Today I added my pronoun on LinkedIn.
Today I added my pronoun on LinkedIn. It’s not the one I would have chosen, but it’s the correct one for now.
When I was in the 10th grade, my teacher Mr. Greenberg and I had a debate over his comments on an assignment. I had written an essay and had inserted “s/he” throughout as the short form for “he or she”. It made for awkward reading out-loud, but visually, seemed to work as a short cut and I liked the idea of the universal “s/he” pronounced “she.” Mr. Greenberg, one of my favorite teachers ever, won the debate and corrected my work, telling me about the universal “he.” Why “he” would win over “s/he” as universal, when to my 15-year-old brain “s/he” seemed more universal, I did not know. But that’s how it was.
The debate did not end, because in the next essay I wrote something along the lines of “when one wants this, they should….” Again, I was corrected, this time because of grammar rules. “One” is singular, “they” is plural. But again “they” appealed to me as an easy and convenient short form. It just fit and read well. I was not thinking of non-binary individuals at that point, because they had not entered my awareness. But I did want to emphasize the fact that it wasn’t the pronoun that was important but the person, and for me, “they” captured that. It assumed no gender, and highlighted, instead, the ultimate point. The gender or sex of the individual, was actually a distraction from the idea being conveyed.
The friendly debate I had in high school with my teacher reminded me of the first thoughts I had about these issues as a young child, inspired by Startrek the New Generation in the early 1980’s. If you are familiar with Startrek (and really, if you are not you are missing out!) Captain Jean Luc Picard and his team of Federation officers were exploring the universe. And at that time, in the Federation, all officers were addressed by the universal “Sir.” Regardless of their gender. And I loved that concept and thought wistfully, someday we won’t be using gender-specific pronouns. We will all be “Sir” or some other agreed upon word because our gender won’t matter.
Years later, I was introduced to non-binary individuals and their desire to be referred to as “they.” They do not feel that “she or he” applies to whom they are. And the main argument I heard against this pronoun is grammatical— that “they” refers to many. And this reminded me again of my dialogue with my High School teacher, over thirty years ago.
I did not have a problem reconciling a plural word with one individual—in fact, in Greek (my first language) the polite form of speaking to a person is to address them in the plural. And of course, even in English, we are aware of the royal “We.” In fact, when someone tells me they consulted with a doctor, lawyer, professor, engineer, teacher, trusted advisor, etc, on a problem, my default is to ask “and what did they say?” And now, I am no longer corrected based on grammar. Because that person could easily be s/he or even they.
And so this reawakens in me the childhood question I had— why do we need gender pronouns? In most cases in fact, the pronoun is irrelevant. I suppose when you want to point someone out in a crowded room, or are looking for a sexual partner it’s relevant. But in most of our everyday interactions, it isn’t or shouldn’t be. Especially in my professional life, I can say on the occasions when my sex or gender was relevant, it was more often than not, inappropriately so.
So if I had my way, we would all be “they.” But we are not there yet, grammatically and socially. I think we will, some day, but not yet. And using “they” prematurely would, I think, be disrespectful to non-binary individuals who very much need a pronoun in this binary s/he world.
And in a hundred years our successors, if they are around, will be amused by the fact that we referred to ourselves based on sex or gender in the first place.
Written by: Elena Paraskevas-Thadani