When New York passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage June 24, it proved a major victory for the gay rights movement and reflected the growing change of Americans’ attitudes toward gay men and women. While the bill’s final outcome grew tenuous near the end of New York’s legislative session, evidence of its safe passage had been mounting. In May, a Gallup poll revealed that for the first time, a majority of Americans support gay marriage.
While there is rising evidence that Americans’ attitudes towards gay rights is shifting, there are also some outlying effects of this greater acceptance slowly revealing themselves: our treatment of gender is poised for a serious re-evaluation. And that reconsideration could change the way we speak to each other.
The signs have been accumulating almost in conjunction with mile markers in the gay rights movement. Andrej Pejic, an androgynous male model from Bosnia, successfully modeled in both male and female runways during Paris Fashion Week in January.
Then in April, clothing retailer J.Crew was caught in a media firestorm after its catalog featured a young boy with toenails painted pink. In May, news broke of Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker’s decision to not reveal their newborn baby’s sex as a way to prevent the child from being affected by societal norms.
And then last week, The Associated Press filed a fascinating report from Stockholm about a genderless preschool. None of the children, aged one through six, would be addressed by gender-specific pronouns, only as “friend.”
With gay and transgender Americans becoming more widely accepted and integrated into society, could American schools in the not-so-distant future stop using gender-specific pronouns such as the school in Stockholm?
At the moment, there is no immediate threat from the removal of gender pronouns or the creation of a widely used gender-neutral pronoun, but plenty have raised the question as of late. National Public Radio even published an article in June titled “The End of Gender?”
But before any widespread change to the English vernacular occurs, more pertinent legislative hurdles would have to be leaped says Equality Texas Deputy Executive Director Chuck Smith.
Smith explains that while the use or creation of a gender-neutral pronoun would be helpful, the fight to create an infrastructure that could support such a pronoun is still ongoing.
An example Smith cites is the current process in issuing birth certificates in Texas.
“Currently the birth certificate has a ‘mother’ and ‘father’ block — we would like to see that changed to a gender-neutral pronoun,” Smith said. “But it’s more important that we get both names, whether the child has two moms or two dads, on the birth certificate. Compared to that, the gender-neutral pronoun is just a detail.”
But Smith said there are some gender-neutral pronouns, such as “Ze” for he or she, that already exist and are being used by people who feel that their gender is more neutral. These pronouns are used by people who feel that gender identity is on a spectrum and that instead of pinpointing exactly where they are on the spectrum, they exist within a range.
The search for a gender-neutral pronoun has had a long, storied past, spanning all the way back to 1745, according to an essay published in June by The Awl. Since then, grammarians have debated the use of using the singular “he” and “they” as a catch-all gender-neutral pronoun, but both have been challenged as insufficient.
The Fowler brothers, writers of the pre-eminent and influential language guide “The King’s English,” debunked the use of the singular “they” as something to be avoided. TheFowlers also state: “It is a real deficiency in English that we have no pronoun, like the French soi, son, to stand for him-or-her, his-or-her.”
But so far none of these grammatical debates centered on creating a gender-neutral pronoun are responses to the wider acceptance of gay rights. While the resulting effects of the gay rights movement might not be changing the English language in a significant way, it is eliciting greater discussion of gender identity. And with that, the possibility of a change in interpersonal rhetoric inches forward. It might not be a major talking point now, but it’s likely to be