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Dear boomers, there’s nothing generational about gender outside of the binary


Giuseppe Rajkumar Guerandi is a class of 2021 Journalism Honours graduate at Stellenbosch University, with an undergraduate degree in International Studies. They pride themselves in being a half-Indian, half-Italian, non-binary South African, with hopes of expanding the platform for marginalised stories and furthering South Africa’s stake in broader international relations. An intern at Daily Maverick, they is now a regular freelancer and have been accepted into the Masters programme in Journalism at Columbia University.

What this generation has done is have the courage to build on a very human tradition: to take control of our genders and be our own creators.

If you’re someone who simply and unwaveringly does not ‘believe’ that transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people exist and deserve baseline human dignity, then perhaps read no further. What you are about to experience is an all-out assault on the head-scratching befuddlement of those who struggle with pronouns that go beyond the boundaries of she/her and he/him.

So, if your sense of humour is as scant as Jordan Peterson’s hairline (pre-hair transplant) and your fuse for the liberal agenda is as short as Ben Shapiro’s 15 minutes of middling political fame, then consider this your unwarranted trigger warning. To the rest, let’s have some fun.

Many consider the rise of gender non-conforming identities into our mainstream social and cultural consciousness as a “youth” phenomenon. That monolithic brand of youngsters, roughly born in the ballpark of Gen Z, suddenly broke gender like a blue and pink vase because we were bored and utterly unencumbered.

If you were born before 1990, I know what you might be thinking. This generational fad is the product of a wave of mentally ill toddlers who haven’t worked a day in their lives. Toddlers who are so self-absorbed with an upbringing on social media that they think they can play God with their gender and twist language to their whims – or something to that effect.

In reality, there’s nothing generational about gender outside of the binary. If anything, we, “the youth”, are standing on the shoulders of giants much older and wiser than us.

Ideas of gender performativity and the subversion of gender identity were controversially made popular in 1990 by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Back in 1949, in her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, thus inadvertently challenging how we conceive of gender construction and distinguishing between sex and gender.

Before Western philosophers had to bring gender fluidity into the academic realm, black and brown people across multiple cultures on this very continent understood genders outside of the binary in pre-colonial times.

Queer people, particularly queer people of colour, have been bending gender like Beckham since before the seminal Stonewall Riots of 1969. (Yes, that is the only sports-related reference you’ll be getting from me.)

You see, dear boomers, the only thing this hypersensitive generation of liberal youths has done is have the courage to build on what is a very human tradition: to take control of our genders and be our own creators. We, as shocking as it may sound to the hard-of-hearing, are the purveyors of our own identities.

Now, to the more militant grammarians out there: I understand that the thought of referring to one person with the typically plural pronouns of they/them might be the straw that breaks the Nazi’s back. But, the concept of they/them singular pronouns is not entirely new.

For example, it is not uncommon to say: “Somebody left their house keys at the dinner party, and they are definitely going to need them back!” An alternative example that doesn’t ring with the ominous trials of middle-class white suburbia plucked straight from a Jordan Peele script might read: “Someone at the gay club left their poppers in the bathroom, and I hope they know they’re never getting it back!” In fairness, this is still a fairly white example.

The point is they/them pronouns do not radically alter the fabric of the English language. English is not an old institution of perfect rules and flawless etymologies (the spelling of “colonel” and “asthma” never cease to confound).

Perhaps more unusual is the emergence of neo-pronouns, such as xe/xem and ze/hir. If I haven’t lost you by now, I imagine this might be your tipping point. Try to stay with me a little longer.

As I see it, pronouns are an extension of identity and the foremost mechanism to be recognised for that identity by the people around you. We hammer on their importance not because they are absolute but because they must be constructed, adopted, and filled with meaning by the individual who intends to use them.

That is what this is all about: individuality. Hopefully you would want this for your children – I will certainly want it for mine one day. If non-binary pronouns and neo-pronouns can afford someone their divine right to individuality, then that is what we must respect and practise.

Language is not ours to stagnate or weaponise, but rather evolve and make inclusive. If Lord of the Rings nerds can invent a language for elves, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that we can do the same for the languages we employ in day-to-day life.

In the end, dear boomers, you will die. Specifically, you will likely return to the earth long before my generation. We are amid a gender revolution, a reimagining of control over our most essential selves. Would you prefer to live out your last days in bitter opposition to the changing tides?

Hell, would you prefer not to experience the freedom of gender variance with us?

History has not been kind to those left behind during a revolution. Though we haven’t yet finished the construction of our guillotine, I would imagine you’re already feeling it brushing against your neck (metaphorically, of course). You’ve lived through wars, so I think you can handle a little revolution.

