbid – the linguistically-cumbersome thon, co, or peh.

I’d put it down to one of those things that I just don’t “get”, but about which I can still respect and support anyway. I don’t have to totally grok something in order to understand that it’s important to others.

Venn-Euler diagram showing "he" and "she" as separate categories, but the name "they" shared between the subset (individuals for whom this is their individual pronoun) and the superset (one or more people whose genders are unspecified), causing confusion.
Hang on, there’s a problem with this model.

But very recently, I was suddenly struck by a comprehension of one of the reported problems with the use of the singular “they” to refer to people for whom the traditional binary pronouns are not suitable. I’ve tried to capture in the illustration above the moment of understanding when I made the leap.

The essence of this particular problem is: the singular “they” already has a meaning that is necessarily incompatible with the singular “they” used of a nonbinary subject! By way of example, let’s revisit my earlier example sentence:

“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”

Here, I’m saying one of two things, and it’s fundamentally unclear which of the two I mean:

  • I do not know which doctor I will see, so I do not know the pronoun of the doctor.
  • I will see the same doctor I always see, and they prefer a nonbinary pronoun.

The more widespread the adoption of “they” as the third person singular for nonbinary people becomes, the more long-winded it is to clarify specifically which of the above interpretations is correct! The tendency to assume the former leads to nonbinary invisibility, and the (less-likely in most social circles) tendency to assume the latter leads to misgendering.

Venn-Euler diagram showing the superset "they" (all people) containing subsets "he", "she", and an unnamed subset.
Okay, so I guess we do need a third-party singular pronoun that isn’t “they”.

The difference is one of specificity. Because the singular “they” is routinely used non-specifically, where the subject’s preferred pronouns are unknown (as with the doctor, above), unknowable (“somebody wrote this anonymous message; they said…”), or a placeholder (“when I meet somebody, I shake their hand”), it quickly produces semantic ambiguities when it’s used to refer to specific nonbinary individuals. And that makes me think: we can do better.

That said: I don’t feel able to suggest which pronoun(s) ought to replace the question mark in the diagram above. But for the first time, I’m not convinced that it ought to be “they”.

Ultimately, this changes nothing. I regularly use a diversity of different singular pronouns (he”, “she”, and “they”, mostly) based on the individual subject and I’ll continue to acknowledge and respect their preferences. If you’ve you’ve told me that you like to be referred to by the singular “they”, I’ll continue to do so and you’re welcome and encouraged to correct me if I get it wrong!

But perhaps this new appreciation of the limitations of the singular “they” when referring to specific individuals will help me to empathise with those for whom it doesn’t feel right, and who might benefit from more-widespread understanding of other, newer personal pronouns.

(and on the off chance anybody’s found their way to this page looking for my pronouns: I’m not particularly fussy, so long as you’re consistent and don’t confuse your audience, but most people refer to me with traditional masculine pronouns he/him/his)

Uplifting Diverse Genders: Beyond “Women and Non-Binary”

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Some organizations are beginning to take steps to be more inclusive by outlining in their mission statement that they welcome both women and non-binary people. However, this approach only scratches the surface of the needs for inclusion of diverse genders. While it’s certainly a good start, I’m here to discuss why the language of “Women and Non-Binary” can be problematic and how we can do better.

If your goal is to uplift marginalized genders, stating that your opportunity is open to “Women and Non-Binary people” has two important pitfalls:

  1. Including non-binary people in feminine coded spaces perpetuates the misconception that all non-binary people identify with aspects of femininity.
  2. Focusing only on non-binary people and women leaves out trans men, who are often overlooked and need just as much support.

Quinn Crossley acknowledges how good it is to have spaces for specific marginalised genders and how it’s even better to ensure that non-binary genders are considered too, but then they go even further by making four further recommendations, as follows:

  1. Remove gendered terms from your group’s name.
  2. Avoid language that lumps non-binary people in with a binary gender.
  3. Be specific about who is included in your mission statement.
  4. Use inclusive language when communicating with group members.

