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I’m sure you will have noticed that the LGBTQ+ Association has been the centre of campus’ latest controversy, in light of recent posters with slogans like “Never assume someone’s pronouns” and “Use gender-neutral language”. These posters, advertising the Association’s Gender Grammar Workshop a couple of weeks ago, made a lot of people quite angry, and that made a lot of other people quite angry, and… well, you probably know how this goes.
I’m not going to step into the specifics of the argument, because it’s simply too complex and (more to the point) I don’t represent either side in any official capacity. Instead, I want to clear the air about some misconceptions surrounding the topic of gender-neutral language, from the perspective of an LGBT person currently questioning their gender identity, as well as (for what it’s worth) a linguistics student.
Firstly, let’s look at the biggest claim that’s been made against this campaign, which is that it goes against our right to freedom of speech. The idea seems to be that LUSU (and specifically the LGBTQ+ Association) are policing the language of their students, but policing implies that some kind of punishment might be forthcoming if the ‘laws’ laid down are not followed. This is actually what freedom of speech protects against, and is pretty demonstrably untrue. Here, let’s try an experiment. Turn to the person next to you, point at this article, and say “She’s blathering on about gender again!”
You’ve just misgendered me, and yet you will likely observe that no police have burst through the nearest skylight to arrest you for your crimes against language. So you can see now that your freedom of speech remains intact. Here’s one point I will concede – the posters are unfortunately authoritarian in their phrasing, and had I been in charge of them I would have tried to include a little extra nuance in the slogans, to get across the point that nobody is forcing you, they’re only asking you.
You’ll notice that despite your misuse of pronouns earlier, I have managed to continue typing and am not foaming at the mouth with rage or anxiety. This is because – and read this a couple of times – I’ve not been triggered. This buzzword ‘triggered’ needs to be killed in this debate, because it’s become the de facto phrase everyone uses to mock the LGBT community and is blocking anyone from saying anything real. My feelings about actual trigger warnings (or ‘trigger culture’ as some thinkpiece has undoubtedly labelled it) are that they can hurt more than they can help sometimes, and that as a community we sometimes get wrapped up in our own closed-loop systems and idiosyncrasies without thinking about the world in general. That can be fine sometimes, but if it causes issues like the plague of ‘triggered’ jokes we’ve all had to endure, it becomes not fine fast. That said, all of that is irrelevant in this debate, because we’re not talking about triggers. If you misgender somebody, the chance that they’re going to be triggered by it is very low. You might upset them, depending on the nature of the misgendering, but those are completely different things. Anyway, if we could all stop saying ‘trigger’ when it isn’t relevant, that would be awesome.
So if they’re not going to be triggered, what is a real-life non-binary person going to do when you use the wrong pronouns? Well, it depends on the person – and there are those that are more militant about it than others – but from my experience they will basically let it go. If you don’t know that they’re non-binary, and have no way of knowing, then fine. They may mention it, or they may not (I normally won’t bother unless it’s a specifically LGBT environment – another example of our unfortunate closed-loop systems, I’m afraid), but they’re generally going to be pretty understanding if you have no knowledge of it at all. If you do know that they prefer gender-neutral pronouns, then you should obviously make an effort to use them, but if you screw up and accidentally use the wrong ones, you will not be shouted at.
Here’s what you need to do in that scenario – and it’s so easy – you just correct yourself, and move on. I’ve had people apologise after every time they use the wrong pronouns for me, and it honestly just gets tiring. I’d personally much prefer that you just keep going with the conversation, because that’s what actually matters. Pronouns are just a grammatical tool, and if we spend all our time in a conversation arguing about them then – just like ‘triggering’ – we end up never talking about anything real.
There is an argument that says that singular “they” is ungrammatical. This is a misconception I don’t want to spend too much time on, because unlike the ones above this one is objectively nonsense. “They” has been used for a person of indeterminate gender for literally centuries, and is perfectly valid. More to the point, grammar is fluid enough that it doesn’t actually matter too much, because the context supplies the meaning.
I think what people are actually saying when they complain that it’s ungrammatical is that is sounds ungrammatical. And this I genuinely understand. I mean, how could anyone not? It sounds weird as hell referring to somebody right next to you as ‘they’ – it sounds impersonal, awkward, and strange. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to. What sounds ‘weird’ in your language is not determined by a grammar book or a dictionary, it’s determined by the world around you. If you start to use ‘they’ when it’s relevant, and you start to listen to people around you doing the same, then over time it’s going to normalise. Language revolution is the easiest revolution in the world because you don’t really have to do anything! It’s great! The first time I ever regularly met somebody who preferred ‘they’ pronouns was about eighteen months ago, and I still get it wrong sometimes; some twenty years of habit are pretty difficult to break. But for the most part I’m getting much better, and they’re getting better at saying mine. We’re both learning, we’re all learning, and we’re not ever going to stop learning. If we recognised that in each other a little more – and this goes for both the LGBTQ+ Association and their opponents – there’d probably be a lot more understanding going on.