Though I acknowledge the ageist tone of my words, I assure you it’s all in good fun. In all seriousness, deconstructing the shackles of gender and binary pronouns has as much to do with you as it does with children taking their first steps. You have as much to gain from this emancipation as anyone else.

Confusion about non-binary pronouns and neo-pronouns is hardly a capital offence. After all, if I had been born during apartheid, I’d likely also struggle with the idea of inventing a new gendered language – fundamental human rights hadn’t even been developed back then.

So, though stepping outside of the binary of man and woman may be daunting, and the use of pronouns beyond she/her and he/him may trigger linguistic discomfort, it is actually quite simple.

Hopefully, some confusion has been demystified. And you too, our beloved boomers, can take up the mantle with us and have a hand in rewriting language and the history of gender. 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.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jason Stramrood says:

    A thoroughly fascinating and entertaining read, not so much for the topic and more for the better understanding of a mindset of the self proclaimed, ‘enlightened’ generation.

    Firstly, the term Boomer, while gaining meme and TikTok recognition, is loosely being applied to all born before 1990, so basically before the world started ;-). Are you too afraid to acknowledge Gen X, the undisputed superhero generation?

    I don’t think that the ‘enlightened’ generation give us old timers enough credit. Remember, we have children and grand children your age who are also making their way in this world, deal with bullies at school and in life and are subject to a multitude of prejudices. It is us ‘Boomers’ who guide and comfort them. We may be little bit more in touch with the world than you think. Where is gets my (old) goat is that you believe you have the right and entitlement to dictate how we should perceive a person and their gender. To dictate how we process information and the world around us. How you identify yourself is your business and I will respect that if you earn that respect and accept that I process information differently.

    If you are starting a revolution and are out for a war, then don’t be surprised/hurt/offended, my little snowflake if someone resists and hurts your feelings.

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    “…………Would you prefer to live out your last days in bitter opposition to the changing tides?”

    Would indifference be OK? Please understand that I find it quite time consuming keeping my Zimmer Frame in good working

  • A.K.A. Fred says:

    Dear Giuseppe (or more accurately gen x’er),
    To me, your piece ventilates a lot of underlying anger at the apparent reluctance of a portion of society to take you seriously. Unfortunately, you have singled out boomers as that offending part. Put in perspective, yes boomers will die, not because they have not taken you seriously but because that is the biological progression of things. In your own words, you “the youth” stand on the shoulders of giants much older and wiser than yourselves and biologically that can only be a reference to the boomers who came before you. You are correct, boomers have have seen wars (and these have left an indelible mark on their psyche) but it is disingenuous to draw a parallel to defend your gender “revolution”.

    Gender identity is an intensely personal thing and your perspective may be the view of a very small part of society. Then again, maybe not. Whether binary gender identity may wain in society or not is neither a concern nor threat to me. What is of concern to me is your sense of superiority over the older generation and your tantrum like response when you are having difficulty with support for your own views.

    I still have a lot of living to do and I don’t intend to “live out my last days in bitter opposition to the changing tide”. Rather, I’ll simply move on and engage meaningfully with youth who conduct themselves with more gravity.

  • Nick Jacobs says:

    Yes, Giuseppe, there were binary/queer folk amongst us before you were born. But thank you for clearing things up as we were all very confused until now.

    Of course, the above is all in good fun…

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Talking down to baby boomers as if they are pesky children who will hopefully go outside and play.
    You might consider that we have never had a problem with gender, and quite frankly I couldn’t give a damn what pronoun you use !

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    I’m 41, I think that makes me a Gen Z? Anyway, I am frustrated with friends and parents who cling to ideas that people must fit the boxes of their youth. If I can make someone feel more comfortable by using a pronoun of their choice, awesome. My life is easy in comparison with those who don’t fall into today’s ‘conventional’ social norms, and I’ll be doing everything I can to treat people with kindness and open-mindedness. I’m going to need lots more articles like this though, because there’s so much I still don’t know or understand, so keep ’em coming.

  • David Turner says:

    Hey Guiseppe,
    The Boomers were 1948-1964 and there were at least two gens between them & 1990, so I think ‘they’ (you) may have offended them. Take it to the chin if they return the favour!
    Boomers era Joan Armatrading with her song, “Me, Myself, I” made it easy for us to understand your Gen cause three is ‘they.’ This also highlights the main characteristic of your Gen – its all about me.
    We respect your choice to fight the revolution mentioned in the article, but we won’t be fighting back cause we think there are more significant revolutions and injustices that we will be giving our efforts towards.

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