December 1, 2013

For transgenders, ‘he,’ ‘she’ fall short

Some say it is time for the English language to catch up with a changing world.

By Lisa Leff
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Joss Ferguson, left, discusses preferred gender pronouns with other members of Mouthing Off!, a group for students at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The Associated Press

“Certainly we see students who are transitioning, particularly female to male, but the vast majority of students who identify under the trans umbrella identify in some way outside the binary, and that’s really causing a shift on college campuses,” said Beemyn, who studies gender identity in higher education and recently traded ze for they. “Having role models and examples allows people to say ‘Yes, what I am feeling is legitimate.”’

‘INITIAL DISCOMFORT’

As neologisms like “ze” have moved beyond conversation and into students’ academic papers, some professors have expressed annoyance and uncertainty about how to respond, said Lucy Ferriss, writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Connecticut and a frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog, Lingua Franca.

“There is an initial discomfort. I think it’s probably hypocritical to pretend there isn’t, to say, ‘Ok, that’s what they want to do’ and leave it at that,” Ferriss said. “The people I know who teach will say ‘This is weird and it’s cumbersome and it’s not going to last because it’s not organic.”’

At the same time, Ferris thinks it’s a mistake for scholars and grammarians to dismiss the trend without considering whether English and society might be served by less-rigid ideas about gender.

“Mail carrier did not evolve organically and it’s a lot easier to say mailman. Decades ago there were poets who refused to be called poetesses,” she said. “Most language has evolved organically, but there have been times – and when it comes to issues of gender there probably have to be times – when there are people willing to push the envelope.”

Mel Goodwin, youth program director at the gay and lesbian community center in Las Vegas, said getting the hang of alternative pronouns can be tricky in conversation. Goodwin, 28, claimed they as a preferred pronoun four years ago and it took time “to unlearn what I had been taught about gender.” Yet when people object to they as being grammatically incorrect, Goodwin counters that modern English is to blame and that scholars, writers and linguists have spent more than a century trying to come up with gender-neutral pronouns that stick. In public presentations, Goodwin also refers to a map that shows historic and contemporary cultures around the world that have recognized more than two genders.

“This is not about young people in the U.S. over the last 20 years kind of coming out of the woodwork and making up labels that aren’t real,” Goodwin said. “This is a real variation among humans, period.”

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