A few years ago, another faculty member and I were discussing a young student who we had in common. This student’s adjustment to the university was complicated by exploring gender and questioning whether to identify as a man, a woman, or some other category. We wanted to coordinate support, but our conversation was hampered because we lacked the language for a third gender. The student, I’ll call her Jennifer, identified as a woman in my class and used this feminine name. In the other professor’s class, the student identified as a man and used a male name. I was confused by the different gender pronouns and names; I had to keep reminding myself that we were talking about the same person. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable Jennifer felt as she/he negotiated classes and daily life.
Institutional changes that recognize a third gender will help increase acceptance of the millions of LGBT people, particularly important for LGBT youth since 42% believe that the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people.
Finding out more about a person’s identity, name and language preferences makes interaction easier and establishes rapport.
As an educator, I routinely ask about name and pronoun in order to make students comfortable in the classroom. My health care provider now asks what name I preferred to be called, what pronouns I use, whether I identify as male, female, neither, or other, and whether the gender I identify is the same one as I was assigned at birth. Health care and rapport with physicians will be improved by asking these few additional questions.
Young children start out thinking that gender is fluid and more than two categories. When I was little, I thought that I became a boy when I put on my cowboy boots, jeans, and leather vest. I was a cowboy. Our daughter KT loved her dollhouse at age 3. Because we are a multiethnic family, I made sure that her dollhouse family had many colors of skin and hair. One day a babysitter asked our daughter who the people were. Blonde, adult woman was mom; the brown-skinned child was a boy. Smallest was baby. The sitter asked if the baby was a boy or a girl? KT looked at her incredulously. “It’s not a boy or a girl; it’s a baby.” In her worldview, children acquired gender later in life.
Our view of gender as a dichotomous category reflects our culture and time. Throughout history, many societies have recognized more categories. One of the best known examples are the hijras of Southeast Asia who are believed to have sacred powers. Although the British colonial government criminalized being a hijra, their cultural importance was not diminished. In 2014, the Indian government legally recognized hijras as a third gender.
Many native people of the Americas have specific names for people who fall outside of the traditional categories of man and woman. Often they are referred to as two spirits to recognize that their bodies contain both a masculine and feminine spirit. Although the specific categories and names vary across native nations, gender variant individuals often are associated with spiritual powers.
Names, pronouns, and gender identities may seem like small issues, yet they have significant ramifications for our self-image and self-worth.
In the 1980s I tired of the English language use of masculine pronouns for the generic case. In my university classes, I told students that, to create some balance, I would use “she” and “her” for the generic case, as in, “everyone should turn her paper in today.” Men in my class would routinely come up and ask when they should turn in their papers or tell me that I didn’t give instructions that applied to them. As they discovered, it’s annoying to have to do mental gymnastics and tell yourself, “Oh yes, he means ‘she’ in my case” or vice versa. If you don’t think it is annoying, try this experiment. Ask a close friend or family member to use the set of pronouns associated with the other gender when talking with you (she/ her for men and he/ his for women). How long before you’ve reached your limit? Half a day, an hour, five minutes!
To be sure, there are many significant and controversial issues involving gender and sexualities including gender-neutral bathrooms, safety for LGBTQ people, and health disparities. Yet institutional recognition that gender is not a binary category– he or she—matters too. Washington, DC, started issuing gender-neutral driver’s licenses, with Oregon following shortly after as the first state. California just became the first state to recognize a third gender on driver’s licenses, state-issued IDs, and birth certificates. Canada added X as a category on passports joining seven other countries.
Having more categories helps break down stereotypes—binaries are easily associated with other binaries, as in men with strong, active, physical, rational, and women with weak, passive, emotional, and intuitive.
But, if there are three or four or more categories, then we need to seek more information to determine where people fall on these characteristics, e.g., strong, active, emotional and rational. And maybe these categories don’t fall on a continuum. Rather someone can be both active and passive, depending on the context, or physical and emotional in the same situation.
I hope that you will join me in asking about preferred gender pronouns in personal and work-related relationships, becoming familiar with gender-neutral pronouns, advocating for the use of more gender categories in legal and institutional contexts, and characterizing people on the basis of their behaviors, emotions, and personality.
Patricia MacCorquodale is a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona specializing in gender, race, ethnicity and social class in educational, work and family settings. She is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.