These are really great, and I’d recommend that you go read the original article (even if you have to put up with Medium’s annoying popups) if you’re looking for a fuller explanation of the arguments. What’s especially valuable about them, to me, is that they provide a framework for thinking differently about non-binary inclusion, as well as examples from which you can derive action points for your own groups. They’re all relatively-easy ideas to implement, too: if you’ve already got a moderately-inclusive group, you can make just a few minor tweaks to your stated values and your organisational language and reach a whole other level.

(Quick confession: I still don’t get the appeal of “folxs”, though; “folks” already felt to me personally to be completely free of gender. This might just be another one of those things I haven’t gotten my head around yet, though, like how – and I say this speaking as a bisexual person – there’s somehow necessarily always a difference between bisexuality and pansexuality.)

What’s the harm in reading?

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The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

As few days ago, I shared a short story called I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. By the time my reshare went live, the original story had been taken down at its author’s request and I had to amend my post to link to an archived copy. I’d guessed, even at that point, that the story had been seen as controversial, but I hadn’t anticipated the way in which it had so been seen.

Based on the article in The Outline, it looks like complaints about the story came not as I’d anticipated from right-wingers upset that their mocking, derogatory term had been subverted in a piece of art but instead from liberals, including arguments that:

  • despite its best efforts, the story sometimes conflates sex, gender, and occasionally sexual orientation, (yeah, that’s a fair point, but it doesn’t claim to be perfect)
  • it’s an argument for imperialism by tying aggression to an (assigned, unconventional) gender, thereby saying that “some people are legitimised in their need for war” (I don’t think we’re at any risk of anybody claiming that their gender made them commit an atrocity)
  • it identifies a trans person as a potential war criminal (so what? literature doesn’t have to paint every trans person in a perfectly-positive light, and I’d argue that the empowerment and self-determination of the protagonist are far more-visible factors)

I note that some of the loudest complainants have admitted that they didn’t even read the story, just the title. If you’re claiming to be a trans ally, you really ought to demonstrate that you don’t literally judge a book by its cover.

I don’t think that the story was perfect. But I think that the important messages – that gender presentation is flexible, not fixed; that personal freedom of gender expression is laudable; that behaviour can be an expression of gender identity, etc. – are all there, and those relatively-simple messages are the things that carry-over to the audience that the (sensational) title attracts. Trans folks in fiction are rarely the protagonists and even-more-rarely so relatable, and there’s value in this kind of work.

Sure, there are issues. But rather than acting in a way that gets a (seemingly well-meaning) work taken down, we should be using it as a vehicle for discussion. Where are the problems? What are our reactions? Why does it make us feel the way it does? We improve trans depictions in fiction not by knee-jerk reactions to relatively-moderate stories and by polarising the space into “good” and “bad” examples, but by iterative improvements, a little at a time, as we learn from our mistakes and build upon our successes. We should be able to both celebrate this story and dissect its faults. We can do better, Internet.

I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter

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I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

I lied. According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, “attack helicopter” is a gender identity, not a biological sex. My dog tags and Form 3349 say my body is an XX-karyotope somatic female.

But, really, I didn’t lie. My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you.

When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.

But I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say—

Isn’t that the point?

This short story almost-certainly isn’t what you’d expect, based on the title. What it is sits at the intersection of science fiction and gender identity, and it’s pretty damn good.

Looks like the original’s gone down, but here’s an archived copy.

When Experienced Women Engineers Look for New Jobs, They Prioritize Trust and Growth

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How can we increase gender representation in software engineering?

Our Developer Hiring Experience team analyzed this topic in a recent user-research study. The issue resonated with women engineers and a strong response enabled the team to gain deeper insight than is currently available from online research projects.

Seventy-one engineers who identified as women or non-binary responded to our request for feedback. Out of that pool, 24 answered a follow-up survey, and we carried out in-depth interviews with 14 people. This was a highly skilled group, with the majority having worked in software development for over 10 years.

