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Much more than 'he' or 'she': How pronouns are becoming gender inclusive

Rebel Marie, left, is a 31-year-old transgender woman and activist. She is pictured with Vyla Grindberg, a 35-year-old transgender woman. Special to Forum News Service

FARGO — Grammar can make many of us feel tense. (Pun intended.)

But in the last couple of years, the anxiety over grammar is fueled not by where to put an Oxford comma or two but at the very heart of assumptions about gender identity.

Recall your early grammar lessons and you'll remember that pronouns are words used to replace proper nouns and indicate gender.

• He/him/his used for a man.

• She/her/her used for a women.

• They/them/their used for gender neutral.

Vyla Grindberg, a 35-year-old woman in Fargo who has been presenting as a transgender woman for about nine months, shared her experience when she asked her co-workers to refer to her with gender neutral pronouns during the 10 years she identified as nonbinary. (Nonbinary or genderqueer is a person who experiences their gender identity outside of the categories of man or woman. See more terms in the sidebar.)

"I asked some people at my work to use the singular 'they/them' pronouns with me. Some were like, 'Cool, I'll try to do that.' And they did a pretty job," she says. "But one or two said, 'I'm sorry I can't do that. It doesn't make any sense; that's not how English works.' "

The rest of Grindberg's co-workers tried but still didn't understand.

"I remember them asking, 'They/them is for plural right?'," she says.

To some, this shift to use they/them to refer to a singular person with an unknown gender is a fairly recent phenomenon but others recognize this usage of "they" as a natural evolution of language.

Last spring Dennis Baron, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois, compiled a history of singular, genderless pronouns, beginning in the late 1700s. This illustrated that by the 19th century, many grammarians had come to recognize that English gender was different from Latin.

For standard English grammar, pronouns are supposed to agree with their referents in number and gender. The Latin grammar standard of using "he" as default cannot agree with everyone or gender.

"People don't realize that they use singular 'they' far more than they actually do. For example, if someone is coming and I don't really necessary know their gender, I'll say, 'They should be here any moment,' " Grindberg explains.

Written language has taken note of this gender neutral pronouns evolution.

Last spring, the American Copy Editors Society announced that "they/them/their is accepted in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun when alternative working is clumsy."

Other institutions like Purdue Online Writing Lab have followed. A section on gender inclusive language says "he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people are either male or female."

While Grindberg realizes that she and other nonbinary or transgender people can't police what others say, she says most cisgender people (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at a birth) don't understand the concept of singular "they" is not only about language fluidity, but also gender inclusion.

'She, He or They?'

Grindberg says people's gender identities can be discerned from appearance but a trans person's gender is frequently called into question.

"I don't actively think about specifying pronouns very much. Often it should be pretty obvious," Grindberg says. "I mean, it all lies in assumptions; I look at you and I assume you're a she/her, but I don't actually know that."

Rebel Marie, a 31-year-old transgender woman who has been presenting as a woman for more than four years, introduces herself to others as a woman but many still use the wrong pronoun and misgender her.

"I still had people coming up to me, using the wrong pronouns and trying to figure out my dead (former) name," she says.

Marie says people would ask, "What's your real name?" and she would have to respond, "My real name is Rebel."

Both Grindberg and Marie say that people can trust their assumptions about what gender pronouns they should use when addressing a person, but to understand if a transgender or nonbinary person corrects you.

"The fact is that sometimes (gender pronouns) are made by assumptions, but then sometimes you have to be corrected," Grindberg says. "Then you should say something like, 'I'm sorry I'll do better.' "

Marie says authentic apologies like these are needed when mistakes happen.

"On our end too ... we shouldn't get mad about it. We are hurt and that hurt should be acknowledged. When people call me 'he', it does hurt," she says.

Marie says that the transgender community understands different levels of awareness on certain issues.

"I have a brother who has no idea about trans issues and lives in a rural area with at town of 15 people. When he gets stuff wrong, I'm quick to forgive because it's not willful ignorance," Marie explains. "But for people who I just met, there should be no misgendering or dead naming and sometimes it happens. That throws me for a very bewildered loop."

Marie understands that the question "What is your pronoun?" may be well-intentioned, but highlights when it can be intrusive if asked right away or when a person is offering other gender cues (i.e. their clothes, or how they refer to themselves).

"If it comes up randomly, it's basically asking, 'What's your life story?' If we have sat and talked for two hours about my life, and you still ask about my pronouns, it means that you weren't listening," she says.

Grindberg and Marie know judgments are human nature, but blindly accepting assumptions without listening or being aware of an invisible bias rejects a trans person's gender expression.

"I think it's important to learn about how trans people are, but our job isn't to educate people about who we are," Grindberg says. "I mean my job isn't to give my entire life story every time I meet people."

Marie agrees and reminds cisgender people to stand up for trans people and others by accepting without looking for justification.

"Even if you're being an ally and you're making us justify why we are here, it can feel like we have to validate ourselves and why we are in this place," she says. "If you want to be an ally, comment on how nice my dress is because I have nice dresses. If you want to be an ally, then have a normal conversation with me."

Start here: 10 helpful terms

For those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, understanding the issues of trans people can be daunting — especially when the terms of the LBGTQ community are unknown. Here are 10 terms that are helpful to know when talking about gender.

• LBGTQ+: This is an acronym used to refer to the Lesibian, Bisexal, Gay, Transgender, Question or Queer community. In some references a plus sign (+) is added to refer to nonbinary or genderqueer.

• Gender identity: A person's deeply held sense of their own gender, regardless of what they were assigned at birth.

• Gender expression: Also called "gender presentation", this is an outward expression of gender (clothing, mannerisms, activities, etc...)

• Preferred gender pronouns (PGP): This is the pronoun that a person chooses to use for themself.

• Transgender: Sometimes shortened to "trans", this is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

• Genderqueer or nonbinary: A term used by some to express their gender identity and expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman.

• Cisgender: A person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at a birth, sometimes referred to as "cis" in shorthand.

• Dead name: This refers to name of transgender person before their transition. Some prefer the term "birth name".

• Misgender: A verb meaning to use a word, pronoun or form of address that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify.

• Presenting: A verb used to describe how a person is expressing their gender identity.

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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