Have you ever been asked, “What are your pronouns?” I have been, on several occasions, so far, all at sf conventions. (Mine are “She/Her”). But more and more often today, you can’t necessarily predict a person’s PGPs (preferred gender pronouns) just by looking. That’s why I’ve often seen variations on this badge ribbon in the last couple years at conventions.
No, it’s not an excess of political correctness, although there are those who’ll moan that it is. For those who claim non-traditional pronouns as their own, it’s a question of identity affirmation versus erasure.
Because I really want to be an ally, I have been trying to educate myself. And if the badge isn’t flipped so you can’t read the ribbons, this little “cue” really can be helpful!
I’ve had pronouns on my mind recently, especially in the wake of moderating the “LGBTQ+ Representation in Fandom” panel at Archon 43, where the topic came up. Then my friend Lucy contacted me for my thoughts after she’d been tapped to be on a panel about inclusive pronouns at Windycon 2019.
“It” just doesn’t cut it! (but “they” might)
As my friend Lucy A. Synk pointed out in a recent email, “‘it’ is not acceptable for a human once the question “is it a boy or a girl?” has been answered, or for God.” We’ve gone through several decades of controversy in religious circles about pronouns in modern English translations of the Bible—and the controversy is far from over today. Lucy mentioned “debate in the Catholic Church among those of us who resent referring to the human race and God as “he, him, his, brother, son, father, etc.” Non-Catholics have been having that one, too.
Yes, “it” is only fit for objects, and is understood correctly to be demeaning when applied to a person. But the historically-loaded tanker ships‘-worth of baggage and assumptions we attach to “him” and “her” have led many people to seek alternative pronouns.
Until recently, I’ve had a problem with “they/them” as singular pronouns, because I was taught these are plural. However, people who identify as they/them will point you to Shakespeare as an example of how the usage was considered “grammatically correct” in earlier times (when there actually wasn’t a standard as we define it, but never mind).
I don’t argue with them anymore. They don’t care what my grammar teachers taught me in high school. English is a living language. Living languages, by their very nature, change. If “you” can be both singular and plural in English, then why not “they”?
Non-terrestrials, gender, and pronouns
It is perhaps not strange at all that some members of science fiction fandom want to assert non-traditional pronouns.
Science fiction authors have been exploring ideas about both human and non-terrestrial genders for decades. This sometimes also has led to pronoun variations, although not as often as one might expect.
“Alien sex” has been a fascination of science fiction writers for-almost-ever, but understandings have evolved slowly, most likely because the field was dominated by a cisgender white “boys’ club” for a long time. Some of them weren’t above misogyny and imperialism, although others wrote brilliant, insightful works. Some have experimented with alternative pronouns.
The straight white men may have dominated, but not completely. Don’t ever forget that science fiction arguably was invented by Mary Shelley. And such pioneers as Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, James Tiptree, Jr., Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Octavia Butler have been influencing the field for decades.
Alternative voices and viewpoints have been a growing factor in science fiction for a long time. Representation matters. The range of expressions and subgenres is expanding, thanks in part to pressure on traditional publishing by the “age of Indie writers.” Representation, as well as “post-binary gender” pronouns, are gradually gaining ground.
After all, why would anyone from another planetidentify in terrestrial terms of “he” and “she”? Even if there are two genders, “he” and “she” are culturally-loaded concepts for Earth people. If non-terrestrials don’t understand the same connotations and backloading as pertaining to them (and why would they?), then it seems to me it’s not reasonable to use “he/she” to describe them.
Why would an android or AI identify as male or female, unless their choice was dictated by the body shape they’d been placed in, and convenience? Ann Leckie’s books of the Imperial Radche are but one recent high-profile example of rethinking this question. Another fresh take is the Murderbot stories of Martha Wells.
Using pronouns in the XK9 books
This type of question came up several times for me in writing What’s Bred in the Bone and subsequent titles in the XK9 series, because the cast of characters includes a variety of non-humans and non-terrestrials.
The system I use for Dr. SCISCO and nir siblings (who are genderless cybernetic entities) is taken from a marvelous resource, The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. But since 2016, when I went searching for pronoun ideas and found it, there’s been an explosion of resources online.
Readers of my books also have encountered “k’kim” and “k’kir” for ozzirikkians, the non-terrestrials who are citizens of Rana Station, along with the humans and the XK9s. Ozzirikkians may experience several gender states during their lifetimes. However, they don’t distinguish between them (at least, not with pronouns) in Pan-Ozzirikkian, the language they use for conversation and commerce with non-ozzirikkians.
What difference does fiction make?
I don’t think I can stress this enough: Representation matters. It matters in deeper ways for under-represented individuals than the over-represented members of a dominant culture can begin to imagine.
Representation of gender identity and sexual orientation. Representation of ethnicity and racial identity. Representation of the differently-abled in positive, life-affirming ways. Representation is recognition that one exists. That one matters. Representation and respect for one’s preferred gender pronouns is the antidote to erasure.
Asking “What are your pronouns?” is an affirmation of respect.
Even when the characters aren’t human, we humans relate. We relate by identifying with characters whom we may recognize as stand-ins for our identities (why do you imagine fanfics gain such followings? Not only are they authentic voices of admiration, but they’re often free to go places and explore areas where more traditionally-oriented media can’t or won’t go).
IMAGE CREDITS: The “my pronouns are” badge ribbon is mine. I think I got this one at either SoonerCon or Capricon in 2019. I took the photo, and I’d be delighted if you spread it around all over the Internet. You don’t even need to attribute this one or include a link back (although that would be nice of you).
The “gender variations” image is courtesy of Chapman University (no artist credit given). The photo of the nursing student is courtesy of the BBC/Kit Wilson. Many thanks to Coverbrowser and Thrills Unlimited for the pulp fiction cover art (again, I could find no artist credits), and to the Gender Neutral Pronouns Blog for the table listing alternative pronouns.
And finally, many thanks to Denene Miller’s “My Brown Baby” blog for the awesome”represenation” photo!