Why Pronouns are Important

03 Mar 2014 |

Butene isomers

GreenReaper—WikiFur founder, Inkbunny owner, and Flayrah editor-in-chief—was at the centre of an online foofaraw in December after someone asked him about comments he made in 2011:

A screencap from LiveJournal that has been widely circulated
A screencap from LiveJournal that has been widely circulated

He said: I'm not going to call someone "he"/"she" if they are not physically male/female.

His point of view is uncomplicated (if unsophisticated). In short:

  • He prefers to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.

@coyoteseven I believe gender is a subjective and fluid value, and so prefer to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:12 AM - 28 Dec 2013


  • The correct use of words, including pronouns, is primarily an issue for the person using them.

@coyoteseven My point: the correct use of words, including pronouns, is primarily a matter for the person who must choose which to use.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:10 AM - 28 Dec 2013


To many people, this will seem like a small semantic issue and hardly worth thinking about. To other people, this will seem like a very big deal indeed. It's actually both: it is a semantic issue, but an important semantic issue. And as is often the case with this sort of thing, the truth is more complex than parties on either side might suggest.

First, let's talk about pronouns in general.

We use language to describe the world. Nouns—words like bus or apple—can represent a specific object. We hear a noun (car) and we dredge up its meaning from our memory, giving us a mental image of a car.

Pronouns are words that are a step further away from the object in question. They refer to the most likely recent noun, so in "I saw a car, it was green", it stands for 'the car' and so the car is green. Pronouns only work when their meaning is clear, so in "I saw a car and a motorcycle, it was green", it's not clear which it is intended.

To use a more colourful metaphor, consider a Zelda inventory system. A noun is the equivalent of opening your inventory and choosing the item you wish to wield. It's a bit cumbersome, but it's clear what you're getting. Alternatively, you can create one-button shortcuts to one or two commonly-used items. Here, the shortcut button is like a pronoun in the sense that it refers to whatever object was last mapped to it. If you want to grab an item not currently mapped to a pronoun-shortcut, then reach for that cumbersome noun.

Gendered pronouns—he, him, his and she, her, hers—are recognised by psycholinguists (yes, that is a real occupation) as being particularly awkward (ref). There are two main problems: firstly that people tend to associated gender stereotypes to anyone (or anything) awarded he or she; secondly, that our use of gender pronouns is in a state of flux. Gender pronouns have become political.

In the last few centuries of the English language, the male gender has been used as a default (e.g. "one giant leap for mankind"). The female gender does get applied by default to some objects, notably ships or countries, but not many. Default usage of the male pronoun started changing in the 1960s, as an outcome of the feminist movement.

Feminists noted that women, in language, tended to be treated as an exception, in terms such as 'actress' or 'WPC'. The feminists felt, quite correctly, that this reinforced the general idea that being female was some sort of deviant condition, where being an actress or a WPC was a special case of a 'normal' actor or police constable. This is what's known as a 'marked term', and it's an indicator of inequality. (It happens towards men as well as in 'male nurse', homosexuals as in 'gay marriage', and other races as in 'Asian driver'. In all cases the marked term implies some sort of shortcoming.)

This change is causing growing pains. Some marked terms are easy to remove (an actress is just an actor), but some are built into the terms themselves, like batsman or mankind. Language is changing to reflect the fact that women are (or should be) considered equal to men, but we're not quite there yet. Some people defend the deprecated language and refuse to change; others overuse politically-correct jargon that isn’t in wide usage; most people are somewhere between.

A more recent, and very welcome, change in many parts of the world is an awakening to the special challenges of people who do not fit into the he/she gender binary. Many people are neither completely male nor completely female (including around 25% of furries, ref), and so the use of gendered pronouns for such people can be wrong. However English has not yet widely adopted a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun, which leaves us in a quandary. What do we do?

The answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple. The Oxford English Dictionary, a reference for the establishment if there ever was one, agrees with most LGBTQ activists that the best available (or least-worst) gender neutral pronoun should be used. (The OED also points out that the use of they/them/their instead of he/him/his or the female equivalent is a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century, and common in 19th century literature, such as Dickens.)

Gender-neutral pronouns aren't perfect, and can be awkward. But then pronouns in general can be equally awkward, as anyone who has ever tried to write about gay sex can attest. It's easy to get mixed up with 'he' and 'he'. Consider this snippet from David Plante's diary, Becoming a Londoner:

"As for Stephen himself, I sometimes wonder if he wants me to write in my diary events in his life that he himself would not write in his - as his telling me, with glee in the telling, that years ago he was in Switzerland and had sex with a young man in a bush, after which he gave the young man a huge Swiss note, but the young man thought this too much, so he gave Stephen change."


Notice how Plante has to keep repeating 'the young man' so as to differentiate him from Stephen's 'he'. But even then, the final 'he' has changed to mean the young man, and so Stephen has to be named. There are five uses of 'he' in this sentence: four meaning Stephen and one meaning the young man. Plante has had to change his Zelda inventory shortcut midstream.

Plante has constructed his sentence to avoid awkwardness and ambiguity as much as possible. As so should we when using gender-neutral pronouns.

(Side note: there are some gender-neutral neologisms, which in my opinion are best used when they are already expected by the audience.)

In the GreenReaper example, he wasn't juggling gender-neutral pronouns. He was misgendering transgender furries. He either referred to a transgender woman as 'he' because of the presence of male genitalia, or a transgender man as 'she'.