While some findings aligned with our expectations, we still uncovered a few surprises.

Excellent research courtesy of my soon-to-be new employer about the driving factors affecting women who are experienced software engineers. Interesting (and exciting) to see that changes are already in effect, as I observed while writing about my experience of their recruitment process.

Google’s Three Gender Emoji Future

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Coming to Android this year: a third gender option for emojis such as Police Officer, Zombie, Person Facepalming, Construction Worker and People With Bunny Ears.

Revealed by Google in a submission to the Unicode Consortium last week, these changes signal a new direction from Google which has in recent years played ball with other vendors in overlooking Unicode guidelines, in favor of cross platform compatibility.

Above: Google will introduce a distinct appearance for emojis which don’t specify any gender in 2019. Image: Google designs / Emojipedia composite.

In giving public notice via Unicode, Google hopes that other vendors will join them in this effort to standardize many of the emoji which don’t specify a gender.

This builds on an initial few gender inclusive revisions made by Google in 2018.

Programming is just solving puzzles

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‘Programming is just solving puzzles’ – Nominet (Nominet)

As a child, I wanted to be a botanical researcher. I loved being outdoors and used to visit the botanical gardens near my house all the time. My grandma inspired me to change my mind and helped me get interested in science. She lived in the country and we would look at the stars together,…

Ruth Trevor-Allen

As a child, I wanted to be a botanical researcher. I loved being outdoors and used to visit the botanical gardens near my house all the time. My grandma inspired me to change my mind and helped me get interested in science. She lived in the country and we would look at the stars together, which led to an early fascination in astronomy.

Unusually for the era, both my grandmothers had worked in science: one as a lab technician and one as a researcher in speech therapy. I have two brothers, but neither went into technology as a career. My mum was a vicar and my dad looked after us kids, although he had been a maths teacher.

My aptitude for science and maths led me to study physics at university, but I didn’t enjoy it, and switched to software engineering after the first year. As soon as I did my first bit of programming, I knew this was what I had been looking for. I like solving problems and building stuff that works, and programming gave me the opportunity to do both. It was my little eureka moment.

Wise words from my partner on her workplace’s blog as part of a series of pieces they’re doing on women in technology. Plus, a nice plug for Three Rings there (thanks, love!).

Bureaucracy vs. Common Sense

In addition to the pension I get from my “day job” employer, I maintain a pension pot with a separate private provider which I top up with money from my freelance work. I logged in to that second pension provider’s (reliably shonky, web-standards-violating) website about a month ago and found that I couldn’t do anything because they’d added a new mandatory field to the “My Profile” page and I wasn’t allowed to do anything else until I’d filled it out. No problem, I thought: a few seconds won’t kill me.

Neon sign showing the words "Work Harder"
If I’m lucky, I might be able to afford to retire this century.

The newly-added field turned out to be “Gender”, and as it was apparently unacceptable to leave this unspecified (as would be my preference: after all, I’ll certainly be retiring after November 2018, when gender will cease to have any legal bearing on retirement age), I clicked the drop-down to see what options they’d provided. “Not provided”, “Male”, and “Female” were the options: fine, I thought, I’ll just pick “Not provided” and be done with it. And for a while, everything seemed fine.

Gender field with options "Not provided", "Male", "Female".
Leaving the field as the undefined “Select One” option wasn’t valid (I tried!) so I changed the value.

Over three weeks later I received a message from them saying that they hadn’t yet been able to action the changes to my profile because they hadn’t yet received hard-copy documentary evidence from me. By this point, I’d forgotten about the minor not-really-a-change change I’d made and assumed that whatever they were on about must probably be related to my unusual name. I sent a message back to them to ask exactly what kind of evidence they needed to see. And that’s when things got weird.

I received a message back – very-definitely from a human – to say that what they needed to see what evidence of my gender change. That is, my change of gender from “not specified” to “not provided”.

Fluttershy says "If I had fingers, I'd be showing you one."
Fluttershy gets it.

