Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Fluidity of Gender, the Fluidity of Language

I wonder if last week's discussions of gender in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover will have any of us thinking of gender differently.  I wonder what kinds of changes are already just beginning, changes that we can't see now, but we'll look back, and they will be clear.

I wonder if we'll move towards being a society where we try to be gender neutral in much of our language.  I remember trying to get my students to use gender neutral language in their writing.  I first started teaching in 1988, and I wanted them to use human instead of mankind ("Since the dawn of time, humans have . . . "--did anyone else get papers that began this way?).  I wanted them to have plural subjects, so that if they had to refer back with a pronoun, they could avoid having to use the universal he:  "Students who study can expect to do well.  They should work on writing at least an hour a day."

I remember the time before we had the honorific "Ms."  I remember how hard it was to get anyone to use it.  Now, it's strange to see a "Mrs."

As our culture shifts to thinking about gender as less binary, more fluid, is it time for a new honorific? 

I confess that I hadn't given this much thought.  But I saw this article which makes a good case for using "Mx." for everyone, no matter where they are on the gender spectrum.  This change might happen quickly:  "Linguistic experts say it is harder to change usage habits of words uttered frequently in speech, such as 'she' and 'he.' But a realignment in honorifics may be more quickly achieved because courtesy titles are less often spoken than written, like in the completion and mailing of government, health care and financial documents, as well as in newspapers and other media publications."

I have been thinking that it's important to move towards gender neutral language to avoid causing pain and offense, and I still think that.  But lately I've been wondering if I'm as guilty of binary thinking as anyone.

I've moved to thinking of sexuality as moving along a spectrum.  What would happen if I thought about gender in the same way? 

In many ways, I already do.  In many ways, it's so hard to move away from binary thinking. 

For the Living Lutheran site, I wrote this piece which thinks about the gender of God. For years, I've been trying to recover language that gives us a female face of God or to move away from thinking about God as gendered at all.  But what if I'm wrong? 

What do we lose if we move to gender neutral language?


Supervillainess said...

Other languages, such as Spanish and French, are much more gender-dependent that English, I think.

Kristin said...

You're absolutely right. I have no idea how those languages will become more gender neutral.

Wendy said...

My kids call their teachers Maestra or Maestro, I think to avoid the Sra/Srta issue. (In their English classes they use Ms. or Mr.) Their teachers use both nouns when talking to the class (amigos y amigas; niñas y niños). I am sure there are other things they do as well that my 2nd grader and kindergartner are unaware of. They are working on it, at least in a dual immersion school in Southern California. (of course it doesn't change the fact that every noun is still gendered.)

On the other hand, our Latin American youth director had a terrible time with gender because he hadn't been taught to be intentional and when he called the congregation "brothers" he was translating "hermanos" which to him included everyone (as the masculine did not so long ago in English). That didn't go over so well with those who have worked hard to introduce inclusive language. He did learn to say brothers and sisters while he was with us. I wonder if he still does now that he is off on his own ventures and not working under a pastor with a strong feminist bent.

Kristin said...

How interesting, Wendy!