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)

What’s the harm in reading?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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.

Poly and the Census – Success! (almost)

You may remember the long-running story of my letters to the Office of National Statistics, and the more-concentrated effort by another blogger, in regard to the automatic “correction” of supposedly-“erroneous” data in the 2011 census, like somebody having multiple partners or identifying as neither gender. You don’t? Well here’s a reminder: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Well: we’ve finally had some success. A response has been received from the ONS, including – at last – segments of business logic from their “correction” code.

It’s hard to tell for certain what the result of the correction will be, but one thing’s for sure – Ruth, JTA and I’s census data won’t have passed their validation! Their relationship validations BP2, BP2a, and BP2b state that it is logically-impossible for a person to have a spouse and a partner living with them in the same household.

I should invite them around for dinner sometime, and they can see for themselves that this isn’t true.

I also note that they consider it invalid for anybody to tick both or neither of the (two) gender option boxes, although again, it’s not clear from the data they’ve provided how the automatic correction occurs. Increasingly, I’m coming to suspect that this might actually be a manual process, in which case I’m wondering what guidelines there are for their operators?

One good piece of news from this FoI request, though: the ONS has confirmed that the original census data – the filled-in paper forms, which unlike the online version doesn’t enforce its validation upon you – is not adjusted. So in a hundred years time, people will be able to look back at the actual forms filled in by poly, trans, and other non-standard households around the UK, and generate actual statistics on the frequency with which these occur. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Poly and the Census – Part Four

Following up on my earlier blog posts about how data on polyamorous households is recorded in the census (see parts one, two, and three), as well as subsequent queries by Zoe O’Connell on this and related topics (how the census records data on other relationships, such as marriage between same-gender partners and civil partnerships between opposite-gender partners), there’s finally been some progress!

No; that’s a lie, I’m afraid. We’re still left wading around in the same muddy puddle. Zoe’s Freedom of Information Act request, which basically said “Okay, so you treat this kind of data as erroneous. How often does this happen?” got a response. And that response basically said, “We can’t tell you that, because we don’t have the information and it’d cost too much to work it out.” Back to square one.

Still: it looks like she’s not keen to be beaten, as she’s sent a fresh FoI request to instead ask “So what’s the algorithm you’re using to detect this erroneous data?” I was pleased to see that she went on to add, effectively, “I don’t need an explanation: send me the code if you need to,” which makes it harder for them to fall behind the “It’s too expensive!” excuse yet again.

Anyway: it’s one to watch. And needless to say, I’ll keep you all posted when anything changes…

Poly and the Census – Part Three

Unimpressed with the slow response time that I and others were getting to my query to the Office of National Statistics (to which I still never received a response) the month before last, Zoe O’Connell decided to send a Freedom of Information Act request demanding a response to a couple of similar questions. After some hassling (I suppose they’ve been busy, with the census and all), they finally responded. The original request and the full response is online now, as is Zoe’s blog post about the response. But here’s the short version of the response:

Polygamous marriages are not legally recognised in the UK and therefore any data received from a questionnaire that appeared to show polygamous relationship in the manner that you suggest would be read as an error. It is recognised that the majority of respondents recording themselves as being in a polygamous relationship in a UK census do so erroneously, for example, ticking the wrong box for one household member on the relationships question.

Therefore, the data to be used for statistical purposes would be adjusted by changing one or more of these relationships, so that each respondent is in a relationship with no more than one person. This is consistent with all previous UK censuses, and others around the world.

A copy of the original questionnaire would be retained as part of the historical record which would show such relationships as they were recorded. We do not attempt to amend the original record.

Any mismatches between the indicated sex and marital status of respondents will be resolved using a probabilistic statistical system which will not necessarily deal with each case in the same way. The system will look at other responses for each person, including those for the Household relationships, and will alter one or more variables to make the response consistent. In the example that you propose, it would either change the sex of one individual, or change the marital status to “Same-sex civil partnership”, depending on which is considered statistically more likely to be correct.

Honestly, I’m not particularly impressed. They’ve committed to maintaining a historical record of the original, “uncorrected” data, so that future statisticians can get a true picture of the answers given, but this is about the only positive point in this response. Treating unusual data as erroneous is akin to pretending that a societal change doesn’t exist, and that this approach is “consistent with previous censuses” neglects to entertain the possibility that this data has value that it might not have had previously.

Yes, there will be erroneous data: people who accidentally said that they had two husbands when they only have one, for example. And yes, this can probably (although they don’t state how they know to recognise this) be assumed to be more common that genuine cases where somebody meant to put that on their census (although there will also be an error rate amongst these people, too). But taking the broad brush approach of assuming that every case can be treated as an error reeks of the same narrow-mindedness as the (alleged; almost-certainly an urban legend) statement by Queen Victoria that lesbianism “didn’t exist.”

“Fixing” the data using probabilities just results in a regression towards the mean: “Hmm; this couple of men say they’re married: they could be civil partners, or it could be a mistake… but they’re in a county with statistically-few few gay people, so we’ll assume the latter.” Really: what?

I’m not impressed, ONS.

Update: a second FoI request now aims to determine how many “corrections” have been made on censuses, historically. One to watch.