Sex, gender and pronouns

For most of my life I have been pretty sure that “gender” was the word used by people either too prudish to say “sex” or wanted to make a clear distinction between ‘gender’ and copulation. But there appears to be a conversation that suggests I’m wrong. The argument centres around transgenderism, an issue I’m not against in anyway but am struggling to find the nuance of the discussion around.

The distinction, so far as I can see, is this:

Sex is the scientific and biological term. We are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning the overwhelming majority of the human population is represented in one of two sexes: male or female. These terms are defined by anatomy and genetics. There does exist a limited number of defined other groups: hermaphrodites and XXY chromosomes. In this paradigm, a transgender person is a person who has undergone a change to their anatomy.

Gender, however, is not identical to this. Instead, gender relates to cultural stereotypes that relate to gender. (You can nitpick, claim you find the word “stereotype” offensive or prefer the term “social expectation” if you want. But I’m going to ignore that unless it makes a substantive change to the argument I am making here. I am not going to obsess over inconsequential distinctions.) Gender may be better thought of not as “male/female” but “masculine/feminine”. Exactly what masculinity and femininity look like changes in different cultures, however it would be remiss to not point out there are considerable similarities between cultures in these stereotypes.

Using this distinction, then, people seem to be choosing to eschew the false dichotomy of thinking of themselves as masculine or feminine. And, on that point, I think we can all agree. The narrow definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine is a very long way from encompassing the breadth of human personality. I thought, as a society, generations ago, we were laughing off the restrictive definitions of masculinity and femininity.

But some people seem to think they are laughing off and eschewing these shackles of stereotypes harder than everyone else, and instead of being a part of the natural evolution of language they are demanding new terms for themselves: new gender pronouns. These terms still relates to sex, as the original gender pronouns do. But, this time, they also relate to style of deviation from the archaic stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

And so far, so good. I’m fully in support of this. In fact, the less-than-40 new nontraditional gender pronouns are insufficient. We should keep throwing more in. Until there are hundred. Thousands. Billions. In fact, maybe we could just start calling our names our ‘genders’; after all, doesn’t our name capture our identity better than any group term?

But this goes one further, I think. If we continue to use group terms that relate to sex but also relate to how we feel we deviate from sex-stereotypes (i.e. traditional gender), and you’ve got a new gender pronoun that you think encapsulates a useful idea ― a term like ‘genderqueer’ ― I don’t see how it’s then up to you as to whether you fulfil that defined idea. You may advocate 40 new terms, but I don’t then see how that empowers you to pick which one you fall into.

Although I can see the concept of ‘gender’ as something that relates to sex, but it more gradated, resolute and certainly has a nonlinear relationship to sex, I don’t see how you then get to pick which of these terms describes you. There is no linguistic utility in me having a word for how you feel; instead, the word is only useful for how you come across to me. And you don’t get to dictate to me how you come across to me. You may see the utility in having “it” as a gender pronoun, but you might come across to me as a “zhe”. And that much isn’t up to you.

6 thoughts on “Sex, gender and pronouns”

  1. Here is the thing. I don’t have any idea how a person “feels” about their gender, or what gender they “think they are”. The most accurate indication would be the “plumbing”, but since that is (usually) not on display, all I can go on is look and behavior. So I will apply the classic masculine/feminine pronouns as appears appropriate. If I know the person well enough, I might use the one which is more correct but contrary to my original guess. But I will never use a non-classical pronoun, even if asked to. Assuming I could keep 40 or 400 pronouns straight, which is an incredible unlikely assumption, I don’t have the energy to verify that whomever I am speaking with also has them straight, or even has the same definitions. And if I’m writing/speaking to a varied crowd, forget it.

    Not to say that I insist anyone hew to the extremes of the masculine/feminine range; I’m nowhere near either end. Any person is welcome to think of themselves any way they like. But for them to insist I use “random”, “made up” words to make them “feel good” which are seldom even obvious, is asking too much.

    1. That very much is my bottom line – I don’t use “he” and “she” as examples of stereotypes, I use them as my best guess on the fact of their sex. I shun the stereotype too, but more importantly, I doubt that the stereotypes really explains the language use at all.
      I will, if asked, use the traditional pronoun that doesn’t fit my guess (or even the science). But the rest is made up. And it feels like a superiority power move: ‘No, I insist on being called ‘genderqueer’, because I’m simply better than you as eschewing archaic stereotypes’…
      It’s probably not intentional, but that is how it comes across. And at that point, the word I want to use to refer to them isn’t about their gender at all.

  2. We are learning to write in the manner of scientists in my class on molecular biology techniques this semester.

    Our writing manual stresses not to use gender pronouns because they are politically incorrect.

    Yes, the manual actually uses the term, “politically incorrect” to describe the use of gender pronouns.

    This is but one indication of how leftist mind control has infested the once grand universe of science.

    1. Despite my obvious question of when it is ever necessary to refer to a person by anything but name in molecular biology, if it is necessary, he and she are and his and her are the correct words.
      What uni is this writing guide at?

      1. “The Student Handbook for Writing in Biology,” by Karin Knisely.

        In lab reports when describing how something gets done, “he does this or that,” for example.

        Knisely tells how to restructure sentences to avoid gender pronouns that were once simply good and accepted used of the English language.

      2. They are indeed the correct words, but they may not be the words which gets a good grade. Or an article published.

        Political Correctness is stupid, insane and borderline suicidal. But it is widespread, and when you fail to bow to it, be aware that there are those who will attempt to chastise you.

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