Gender Pronouns Betray Us

At a barbecue two weeks ago, I incorrectly identified the gender of a person I had not yet been introduced to and in conversation with a group of people used the wrong pronoun in lieu of knowing the individual’s name. Everyone quickly corrected me and embarrassment was shared by all. I’m usually good about shaking off mistakes, but that mistake continues to haunt me. I still feel terrible about it and can’t seem to let it go.

In the effort of trying to write everyday, I find myself struggling often with which pronouns to use in certain contexts. Perhaps too politically correct, but I try my best to avoid assigning gender to my examples or hypotheticals because I generally find that gender has (or should have) little to no impact on the subjects I cover. Men and women alike can lead teams, make movies or art, be productive, and achieve amazing things. Most of my messages apply to all and I mean not to alienate anyone.

Unfortunately, the English language left us with a finite number of pronouns to use when referring to someone. Languages like Spanish where every noun has a gender can only make matters more challenging. Having wired the brain to decipher gender in a binary way at every corner makes it that much more distant to reconcile a world full of beautiful souls navigating through these grey areas. I desperately want a single syllable gender agnostic substitute for “him” or “her,” but alas even that risks highlighting someone’s ambiguity and alienating the person as they (“they”…see? this is really difficult) struggle to identify one way or another. We can’t reasonably refer to someone in person all the time as “this person here.” So what do we say?

I am by no means an expert or intimately familiar with this issue, but I care and want to do my part. I will never make the mistake I made at the barbecue again. When in doubt, introduce yourself and get a person’s name. Don’t bother to cluster someone into a gender group by pronoun; refer to an individual by name. Our names are the sweetest sound we hear, so use other people’s names often anyway. After all, every person is unique and shall not suffer categorization to an extent reasonably possible in communication. If you’re lucky, gender identity will reveal itself in the name and make things easier. If you come across a gender-neutral name and still can’t decide, fall back on using the individual’s name every chance you get. While this rule cannot help you safely traverse the entire minefield of gender identity, it goes a long way in relating with those who might be struggling or resisting classification. At the end of the day, we might be grappling to fit in one of two buckets, but at the very least we all can identify by our own names.