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Gender identity: Your guide to pronouns


Hans Mackenzie Main is a writer and columnist.

In a pickle about pronouns? Get your head around this:

The pronoun has finally found its rightful place, it seems. It is, of late, the most important member of the noun family going around. With a little help from the forward slash and a brand-new wildly innovative strategy to appear on Instagram bios and in conversation in teams of two, the he/they; she/they; they/them construct – it’s not too far-fetched to say, I think – is right at the top of the list of all notable words spoken and written today.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary appears to be in full agreement, as it emphatically voted “they” as the word of the year, based on the fact that it was the most searched-for word on its website in 2019. One can only hope that soon – although this might cause an outcry from scholars and anyone who knows a Merriam – we might see the non-binary, all-inclusive Miriam/Webster dictionary in bookshops listing he/they; she/they; they/them in its pages, together with the explanation that (and here a fluid forward slash could make things easier) he/they are the appropriate pronouns for a nonbinary person leaning towards the male gender; they/them (a dash standing upright here, for instance, could help) are preferred by those who have no gender preference; and she/they is the right way to refer to someone who has no gender, but likes what women have to offer. It really is as simple, and as complicated, as that. But so is life, isn’t it?

If, for a moment, we can shift our focus from pronouns to plural nouns (“genitalia” and such) and common nouns (“gender” and so on) it will soon become apparent that the root of the confusion around why coming out as nonbinary is such a big deal is the commonly held belief that “genitalia” is inextricably linked to “gender”. That one – or two for whatever reason – somehow determines the other. Well, it/they don’t.

Where one’s genitals are the biological fittings presented to the world at birth (“It’s balls and a penis!” might be a more accurate way to put it at that pivotal moment), one’s gender is the emotional substance gathered throughout the course of life on hunting trips (male) or shopping trips (female).

To bring it back to etymology, visually speaking, “genitalia” and “gender” have only their first three letters in common. The rest of the letters are as far apart as LGBTQIA2S+ currently are from JKROWLING and DAVECHAPPELLE – which is to say they are separated by a chasm of astronomical proportions. The author (second set of letters) distanced herself from the community (first set of letters) with a painfully unfunny tweet about what people who menstruate should be called, whereas the comedian (third set of letters) spoke into a mic and seemed to age at the same rapid speed as his phobic material, while his largely white male audience slapped their bellies and rolled in the aisles. It is very surprising that the celebrated writer and, to a lesser extent, the seasoned funnyman, cannot get their heads around the pretty obvious difference between the words “genitalia” and “gender”.

Let’s leave the shifting sands of show business and return once more to the far more solid terrain of etymology.

Historically, “genitals” come from the Latin genitus, which is the past participle of gignere, which means “beget”. “Gender” is from Old French gendre (modern French “genre”), based on Latin genus, which means “family” (or, when used for propaganda, “nation”.) Again, there seems to be a clear distinction between the biological and the emotional. It cannot be clearer. To come out as nonbinary – or to lean one way or the other – is to choose a family, it seems to me. It’s all above the belt (or the sash or the girdle) and in the heart.

Who are we, then (by “we” I mean the binaries/older people. Personally, I’ve settled on my gender. The paperwork – birth certificate, ID, driver’s licence, vaccine certificate – has been piling up for years. To change now would overwhelm me), to question someone for choosing the gender that makes them feel safe? The family they feel they belong to? And if that family is sensitive (and not “brittle”, as Chappelle put it in his Netflix special) about people who see the light side of something as profound as choosing to identify with men or women (or “wumben”, as Rowling put it in her flippant tweet), then so what? If we can’t bring ourselves around to adopting the pronouns he/they, she/they and them/they, well, then, shame on us. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Ami Nieuhout says:

    Agree, good article, thanks!

    Methinks that, not only chosen gender, based on biology and emotional identification with tribe of origin, plays a role, but so does psychological identification with being one or more persons.

    I know a person who identifies with being of the binary female gender, but identifies with the pronoun “they” and “we” and “them” because they identify with having Dissociative Identity Disorder.

    “They are legion”, as it were, though not demonical.

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