The English language has long had its peculiarities and weaknesses. Like all things, however, it is an evolving entity that seeks to accurately reflect the culture of the moment. No matter how much elitist grammarians wish to impose their dominance over the language, it is the people who ultimately determine what is acceptable usage, and if the people wish to split their infinitives — as I did in the previous sentence by wedging “accurately” in between the infinitive “to” and its verb “reflect” — there’s ultimately little the grammar ideologues can do about it except to choose to “Roll with the Changes” as REO Speedwagon once encouraged us all to do. Language, in fact, may be the most democratic of all social conventions.
Similarly, most societies have long maintained strict definitions regarding gender assignation, but many are rolling with the changes and slowly opening their minds to what philosophers, artists, psychologists, rock and rollers, and openminded folks have long intuited, argued, and demonstrated: To limit the designation of gender to anatomy is both simpleminded and false. A person’s gender is as much the product of choices and behaviors as it is a reflection of what does or does not dangle between his or her thighs. (I apologize for the indelicacy of the previous sentence. I swear that sometimes my fingers start to dance across the keyboard as if they have a collective mind of their own, and they detour around the rather porous filter in between my brain and fingers to transpose my thoughts — raw and crude — into words.)
Shakespeare, for example, was bending gender in his plays over four hundred years ago. A regular trope of his was to have his female characters (being played by male actors as was the practice of the day) “cross-dress” as male characters, which, of course, the actors portraying them actually already were. Take a moment to wrap your brain around that and let the hilarity ensue. Were Shakespeare and his plays merely the victims of a convention that disallowed for female actors? I think not. To do so would be an unforgivable underestimation of Shakespeare’s genius. Rather, I believe he was fully intentional in his brazen display of gender fluidity as his actors quite easily and believably traded their “parts.”
Similarly, in The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” “Jack is in his corset // Jane is in her vest,” and in the Kinks’ “Lola,” when Lola walked like a woman but talked like a man,” these songs were subtle pleas for tolerance and acceptance of gender fluidity and in no way meant to be derisive. Both Lou Reed and Ray Davies were decades ahead of their time; although, I was not perceptive or mature enough to realize it as I sang these tunes at the top of my lungs at college parties.
The terms used for pronoun and gender assignation have been on a collision course for years and have finally crashed at the corner where the avenues of Intolerance and Compassion intersect. It is becoming increasingly polite and necessary to ask a newly-encountered applicant or acquaintance, “What is your preferred pronoun?” At which point, the vast majority of folks will stick to the traditional gendered pronouns (he/him/his or she/her/hers); however, a growing number prefer non-binary terms, such as the use of the plural “they/them” to indicate a singular person or “ze/zir in the place of he/she or his/her.” In so many ways, this runs contrary to what so many of the good Sisters of Notre Dame taught me in language arts. They were, however, as I have since learned, innocently wrong about so many other things that I’ll just chalk this up as another.
I’m not stupid. I can see how such demands for non-gendered identifiers is rife for satire of political correctness run amok. However, I’m also aware that my mother taught all of her kids the simple admonition to “be nice.” For me, then, asking for and respecting someone’s personal pronoun choice is more a matter of being nice than it is some sort of statement of one’s political leanings. It certainly doesn’t cost me much time or effort to be sensitive to and respectful of another’s preferences and feelings.
When such paradigm shifts are asked of us, we are often reluctant to comply to the changes. In my experience, there is no better catalyst for accepting such shifts in our ways of thinking and behaving than actually knowing someone who is being marginalized by whatever is the current standard belief or practice. For example, I’ve known more than a few chauvinistic men who suddenly became ardent supporters of issues pertaining to female equality — if not exactly outright feminists –upon the birth of their daughter(s). In my case, my sensitivity to and support for gender neutral pronouns has grown exponentially by witnessing courageous students and relatives who, despite the difficulty of doing so, identify as and live their lives as non binary or transgender persons.