Academia and Gender Neutral Pronouns

Reading this article got me thinking again about gender neutral pronouns and academia, something that has come up for me previously while reading journal articles, especially those that use the awkward ‘he/she’ or even ‘she’ as a non-specific pronoun. Some might have a feminist argument for using ‘she’ in this way but I see it as only reinforcing the gender-sex binary and as alienating as the universal ‘he’. The cause of feminism is not to just reverse gendered binary power … er … right?

As the article points out, while language constantly evolves over time, actually aiming to introduce something new into language is extremely difficult. But if there’s one space where I would think such an undertaking could be well-received it’s in academic articles/journals; most particularly of course those concerned with sociology/gender. So far I haven’t read one such article that employs gender neutral pronouns (not including they/them/theirs) but of course I have only read so many articles in particular research fields so I can’t be sure if there are or aren’t. I would be very surprised, however, if there are many such articles that don’t specifically address such topics like transgender or non-binary people out there that do use gender neutral pronouns. The point is, regardless, that I have read many articles that could well have employed a gender neutral pronoun but did not do so.

So what’s the problem with just using they/them/theirs? There’s much debate out there about this and I’m certainly not against using this form but I’m not sure it always works. This article uses the example ‘Sam thought they were late to the party’ to illustrate some possible confusion: who is late to the party, Sam or someone else? Although I know it is some genderqueer/non-binary people’s pronoun of choice, I wonder if the use of a newer form is not only smoother for current English standards but also more political. Would it force people out of their comfort zones in regard to normative gender-sex?

The other main problem facing the use of gender-neutral pronouns is that there are a handful of newly invented ones (all language is invented!) and no clear winner. I’d argue, however, that there is actually no great problem with multiple gender-neutral pronouns (I currently prefer xie/xem/xyr myself). It should be fairly self-evident what they are, at least in writing. With journal articles, I’m sure a short footnote would more than suffice to explain whichever gender-neutral pronouns the author is using. Journals might also stipulate which neutral pronoun they go with in their submission style guides.

Beyond the argument that using gender-neutral pronouns is beneficial for being able to refer to people who identify as neither male or female, or who prefer gender neutral pronouns for whatever reason, or merely the argument for grammatical smoothness, the use of gender neutral pronouns might also have theoretical relevance.

For instance, it’s my aim in my data analysis to avoid pre-categorising my participants into the gender-sex binary. To refer to them with gender neutral pronouns before examining the complex assemblages around gender-sex they exist in could be one method to avoid the traps of essentialisms or binary logics. So of course it is my intention to use gender-neutral pronouns in journal articles when the time comes but I hope others might consider doing so as well, and not just to refer to non-binary people but as a matter of course.