He defends the correctness of his language, saying that he is very picky about such things.

@the_macbean As someone whose mother was an English teacher, I am very picking about the correct use of language.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 3:07 AM - 28 Dec 2013


But here, he is unambiguously wrong, and I hope his mother would tell him so as well. The OED is perfectly clear, saying under gender that:

  • pronouns refer to gender; and
  • gender is defined as "the state of being male or female (with reference to social or cultural differences rather than biological ones)".
Pic of my Paperback OED 6th ed. courtesy Señor Blurrycam, who was visiting that day

When GreenReaper says he "prefer[s] to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics", he is using pronouns incorrectly.

@coyoteseven I believe gender is a subjective and fluid value, and so prefer to use pronouns to refer to primary sexual characteristics.
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 1:12 AM - 28 Dec 2013


Knowing GR's commitment to British English—he continues to 'spell colour with a u' despite having moved to the United States some years ago—I hope the authority of the OED will prove irresistible.

But that's really just semantics. The major issue here is the importance of pronouns and gendering to trans people.

Trans people are subject to massive prejudice. To be transgender is to be familiar with the fear of violence.

When people wilfully misuse gender pronouns, it's a reminder of that threat, similar to the way that a gay person may feel threatened by someone using the term 'faggot'. This is why people are shocked when GreenReaper says things like "Ultimately, your wish to feel safe does not trump my wish to feel honest."

Another widely-circulated LJ screencap

This is the point things become a bit more complicated. GreenReaper deserves a lot more understanding for his point of view. He is not, as it turns out, cisgender himself:

@the_macbean The irony is that if anything I identify as female gender-wise. But I am physically male, so have no problem being called "he".
— GreenReaper (@WikiNorn) 3:13 AM - 28 Dec 2013


GR is genderqueer. He believes that 'he' is probably the most appropriate pronoun for him because his biological sex is male, and he is applying that semantic rule to other people.  From his perspective, he is being asked to make allowances for people, where people are refusing to countenance such allowances for him.

He is, and I hope he forgives me for saying this, showing his age (WikiFur has him 31 years old). Things are changing for the better for trans people, however only really among younger people (ref). GR isn't old in the grand scheme of things, but he grew up in a world that was significantly less sensitive towards the non-cisgender. For example, in some circles it's becoming common for people to ask each other which pronoun they prefer:

Courtesy pi-ratical.tumblr.com. Click image for link to source.
Courtesy pi-ratical.tumblr.com. Click image for link to source.

GR is aware of this drive, but doesn't think this it is a positive development. I'm guessing that his opinion would be different, and would be respectful of people's preferences, if he had grown up in an more visibly-trans world, where such behaviour was encouraged.

If GreenReaper is transphobic, then he may be a self-hating transphobe, a phenomenon which can occur when people learn to adapt to an environment where they feel they can't be themselves. If that is the case, then he deserves understanding and no small amount of love.

I'm more inclined to say that he is not transphobic, or at least not wilfully transphobic, and is simply acting in a way which is consistent with his own experiences. We all do this to an extent; it's never easy to put ourselves into someone else's shoes. GreenReaper is failing to respect transgender people, but this may be no more than a simple lack of empathy or imagination.

GR is a friend of [adjective][species], and had helped helping Makyo with a panel at Further Confusion earlier this year. It's my hope that he will find a more moderate point of view in the future.

I shared this article with three people before publication: GreenReaper, Thesis White (who wrote on gender recently for [a][s] and prefers gender-neutral pronouns), and a transgender friend of mine. Here is how they responded:

GreenReaper says:

Gendered pronouns convey implicit assertions about a third party. I believe sex is a superior basis for such assertions - it is more objective, stable, and verifiable than the social construct we now call gender, resulting in more consistent usage. Two parties may disagree over a person's masculine nature; they are far less likely to disagree as to whether they are male.


Yet whether we base pronouns on sex or gender is immaterial. The core issue is that pronouns are not a personal choice, to be "respected" - they are chosen by others, as expressions of their beliefs about us.


I'm glad to use neutral pronouns, as the OED suggests - but some insist I use those which are contrary to my evaluation of their person. *That* is what I have a phobia of: making a false statement of belief which, in the context of my other statements, may deceive others.


No-one may rightly compel a falsehood. Yet this is what my fiercest critics want; they would be equally unsatisfied if I based my usage on my impression of a person's gender, because I might disagree with their self-evaluation.


This article's suppositions about my psychological state are well-meaning, but incorrect. I do not hate myself, nor trans people - merely the idea that, as a journalist and an individual, I might not be free to speak my mind.


Thesis says:

GreenReaper equates sex with gender, and assumed sex with pronouns, but as a Queer theorist, I would argue that sex and gender are indeed not the same, and pronouns themselves most importantly refer gender regardless of body. While he may feel one way about his own identity, his transphobia comes in the form of denying others their identity. His own identity seems reminiscent of early 1900's gay men that crossed dressed, but did not identify as women; transness has come a long way since that stage. Ultimately, his mistake comes from not respecting people's word about who they are.


My transgender friend says:

My reaction to GR at the time was to immediately delete my Inkbunny account and stop using Flayrah and Wikifur. Referring to a trans person with the wrong pronouns is deeply upsetting and continuing to do so knowing that upset is... sociopathic? He's hurting people because of some messed-up logic. It's either a lack of empathy and understanding, or it's transphobia. His own issues with gender make me think he's more broken than bigoted.