On January 8, 2016 the American Dialect Society voted singular they as the word of the year.
The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. In 2015, singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide. Bill Walsh, copy editor for the Post, described it as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” – http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they
This is a big deal. Especially for people like me who are not comfortable with gendered pronouns. It means that people cannot tell me that it is improper grammar to use they as my pronoun. It might take some time for people to get used to the idea of singular they, but it’s not the first time English as a language as changed and it most certainly won’t be the last.
Even the argument that it will be awkward to say things such as: “I saw Bran today, they were working on a new project.” doesn’t fly with me. It might sound off to an English major but for the general populace it won’t matter.
However, it will matter a great deal to non-binary, trans and genderfluid people who are not comfortable with gendered pronouns.
I understand this might be a hard concept for cis-gendered persons to grasp and truly there is no way for them to sympathize. They simply do not have the mental framework for it.
When someone calls me by female pronouns, it really unravels all the daily work (mentally, physically and emotionally) that I have done for years in order to find a gender that feels comfortable to me. I do not see anything wrong with being a woman or feminine (if anything, I often wish I could identify as this because it would be easier in some ways), but I simply do not feel like a female-bodied person. I can hardly remember a moment in my life when I did. -Janke Seltsam (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-nichols/misidentification-and-transphobia-one-musicians-experiences-touring-america_b_3362069.html)
With that being said, this does not mean that cis-gendered persons cannot and should not try to understand other genders. It involves being open and sensitive to the knowledge that not everyone goes by he or she.
I’m a big Transformers fan. The cool thing about them is they are robots. They do not have gender or gender binaries. Some choose to identify as male or female and use the appropriate pronouns. But what if you are writing a character who is trans, non-binary or gender-queer? What do you do then?
You, my dear writer, use their correct pronouns.
But, you say, what if they are a trans woman and the reader needs to know they are trans and were assigned male at birth?
A valid question; you want your readers to know how your character identifies but you also don’t want run the risk of turning your character into a walking stereotype, or make readers feel as though your character is wearing a sign that says ‘Hi I’m trans.’
That does not mean that the subject should not be addressed. It absolutely should. Below is a list of ways you can show, and tell, your readers which gender—if any—your character identifies with.
- If a character’s gender is in question, have other characters comment on or think about it. This is perfectly alright. Here is an example from Masquerade, my upcoming short story prequel to The Jeweled Dagger:
He turned back to find Sivil staring at him with a strange expression. “I … apologize, from your dress and demeanor I thought you were a man. I should have realized, with the long hair and pretty face—”
“Sivil, does the Steward need a footman or a housemaid because I can do either.”
“A footman.” Sivil nodded, his gaze darting around the room, only settling briefly on Lafayette. “Is it true what they say about Kedonians then? That you don’t have genders?”
Lafayette stared at Sivil a strange cold knot tightening in his gut. He’d heard a lot of idiotic rumors about Kedonians but this one was new. He took a step closer to Sivil, “My gender is my own business. Not yours. If the Steward needs a footman, he will get a footman.”
- If the character is a viewpoint character it is just fine to let them think about it, our gender identities and expression are a large part of how we socialize.
- Let your character come right out and confirm their gender. This is best done in dialog with other characters, though depending on the story there are other ways to approach this as well.
- Have other characters comment on their gender expression. Non-binary, trans and gender queer persons are beset with misunderstanding and misgendering on a daily basis, so it’s likely they will encounter this in your narrative.*
- They can ask to be called by their correct pronouns or inform other characters of their correct pronouns.
- Use description to show their gender expression. This one is a bit trickier and can come off as being transphobic and othering. Here is a good example of how to handle it without going overboard:
I was living in Vancouver’s West End, still wet behind the ears, having just arrived from the Yukon in a Volkswagen van. It was only the second apartment I ever rented, and the first time I laid eyes on Rosie it was raining, and there she was, skinny, wiry, restless-eyed Rosie right behind me on the sidewalk that led to our building’s front door with bother her arms burdened down with grocery bags. So I held the door open for her, just like my gran had taught me to.
“Chivalry lives,” she snorted as she clunked in past me in her skin-tight Levi’s and low-cut blouse and kitten heels. Of course I did not know the words for kitten heels. Yet.
Except her voice was low, like an eighteen-wheeler gearing down with its engine brakes grinding on a long steep hill down from the summit, and her bare skin above her black bra was covered in five o’clock shadow and painted with now bleeding-edged and sailor-flash faded tattoos.
I had never met any other woman quite like Rosie before.
As the example shows, the description of Rosie is vivid but there is no mistaking that the narrator sees her as a woman. A little later in the story the narrator makes the mistake of calling her, he. Rosie is quick to correct them. Other than that, the fact that Rosie is trans is never really discussed. She is Rosie.
I see you squinting at the screen as you think … but the only pronouns I am aware of are he and she. Am I supposed to make up something?
Nope. As I mentioned above singular they is perfectly acceptable. My genderfluid character Lafayette, mentioned in the above excerpt, goes by he/she/they depending on the circumstances and who they are with. There are also several accepted gender-less pronouns. The only issue with the list below is that they are not very well known outside the genderqueer community and can draw your reader out of the story as they try to parse the new words. Personally, I like Spivak (ey,em, eir) as it is the least visually jarring but it is entirely up to you.
Please do not be afraid to let your character use these pronouns. They’ll never enter wider use if we don’t actually use them.
You will likely get some irate readers asking why you decided to use ‘made-up’ pronouns. Be brave. Your desire to be inclusive of all genders is more important that their momentary discomfort.
Everyone deserves to be respected, even fictional characters. You cannot please everyone, but you could make a huge difference in someone’s life by showing them they have the right to be respected and treated as human no matter what gender they identify as.
As with all orientations and identities we must keep in mind that we are writing people. Which pronouns they prefer is a good clue to who they are and how they see themselves, but we must remember not to beat our reader over the head with this detail. It’s just another facet of who your character is as a person.
Ideally, your character’s gender should not be a major source of characterization. Relying on gender expression and society’s gender expectations to show character perpetuates and reinforces stereotypes. It is just fine to let gender be addressed, but a light hand usually works best. Treat it like backstory: leave it to a sentence or two here and there. The reader will do the rest.
*Sadly, in many instances (especially for non-white trans women) this situation is deadly. Please be careful how you approach this so that you’re not accidentally promoting transphobia. The only exception would be if you are writing a transphobic character.
Is there anything you feel I’ve left out? How would you handle writing a non-binary, trans or gender-queer character? Have you ever written one? If you haven’t, would you consider it?
If you enjoyed this post and would like access to exclusive content please consider supporting me on Patreon.