They went on to suggest that I could get my doctor to certify a letter verifying my gender change. Needless to say, I haven’t made an appointment to try to get my GP to sign a document that confirms that my gender is “not provided”. Instead, I’ve emailed back to ask them to read what they just asked me for again, and perhaps this time they’ll engage both brain cells and try to think about what they’re actually asking, rather than getting tied up in knots in their own bureaucratic process. Let’s see how that goes.

Male incompetence is a subtle form of misogyny

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Have you ever dated a man who ‘can’t cook’?

Do you know a guy who’s rubbish at cleaning or any other kind of domestic chore?

Of course, you do.

It might not be their fault; many men are raised in traditional families where women do all the household tasks, ironing their little prince’s pants and serving up regular, large dishes which his future girlfriend then has to try to replicate.

Male incompetence is tolerated far more than female ineptitude…

Mx

The most recent column in Savage Love had a theme featuring letters on the subject of gender-neutrality and genderfluidity. You’ve probably come across the term “genderqueer” conceptually even if you’re not aware of people within your own life to whom the title might be applied: people who might consider themselves to be of no gender, or of multiple genders, or of variable gender, of a non-binary gender, or trans (gender’s a complex subject, yo!).

A purple circle.
If you’ve come across the purple circle symbol before and know what it signifies then you probably know far more than this article will ever tell you.

For about the last four or five years, I’ve been able to gradually managed to change my honorific title (where one is required) in many places from the traditional and assumed “Mr.” to the gender-neutral “Mx.” Initially, it was only possible to do this where the option was provided to enter a title of one’s choosing – you know: where there’s tickboxes and an “Other:” option – but increasingly, I’ve seen it presented as one of the default options, alongside Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., and the like. As a title, Mx. is gaining traction.

"Mx Dan Q" on HMRC.
HMRC are among the organisations to whom I’ve been known as “Mx. Dan Q” for several years.

I’m not genderqueer, mind. I’m cisgendered and male: a well-understood and popular gender that’s even got a convenient and widely-used word for it: “man”. My use of “Mx.” in a variety of places is based not upon what I consider my gender to be but upon the fact that my gender shouldn’t matter. HMRC, pictured above, is a great example: they only communicate with me by post and by email (so there’s no identification advantage in implying a gender as which I’m likely to be presenting), and what gender I am damn well shouldn’t have any impact on how much tax I pay or how I pay it anyway: it’s redundant information! So why demand I provide a title at all?

Scottish Power's "Title" options. Showing: Mayoress, Monsignor, Mother, Owner/Occupier, Police Comissioner, Prince, Princess, Professor, Rabbi, Reverend, Reverend Father, Reverend Mother, Sergeant, Sheikh, Sir, Sister, Viscount, Viscountess, Wing Commander, Abbot...
Despite offering no fewer than 85 different titles (and no “Other” option), not sorted alphabetically, Scottish Power don’t permit “Mx.” nor a blank option. Instead, I’m going by “Owner/Occupier”.

I don’t object to being “Mr.”, of course. Just the other day, while placing an order for some Christmas supplies, a butcher in Oxford’s covered market referred to me as “Mr. Q”. Which is absolutely fine, because that’s the title (and gender) by which he’ll identify me when I turn up the week after next to pick up some meat.

I’d prefer not to use an honorific title at all: I fail to see what it adds to my name or my identity to put “Mr.” in it! But where it’s (a) for some-reason required (often because programmers have a blind spot for things like names and titles), and (b) my gender shouldn’t matter, don’t be surprised if I put “Mx.” in your form.

And if after all of that you don’t offer me that option, know that I’m going to pick something stupid just to mess with your data. That’s Wing Commander Dan Q’s promise.

Little people, big shame

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Sorry about the long break — I just wish I could tell you that it was because I’d been completely unable to find any awful examples of the pink/blue ‘colour bar’ in kids’ stuff. Sadly the truth is quite the reverse: there seems to be more of this crap every day, it gets demoralising, and…

Social engineering

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GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m…