Playing the pronoun game

I am very tired of writing about gender with regard to my own life, but I live in a heavily gendered world, so I’m sure it will inevitably keep rearing its head even when I think I can focus on something else. Today I was thinking about pronouns, and I reached an experimental decision.

For probably more than a year, I’ve had mixed feelings about being he/him/his or she/her/hers. This probably doesn’t surprise many people, given my ongoing gender exploration and how I’ve at least in some ways framed myself as nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid— take your pick. I have certainly been he/him/his for a few years, rather insistently, largely fueled by how I previously had to fight for the right to use those pronouns at all; I’m sure this could invite confusion from individuals who link pronouns directly and inextricably with gender. Why would I want to be he/him/his if I wasn’t interested in being a guy? To those individuals, I would like to point out that just as gender is a social construct with concrete implications, so is language, and you can jumble the two things however you like, particularly when you consider how some languages don’t express gender on a grammatical level. (Hence the importance of saying, “I use he/him/his,” and not saying, “I use male pronouns.”) All the same, when I hear he/him/his in reference to myself, I lately feel dissociated. Even though I can separate he/him/his from male, I know that most people using he/him/his for me don’t make such a distinction. I know most of them are gendering me as male (or as a qualified trans variety of male) in their heads, and while I don’t feel pained by that realization, it simply bothers me to use default pronouns that will invite others to make assumptions about me unless I constantly educate them otherwise.

She/her/hers comes with other problems. As detailed a few posts ago, I have essentially resigned myself to most people interpreting my gender expression as “female,” “feminine,” “femme,” insert f-word here; this has some practical repercussions. I feel less resigned to simply hearing she/her/hers in reference to my person. Of all my memories of willful/forced (mis)gendering, those syllables sting the most. Dissociation endures. Sometimes, from some people, I can encounter she/her/hers for me and vaguely connect it with that-which-is-me, but these circumstances are private, sacred, complicated, and most of all, unsullied by even a trace of the voices that ruined she/her/hers elsewhere. Generally speaking, she/her/hers does not feel safe to me, and it may never feel safe, even though I’ve come to accept that I will encounter it endlessly from people who don’t know any better. I wince internally, move on, my emotional reserves intact, but I still think to myself, “That wasn’t really talking about me.” She/her/hers just can’t attach (yet, or maybe ever) to the public, default identity of Devon Llywelyn Jones.

So far, my conundrum may seem like the reason why so many nonbinary people opt for a gender-neutral pronoun configuration. For some among us, I’m sure there are some similarities, but I can’t really speak to that. I myself have had a terribly difficult time choosing gender-neutral pronouns in English:

  • they/them/theirs – This is a popular choice, and an important one to justify. We do already employ singular-they, and there is no logical excuse to play grammarian (if there’s ever an excuse) when you’re only really invested in slapping nonbinary people in the face. For me personally, however, singular-they too greatly connotes that someone’s gender is unknown, not that it is automatically beyond the binary or that it doesn’t exist. So I have trouble applying this pronoun to myself.
  • ou, thon, and historical gender-neutral English pronouns – I do find it quite a shame that words like these had earlier usage or were at least proposed in our language. I personally would like a pronoun that is more contemporary, however.
  • xe/hir/hirs and a huge number of recently coined variants, along with virtually any other option from the late 20th century onward – Sometimes I just don’t like the look or sound of the letters involved. If I am going to use something like this, I’d hope it would aesthetically please me, regardless of pleasing others. Sometimes I just know it would take work to have people say things how I wanted, and I don’t want to spend that energy. I’m happy to use these sorts of pronouns for other people, but when I think of how I could just use in Mandarin for any gender (even though the character is written differently), or how the new Swedish hen sandwiches so neatly between its binary han and hon, I sigh.

All language is a game. All gender is a game, and arguably gender could be described as among the most complex language games of all, so hugely predicated upon language that if you jumble your gender-language together differently from someone else’s, you may face dire consequences. Plenty of games are not funny or entertaining, especially when you are told from day one of life that you’re playing and you’ll only learn the rules when you’re punished for breaking them. It has turned out that as I play this game, I want nothing more than to stop playing in my native language altogether. Literally all options sound wrong. Yet I need something, because I require colloquy and contraction in my life. To see Devon stiltedly appearing in every sentence about me, or worse, to hear it, I couldn’t bear. Whatever writing style I may use, I slur and drawl my speech, and I crave pronouns that other people around me can say with ease. I have a right to something “difficult” if I please, but if I personally am going to go that far, I’m going to invent a new language from scratch; if I can’t go that far, then I need my pronouns to work so simply that they feel irrelevant. I would like my gender expression to be fluid on a self-conscious level, but I would like my pronouns to be fluid on an unconscious one.

