Two of us (Saguy and Williams) recently proposed that we should all use they/them pronouns. In a post in Scientific American, Hanna et al. disagreed with this proposal. This provides a helpful opportunity to clarify our idea, and to explain how it fits into broader debates about gendered language. To do so, we have collaborated on this response with Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak—philosophers who have independently been developing their own argument for why we should do away with gendered pronouns. Together, we seek to address some common misunderstandings about our proposal.
One thing Hanna et al. object to is our perceived failure to take “trans perspectives” into account. In fact, our work draws extensively on trans perspectives, including published work by trans authors and interviews with LGBTQ+ activists. The fact that we considered how the use of gendered pronouns may reinforce gender inequality does not mean our piece was not informed by trans perspectives.
Such an assumption risks reinforcing divisive rhetoric that on matters of gender justice, the needs of women and those of transgender and gender-nonconforming people are inevitably in conflict. We believe it is crucial to take into account multiple perspectives on gendered language and develop an intersectional approach; after all, research shows that women of color are disproportionately at risk of being misgendered.
Leaving aside this methodological issue, Hanna et al.’s primary concern is that “a move toward gender-neutral pronouns ignores the important work that gendered pronouns perform in everyday life.” They contend that “avoiding the act of gendering manifests as another form of violence.”
This is a subtle issue; it needs to be handled with care. Most fundamentally, we disagree with the claim that “avoiding the act of gendering” is always a “form of violence.” It is wrong to misgender others. But it is not generally important to gender others correctly, as long as we do not gender others incorrectly. When a student refers to a university instructor as “Professor So-and-So,” this avoids misgendering by avoiding any act of gendering in the first place.
That said, selective avoidance of gendering can be wrongful. Consider an example from one of the interviews that informed this work. During an interview with a self-described gender-nonconforming person, we were told of a recent experience going through airport security. Every other passenger was addressed as “Thank you, sir” or “Thank you, ma’am.” When it came to this person, the TSA officer just said “Thank you,” which was experienced as stigmatizing because it was a glaring departure from a practice of showing respect via gendering.
Hanna et al.’s view is the equivalent of insisting that the TSA continue thanking “sirs” and “ma’ams”—that is, continue gendering passengers by default. Our view is the equivalent of insisting that the TSA should just say “thank you” to everyone and avoid gendering anyone. Hanna et. al. acknowledge the serious harms of misgendering but they offer no plausible solution to the pervasive problem of misgendering, especially for transgender and gender-nonconforming people and people of color.
We do. Our proposed solution is to use gender-neutral pronouns as the default, with the long-term goal of using they/them pronouns for everyone. That’s a far cry from advocating for the willful misgendering of a person who asks to be referred to using a specific pronoun or legitimizing the refusal to gender a trans person while gendering everyone else.
Hanna et al. further contend that our proposal is based on a “Western-centric view of language,” pointing out that there are languages like Bangla that don’t have gendered pronouns. True. There are also languages with less gendered grammar than Bangla and languages with more gendered grammar than English. This raises questions for Hanna et al. and anyone else who defends the status quo in English: if gendered pronouns are so valuable, should languages like Bangla introduce them? Are trans and gender-nonconforming persons wronged when they are not gendered (correctly or incorrectly) by the accepted pronouns in Bangla or Finnish or Malay or Kurdish? Presumably not.
It is worth reflecting on why this is so. One reason is connected to Hanna et al.’s observation that, without grammatical gender, people can still gender themselves. But crucially, without grammatical gender they have more autonomy over whether and when they are gendered: trans women can declare their gender when doing so is safe and significant, without risking misgendering by others’ use of gendered pronouns.
Another reason why avoiding gendering does no harm connects back to the discussion of equality. The preference for gendered pronouns among English-speaking trans and gender-nonconforming people is best understood as a preference for equality: just as our interviewee prefers to be treated like other passengers, a trans woman may understandably prefer to be called “she” in a world where cis women are called “she.” If cis women were all called “they”—as they are in the languages mentioned above—equality requires that trans women be called “they” too. This is particularly important in institutional contexts.
As Hanna, et al. point out (citing Dean Spade), institutions have long used gender categorization to marginalize trans and gender-nonconforming people. In light of this history, we think efforts to remove gendered language from legislation and institutional processes should be lauded. Certainly, they should not be opposed as a form of “administrative violence.”
The differences between grammatical gender systems in natural languages provide a fruitful basis for empirical research. This includes testing Hanna et al.’s hypothesis that a natural language without gendered pronouns “doesn’t have the effect of reducing gender inequality, nor does it reduce the cisnormative desire to categorize by gender.”
In fact, studies find that grammatical gender in natural languages does affect gender inequality and essentialism in gender categorization. Of course, there are confounding variables here: plenty of other social, cultural and political factors affect levels of gender equality. But a clear implication of this research is that gendered language affects gendered thought. That finding undermines Hanna et al.’s most important objection: “Getting rid of gendered pronouns as a means of addressing gender inequalities would be the equivalent of treating symptoms without treating the root of the illness.” On the contrary, evidence suggests that degendering English would reduce gender discrimination and gender essentialism. If this is right, it is an important tool of addressing gender injustices, root and branch.