I was out at a public gathering with the Pirate, and I saw a person wearing a zip-front sweatshirt with writing on it. The sweatshirt was unzipped and open so that part of the writing was obscured, and I realized that I was openly staring at this person’s chest in an effort to make sense of the writing. Upon noticing my staring, the person zipped the sweatshirt, my curiosity was satisfied and the episode ended.
Except that it didn’t. I wanted to tell the Pirate about it as an illustration of what a social dork I can be, but although I knew the person’s name, I could honestly not tell what gender the person was. The name was no help, as it was one of those slightly unusual names like “Dallas” or “Kennedy” that could go either way. The person’s physiology was no help at all, nor was anything about the person’s manner of speech, expressed interests or abilities, etc. The person’s gender had nothing whatsoever to do with the story, except that I didn’t want to have to say “I was staring at Dallas’ sweatshirt and Dallas realized it and zipped Dallas’ sweatshirt and I was all embarrassed because I realized that Dallas must have seen me staring at Dallas and thought I was some kind of idiot…” because if I told it that way, I would sound like an idiot.
I realize that in today’s society, gender has become a difficult issue. Openly transgendered people have challenged our notions about where in the body gender lies. Gender is no longer a simple shorthand for anything, and most especially not sexual identity, profession, sexual preference, mode of dress, or anything else that when I was a kid could be labeled “boy” or “girl.” But I’ve also realized that gender is only really important to me in two situations, both of which involve intercourse: when I want to sleep with someone (and as a person in a long-term monogamous relationship, that question was resolved a long time ago) and when I want to talk about them.
I talk about people all the time, and it’s difficult when everyone has a different idea about who they are and how they want to be thought about. Some folks consciously or unconsciously stake their claim – they dress, act, talk in a way that reinforces the gender role they are playing. Some folks try to stake their claim, but meet with less success. Living in Santa Cruz, I also see no end of people who dress in ways that say that they’re just messing with society at large. But all of these people have an idea of themselves and their gender identity that may not be obvious to the casual observer.
So, how do I talk about Dallas and Dallas’ sweatshirt? Let me make this much clear: I like Dallas. Dallas seems like a smart, interesting person with cool hobbies and a lot of things in common with me. Dallas probably knows a lot of good jokes and fun places to hang out and interesting, artistic people. None of those things have anything to do with Dallas’ gender, and chances are that it would take me months, if not years, to get to know Dallas well enough to broach the subject of gender identity. But in the meantime, how do I talk about Dallas?
Which brings me to the subject of “it.” People have tried to solve the issue of gender pronouns in various ways. I understand trying to be inclusve: “Everyone should have brought his or her ticket.” But when you’re only talking about one person, that makes you sound weird. When talking about a single, definite person of indeterminate gender, you can use the kind of tortured constructions that avoid pronouns: “We gave each person a ticket and each person should have it,” but they are just that. Torture for both the speaker and the listener. The worst are the made up pronouns – ze, mir, hum. Those are just silly. And even if they weren’t silly, they’re hard to remember and most people won’t understand what you’re saying anyway. You can use the plural, “Everyone should have brought their ticket,” but it’s grammatically incorrect, and sounds strange when you’re talking about a single person and their actions or possessions.
But what about “it”? People object to using “it” to refer to human beings because we use “it” to refer to things that are not human beings and humans are egotistical and like to be assured of their special, privileged place in the world as the only ones with a language that enshrines their self-awareness. Referring to other human beings whose gender is unclear as “it” seems insensitive and dismissive. Using “it” to refer to someone whose gender is completely beside the point (as in the story of Dallas’ sweatshirt) seems lazy. But how can you be respectful, inclusive, not lazy, etc., when talking about someone that you don’t know? For times like that, I’d like to de-criminalize, as it were, the use of “it” to refer to people whose gender is unknown, unclear or irrelevant. If you want, you can use it to talk about me.
I know Dallas is.
“You should have seen it! Staring at my chest with its big, stupid mouth gawping open! Some people!”