Activists are increasingly drawing distinctions between biological sex and gender into the spotlight in recent years.
Last month, the governor of North Carolina passed HB2, a law that denied transgender people access to bathrooms that match how they identify. The law requires people to utilize bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
In August 2015, Target began removing gender from labeling for children’s toys, clothing and home décor and other international retailers have followed suit.
Issues relating to pronouns have also proliferated academic settings, taking the form of debates about pronoun use or availability of gender-neutral bathrooms. In fact, Westminster student Nicole Tyler, sophomore, started an initiative last year that brought several gender-neutral bathrooms to campus.
However, the English language still lacks an official third-person, gender-neutral pronoun that refers to an individual person. This creates a complicated grammatical situation for people who identify as non-binary—meaning their gender falls somewhere outside the boxes of male and female.
To understand non-binary identity, it’s important to look at the distinctions between sex, gender and sexuality, which are often conflated.
“Sex is usually considered to be the biological stuff—genitalia, chromosomes and hormones,” said Kara Barnette, professor of philosophy and gender studies. “Sexuality is the way someone manifests desire. Gender is everything else.”
Non-binary, also referred to as genderqueer, is a general term that encompasses gender identities that are not exclusively male or female and can include gender-fluid, gender-nonconforming, transgender or intersex identities.
Awareness of non-binary language is growing among college students, and neutral singular pronouns—such as sie, ze, hir, and they—are being used. Though this language may seem different to some, original forms of English used gender-neutral pronouns like ou and thon, according to Christopher LeCluyse, English professor. The Oxford English Dictionary also officially recognizes a singular form of they, referring to a person of unspecified gender.
Kyler Salazar, sophomore sociology major and gender studies minor, was born anatomically male but self-identifies as gender-fluid. Salazar moves between using the pronouns they/them/their and he/him/his fluidly.
“I’m more gender-neutral,” Salazar said. “There’s a lot of social scripts that goes with masculinity and being a male that I just don’t appreciate and don’t like for myself.”
Salazar said the feeling of not fitting with the norms of either the male or female gender is part of what informs their identity. For example, sometimes they like to wear makeup and short shorts, expressions that may be seen as feminine; other days, they will choose to wear snapbacks and basketball shorts, which can portray a more masculine identity.
“I don’t fit, nor do I want to fit, in these male roles,” Salazar said. “Nor do I fit in all the roles of females. So, I just do what feels naturally to me.”
Sexual orientation can also play a role in defining non-binary identity. Senior Alysia Paradise and junior Ryan LaRe both said they like to use pronouns and language that is influenced by their lesbian and queer identities, respectively.
Paradise recently crafted unique pronouns—qe, qer and qers—because they represent a queer identity that also signifies female embodiment.
“When I was younger, I was struggling with my lesbian identity, and so I always swore I had to be male,” Paradise said.
But as qe gained more knowledge about what it meant to be lesbian, qe began to see parts of qer identity as feminine.
“Typically, people refer to me as ‘she’ because that’s what they see me as,” Paradise said. “I don’t want to have to pick a side, and I do kind of feel like I’m running from my gender in a way when I run to they/them/their, because lesbianism entails my body and how that relates to the rest of the world.”
Paradise said qe is thinking of using the new pronouns regularly starting this summer.
LaRe, who self-identifies as a non-binary, queer individual, uses the pronouns they/them/their and also faces difficulty balancing identity and orientation.
“Gay means same-sex attraction, but then I reject the premise of a sexual binary,” LaRe said. “So it’s weird, because the language doesn’t necessarily exist for me to find a space to identify with one word.”
There are two separate issues in the debate over “they,” according to LeCluyse, English professor.
“Literally for centuries, what English speakers have done is use the plural pronoun ‘they’ to mean a single person whose sexual identity is unknown,” LeCluyse said.
This phrasing is common in day-to-day language; for example, it is considered grammatically correct to say, “Somebody left their backpack in the writing center,” when the speaker does not know if “somebody” is a man or woman
Using an inclusive ‘they’ solves many problems, LeCluyse said, such as the awkwardness of saying, “Somebody left his or her backpack in the writing center, but when he or she returns, I hope you give it to him or her.”
This can get even more complicated when someone like Salazar, Paradise or LaRe, use “they” or other non-binary pronouns to signify themselves—a single, known individual.
“That’s where someone’s linguistic preferences and a lot of speakers’ linguistic intuition may clash, because we’re just not used to ‘they is,’” LeCluyse said.
Another issue with using they as a singular pronoun for some is clarity of language.
“‘They’ does so much work in the language,” LeCluyse said. “It means so many different things that it’s possible to misread or misinterpret.”
Still, possessing the linguistic tools for self-expression and self-identity is important to these students. Paradise views pronouns as a method of owning one’s identity.
“Being able to have a name for oneself and being able to name oneself is just so important,” Paradise said.
Salazar said they think pronouns are important because they help distinguish between biological sex and gender identity.
“You shouldn’t imply a gender based off of your appearance,” Salazar said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate and you should honestly ask. It’s just a question.”
LaRe said one benefit of using gender-neutral pronouns is that it challenges norms and takes gender out of the equation.
“Part of what I really enjoy about using the plural pronouns is it makes people think,” LaRe said.
Some Westminster professors encourage dialogue about pronouns and gender identity within the classroom.
“I think Westminster’s campus is more accepting in general, compared to the rest of Utah,” Salazar said.
Paradise, who is double majoring in philosophy and psychology, has taken classes where the professors addressed pronouns by watching a video or taking time to share pronouns as a class.
“I think that because I do take classes more geared toward diversity and everything, I get more safe spaces from there, but I could see it being an issue if I weren’t to choose classes like that,” Paradise said.
On campus, Barnette, the philosophy professor, makes a point to discuss pronouns with her classes. Students include their pronouns while giving introductions at the beginning of each semester. Barnette said she recommends doing it several times throughout the year, as people’s pronouns may change, especially if they are gender-fluid or transgender and going through a transition.
“Pronouns are not small,” Barnette said. “This isn’t an issue of simple preference. This is an issue of how we recognize other people as human beings and how we recognize people of being worthy of respect and love and care.”
Students with questions about gender identity or who need LGBTQIAP+ resources on campus can check out the Diversity and Inclusion Center in Bassis 107.