Was it middle age or the fact he has a beard? All I know for sure is my friend was bumfuzzled then bemused when the college reporter asked him, “What are your preferred pronouns?”
“How do you identify?” the reporter asked earnestly.
“Well, my name is Peter.”
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Turns out the rock upon which my pal’s identity has been built is turning to sand. In modern America, those workhorse pronouns – he, she, him and her – are no longer sufficient or held to be self-evident.
Instead, we are creating a fluid landscape where the simple male-female dichotomy is being replaced by a complex menu of individualized choices. Facebook users, for example, can select from more than 50 gender identifications, including agender, bigender, pangender, gender fluid and, when those don’t capture it, other.
“Ze” is the gender pronoun of choice at Wesleyan University’s student newspaper. “E” is accepted at Harvard and “ey” at American University. The New York Times reports that “Mx” (pronounced mix) is a substitute for Mr. and Mrs.
To the horror of red pencil grammarians, the 127-year-old American Dialect Society recently transformed “they” into a gender-neutral singular pronoun and named it Word of the Year for 2015.
This slightly amusing trend now seems deadly serious given the controversy regarding North Carolina’s House Bill 2. While I oppose every aspect of that law – including the requirement that transgender people must use bathrooms that correspond with the sex designated on their birth certificates – it suggests far more complicated questions about new ideas that are transforming our culture.
If you aren’t an academic, or someone connected to the LGBT community, you probably haven’t thought much about gender identity.
Most of us are not deep thinkers or revolutionaries. We tend to see issues through the beliefs given us by the culture that reared us.
What are your deeply held views on race and justice? If you had been born a century ago, with your same heart and soul, they would be very different.
Many Americans hold views on same-sex marriage that never would have occurred to them a few decades ago. They didn’t change their minds through deep contemplation. Instead, thanks to complex systems of social cues and signs, they saw and heard new attitudes that others were embracing. So they did, too. Sometimes the crowd is a force for good.
New ideas are often espoused by the young, who always remake the world.
This can be unsettling for older people because the mind tends to fall back on established patterns. This is one reason we have generation gaps – and why it’s said that science advances one funeral at a time. Young people, remember this!
I am a middle-aged man who is libertarian on most social issues, and my nascent efforts to process these newfangled issues of identity leave me heartened because they seem to align with my existing beliefs.
I embrace the freedom of self-determination. This is my core principle. We get one chance at life, and no one should be denied pursuit of happiness if it does not do real harm to others.
My views on gender – how we are taught to act based on our sex – were shaped during the freewheeling 1970s. Now, they seem passe. Hey, it happens. Recall that towering genius Sigmund Freud who had the misfortune of asking “what do women want?” just as the millennia of evidence he was using to answer that question was being overturned.
But then, at least at first reckoning, it strikes me that the new ideas about gender don’t go far enough. Fifty identity boxes may be better than two, but they are still boxes. I understand that people want anchors for their identity, but I hope we are transitioning to the point where just one label defines us: human being.
Many people have thoughtful concerns about these changes – concerns that should be invited, not shouted down. Few of us have thought through the implications of these developments that do not strike on the margins but at the core of our culture and our selves. How will they affect relations between the sexes? What impact will they have on the workplace? On federal programs and benefits? Will they offer adolescents more possibilities or awful uncertainty during an already confusing time in their lives?
I don’t know. So, for now, I follow my instincts and embrace what looks like another expansion of freedom.
J. Peder Zane is a columnist for The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.