Earlier this month, I read Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook, and I completed nearly all of the exercises in it. I was looking for answers to many different questions there, so I won’t address the entire experience here. I will also avoid a tangent about what I thought of the book, outside of the fact that to love Auntie Kate is to love an imperfect but incredibly compassionate person who, in my opinion, does theorize gender in a way that makes a great deal of sense to me. I raise the book now because it put into words a model of gender performance that I think I’ve struggled to describe for years. The core argument therein— if I’ve got it right— is that each of us may have a self-concept of our gender that we manifest, but our gender in a practical sense is augmented by not only how other people read us, but how we ourselves perform our gender differently depending on audience and environment. There is some intersectionality theory too, of course— the idea that for instance there is no unified entity of woman, as womanness is inherently processed and modified by how white you are(n’t), how straight you are(n’t), etc., and of course, how cis you are(n’t). I am especially intrigued, though, but the thought that we are all a little bit genderfluid, and by the thought that gender— like language— does not occur without two people interacting. At bare minimum, the gender we use on our own is never going to be understood by another person exactly as we understand it ourselves.

With all this in mind, today I went back to the mental drawing board. I reviewed existing gender-neutral pronouns, I quietly tried out some phonotactics, I reminded myself of some conventions in other languages. I thought about the different spheres in which Devon Llywelyn Jones is represented, the multiple identities I assume beyond even those spheres, and most of all, the role that written vs. spoken discourse plays in my self-concept. Choosing pronouns, of course, is really a two-step process. Often, English-speaking people assume a direct match between written pronouns and spoken pronouns, but in some languages there are different registers where what you call someone aloud is not what you would call them on the page; and in languages without phonetic or quasi-phonetic orthography, the relationship between what you write and what you utter is strictly to be inferred by convention, not by something spelled out.

The Internet— and text-based communication as a whole— frees pronouns in a rather excellent way. With what anonymity remains to us online, with whatever creative manifestations of ourselves we can produce in text anywhere, we are not bound so readily by others’ assumptions. This is precisely why I’ve favored interacting with strangers through text, even as a hypothetical extrovert (properly: an extrovert with a caffeine dependency who can’t put up with inauthentic dialogue). Text does not even have to sound like anything. Text can just look like something. The person I am in writing is arguably truer to my deepest impulses, even if it may seem more calculated on the surface. I have to calculate infinitely more about my physical form than about its cyber-emissions.

To that end:

My pronouns, in summary

Written:
xi
xir
xirs
xirself

Spoken:
hi = said as “hee”
hir = said as “heer” or “herr”
hirs = said as “heers” or “herrs”
hirself = said as “heerself” or “herrself”

Written and read aloud:
xi = said as “hee” or “shee”
xir = said as “heer” or “herr”
xirs = said as “heers” or “herrs”
xirself = said as “heerself” or “herrself”

My trick for winning my hand in the pronoun game is to remain genderless on paper and to leave the “voiced” form of self open to multiple possibilities starting from a multilingual viewpoint. “X” is a placeholder in writing, but aloud it can be pronounced as variants of “h” in some languages, and as “sh” in others. It can also be “ks” or “z.” To read “xi” aloud, choose the sound that flows the most naturally. For most English speakers, “hi” or “shi” will sound like the obvious choices, and I will gladly accept either, just as I will accept less obvious readings. Because “shir/shirs/shirself” can present homophony with “sheer” or “sure,” however, I think it would be simpler for people reading the written “xi” to only substitute “shi” for “hi” and to otherwise stick to the “h” forms in general.

Consequently, for speaking about me in the third person without a written point of reference, “hi/hir/hirs/hirself” would be my overall pronouns of choice. “Hi” is homophonous with “he,” while “hir” can be homophonous with “here” or “her,” meaning that the speaker can choose whether to lend my person a dual “masculine”/”androgynous” flavor or a dual “masculine”/”feminine” flavor, depending on their own inclinations. The ultimate joke, of course, is that “hi” is the third person feminine pronoun in Welsh.

You may consult with me about exactly what pronouns make sense for you to use with me, but fundamentally the choice is in your hands.

Basic examples:

(writing to someone else about me) Devon said xi was hoping to make some brownies from xir family’s favorite recipe.

(speaking to someone else about me) Devon said hi was hoping to make some brownies from hir family’s favorite recipe. Say hir as heer or herr, it doesn’t matter.

Assuming you’ve stayed with me this far, I suppose you might have concerns about whether I intend to “come out” to everyone I know about these pronouns, not just to everyone who reads my blog. To this I would say both yes and no. I definitely intend to tell some people who won’t have seen this immediately— and I’ll be linking them to this so they can see the full explanation. But they’re all people whom I don’t need to educate a great deal. When it comes to representing myself as a professional writer and artist, too, I’m going to attempt clarity about this, because the arts are a safer sphere for establishing such “quirks” as these, even if understanding is hardly a guarantee. When it comes to establishing myself as a textual presence before I can be established as any other sort of presence, i.e. online, I will try asking for xi/xir. After exhausting those various categories of potential genderers, though, I’m not ready to deal on that level with my 9-5, with random strangers, or with other people whose overall impression of me is going to be skewed and presumptuous regardless of what pronouns I use. For the time being, this pronoun experiment is about establishing a more transparently nonbinary comfort zone amongst people with whom I’m already the most authentically myself. If you happen to read my blog, then you’re probably one of those people.

Thanks for reading. We will see where this leads.

DLJ

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