Time for New Pronouns

In Providence, RI, December 4, 2017
In Providence, RI, December 4, 2017

[Posted to Facebook on March 3, 2018]

Shannon Wyss wants to say CONGRATULATIONS that you’re seeing hir status! ‘Cause this is important. (But, frankly, putting a form of “congratulations” in the first line – see, ze did it again – is just a way to try to get Facebook to show this status to more people.)

Shannon wants to announce to the world (or, at least, to the World of Facebook) that, henceforth, ze wishes you to refer to hir with the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “theirs.”

Why are they doing this? A few reasons. But first, Shannon wishes to say that if you have grammatical objections, they recommend you read any of the resources that they will post in the first comments below this status update. They are willing to talk about any aspect of this change except grammar; there are tons of resources out there along those lines that you can avail yourselves of that will save Shannon a lot of time and energy.

Shannon has been trying to use “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs” for their pronouns for well over fifteen years – before some of the community’s “non-binary babies” were even born. That was before there was a movement to formalize 99% of US English speakers’ use of they/them/theirs as singular pronouns. (Yes, you almost certainly do it. For instance, if someone cuts in front of you on the road, you likely say something like, “What the [fill in your expletive of choice] do they think they’re doing?,” even though you know perfectly well there’s only one driver in that car.)

Back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, people weren’t thinking this way, at least not on a large scale. So Shannon found “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs,” initially in Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, and the words seemed perfect. A set of gender-neutral, third-person singular pronouns.

Unfortunately, almost no one else thought so. And despite Shannon’s request, 99% of people continued to refer to them with singular female pronouns. (They don’t want to hear about that being “hard,” even if those pronouns are hard to use. Try living in the world as non-binary for eighteen years and being invisible almost everywhere. That’s hard.)

Then, maybe ten years ago, Millennials came along and said, “Heck, no. We already have perfectly good words we use every day. Why should we try these other pronouns that we know no one is going to use?” Millennials started demanding to be referred to with “they,” “them,” and “theirs.” And they weren’t taking, “It’s hard,” or “That’s not grammatically correct,” for excuses. (Go, Millennials!)

Shannon saw all this going on but wasn’t willing to give up their pronouns. After all, they’d been (trying to) go by “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs” for many years, and those really, truly felt like Shannon’s pronouns. But more and more Millennials were being heard, and Gen Xers started following suit. And at some point, Shannon knew more genderqueer/non-binary people using they/them/theirs than any other pronoun. Those folks were having their identities recognized, at least some of the time, while Shannon’s identity was recognized almost none of the time.

So they decided to run an experiment when they started back at AIDS United last May. AU is a pretty trans-friendly workplace, and everyone declares their pronouns in their email signatures. So Shannon decided to try out using they/them/theirs and see what it felt like. Almost everyone at work has been consistently using those pronouns for Shannon since. And, frankly, it initially felt almost wrong, like there was something not right about Shannon having their identity recognized. Like it was a huge imposition for them to ask that others reflect back to them the way they see themselves. Shannon felt badly about every single time someone used their pronouns for months. This is what can happen when you get used to living an invisible, marginalized existence: recognition seems like something you don’t deserve, like something you should feel guilty for asking for.

Once Shannon started to adjust, however, they revisited the question about ze/hir/hirs, which still felt more like their pronouns than they/them/theirs. They realized that they had a choice. They could either continue to stick with their pronouns and never get their identity recognized, or they could change their pronouns and have a chance of at least some people recognizing who they were. Neither was perfect, and both options were a compromise.

They also realized that, by going with they/them/theirs, they would be pushing further the linguistic change already going on in US English to more widely recognize non-binary genders. In this case, jumping on the bandwagon actually was an act of resistance to the dominant linguistic paradigm of seeing only two genders. If joining the movement started at least partly by Millennials would further that goal, then why not?

After mulling over these things for months, Shannon decided that, if they were going to have to compromise, they might as well do it in a way that would lead to at least some recognition. They realized that, after years of being ignored and invisibilized, they owed themself visibility, recognition, and affirmation.

So here they are. Yes, they/them/theirs remains something of a compromise. But it’s a compromise that they intend to hold everyone to. Since almost none of you can claim never to use those words as singular pronouns already, Shannon expects you to honor them and their identity by showing them the respect that you most likely didn’t when they wanted to go by ze/hir/hirs. (If you were one of the few people who did use those pronouns, THANK YOU! You have no idea how much it meant to Shannon. They noticed it every time – just like they noticed it every time the rest of you didn’t.)

Mistakes are okay. Shannon knows how complicated it can be to switch pronouns for someone. They won’t correct you every time, but they will speak up and ask to be seen and respected. They thank you in advance for your efforts in that regard.

And to this end, Shannon is now also switching email addresses, after about 20 years with hugdyke as their username under various email services (Compuserve, AOL, Earthlink, and then Gmail). You can henceforth reach them at [new personal email address]. Yes, this is a way of making you remember those pronouns every time you send them an email. And, no, it’s not actually case-sensitive; that’s just a way of making the address easier to read, the same way that #ShannonInsistsOnMakingHashtagsEasierToRead.

How long are they going to continue to write Facebook status updates in the third person? Until they’re pretty sure that 90% of you are using the correct pronouns. 🙂

Questions? Comments? Let them know – as long as it’s not about grammar; you can have those debates with the authors of the resources linked immediately below.

And if you’ve made it this far in this long post, thank you. They appreciate the time and effort you’ve put in to learning about their identity and how you can respect it.

Shannon looks forward to decades of having their genderqueer identity recognized every time you talk about them. Onward!