Our spoken language is rooted in assumptions based from the worldview of cis people and heteronormativity. Our language is also deeply rooted in patriarchy. It is through our everyday language that homophobia and transphobia, essentially cis-hetero-patriarchy, expresses itself.
The titles we so commonly use in reference to address family members all refer to binary gender identities. The words “brother”, “sister”, “dad”, “mother”, “aunt”, and “uncle” all circumscribe that a person is either a man or a woman. The words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” also assume the gender of a person identifies as a man or a woman.
But what about for those folks who identify as non-binary, agender, Two-Spirit, or folks who are gender non-conforming, or gender neutral, or folks who identify as a mixture of both masculine/male and feminine/woman? What family titles should they be given? Or more importantly, what family titles would non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming folks choose for themselves. As a non-binary person I ask myself this question. What I also ask myself is what would it take for broader society to begin integrating gender neutral and gender affirming language into the way people speak.
I firmly believe that in order for this to happen we as a society must simultaneously dismantle patriarchy, cis-supremacy, and heteronormativity, or cis-hetero-patriarchy, in the words that we use everyday.
“Hey you guys!” is a phrase I often hear, and a phrase I grew up using to address a gathering of people. It was not until I began learning about feminism, and the normativity of masculinity and maleness, that I became awakened to how the usage of these phrases was problematic. Furthermore, it was not not until I began to no longer identify as a cis man, and began identifying as non-binary, that the usage of this phrase took on different meaning for me.
In a patriarchal society, maleness and masculinity is not only privileged over femininity and womanhood, but, furthermore, maleness is seen in society as the default, the de facto, and it becomes a generalized frame of reference. For example, I have been in various social situations where women and men are present, and even still where the women present outnumber the men, and people address the group as “guys”. When I hear people use this phrase, I am immediately aghast, because I think, “Not all of us here are ‘guys’”. And, as a non-binary person, I think to myself, “But I’m not a guy!”
I am also very astonished when a cis woman uses the phrase, “hey guys,” to address a gathering of mixed gender folks or when referring to a group of women. Withstanding that cis women intersect their experiences with gender in various nuanced ways different than cis men, my immediate reaction to cis women using the phrase does really bare on who they are as as person or their intentions. Rather, it is when cis women use the phrase that I really think to myself in silence, “Damn! Patriarchy has really infiltrated our language so much, that everybody is identified as masculine.” When cis men use the phrase, I do think about their intention and impact because most cis men are oblivious to how patriarchy works in the world. And, it never dawns on cis men how patriarchy has infiltrated our everyday language that they assume their existence as is the norm.
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It may dawn on cis women and some cis men alike to address a gathering of mostly women, with some men present, or a group of mixed gender folks, as “ladies” or “girls”. But, the conventionality with which to do so reduced because “hey guys” has infiltrated our language so much. I would encourage a person to address both the men and women in a gathering of mixed gender folks as “guys” and “ladies” simultaneously when it is appropriate. However, I think people should also be mindful that that gender identities can change in a given social situation or context.
For example, my partner self-identifies as a woman and as genderqueer, and uses she/her and they/them pronouns. Although she doesn’t mind being referred to as a woman, she prefers not to be called a “lady”. And, when identifying herself in casual conversation, she self-identifies as “woman” and “AFAB” (assigned-female-at birth) interchangeably. Also, she doesn’t mind being addressed with respect to the reference of “hey guys” in a group context because she feels, in those moments, her masculinity is acknowledged.
These nuances of gender identity as exemplified in this example of my partner are shared by many gender-expansive folks. However, this conversation about addressing a gathering of people with “hey guys” or “hey ladies” still does not address the normativity of binary gender identities. We must go further as a society have to be mindful that not everybody identifies as a girl, woman, or lady just as much not everybody identifies as a man or boy. I am not saying that everyone should stop using the phrase “hey guys” or “hey ladies”, but people should grow to be mindful that not everyone identifies as a man or a woman.
I think it should be more appropriate for people to address a gathering of people simply with “Hey everyone”, or “hey amazing people,” or “hey folks”. In order to dismantle the normativity of binary gender identities we must discuss the importance of pronouns.
In the last few decades, the importance of asking someone their pronouns has been a tantamount way of learning to respect another person’s gender.
You can ask someone their required or preferred gender pronouns simply by asking, “What are your required or preferred pronouns?” Amongst queer, trans, and gender non-conforming spaces, it is custom for everyone upon introducing themselves to disclose their preferred or required gender pronouns. We now live in world where people’s gender is assumed. The reason why trans, non-binary, genderqueer, and agender folks ask each other people’s pronouns is not to assume how another person identifies. Using gender affirming language, such as pronouns, is challenged by the fact that cis straight people flatly assume the gender of other people based on how they look which results in them misgendered someone. As a non-binary person who wears feminine clothing and was assigned-male-at-birth, random people with whom I must interact for some reason or another often times refer to me as “he” because they fail to ask me my required gender pronouns.
Some non-binary and gender non-conforming people self-identify using gender neutral pronouns, such as they, them, and theirs. However, not all non-binary folks use gender neutral pronouns and non-binary and gender non-conforming people do not exclusively use them. Cis and straight people are becoming aware of using gender neutral pronouns to reference and identify a person. Whilst referencing someone by “he” or “she” may be appropriate as these may be someone’s required gender pronouns, using they/them pronouns is something to which cis straight people are still getting accustomed. Many cis-straight people are apprehensive about using they/them pronouns because their rationale is that they do not typically reference a single person as they. This was an rationale used by someone when I told them to use them/them pronouns when referencing me. My response to them was, “You use they/them pronouns more often that you think. For example, ‘Did the mail person come today? No I don’t’ think they did.’” Another rational cis-straight people use about using they/pronouns is that is it grammatically incorrect to refer to a single person using they. This is a widely held misconception and has been massively debunked.
We don’t live in this world now, but I would hope one day all people will consistently ask every one what are their preferred and required gender pronouns. Some of you cis and straight people reading this may think to yourself, “If I don’t ask someone what they required gender pronouns are, how should I speak of this person in a general sense.” I want to encourage cis-straight people to actually never assume the gender of another person. I would also encourage cis-straight people to not hesitate to simply refer to some as person and using they/them pronouns continually until you have asked that person their required gender pronouns or that person feels comfortable enough to disclose their gender identity. This conversation about pronouns is part and parcel of the continued conversation about the words to describe gender identities.
[Feature Image: Person sits in front of peach colored background as they look away from the camera. They have a short haircut with eyes closed. Flickr.com/Amanda Hatheway]