For those who revere clarity in the English language, be prepared; there are a number of young people who are now preferring to eschew the two traditional pronouns for human beings, “he” and “she,” and choosing instead to identify their gender by such terms as “they,” “ze,” sie,” “e,” “ou,” and ‘ve.”
Confused, you say? Don’t worry; there are a number of people willing to explain this trend. At Mills College in Oregon, traditionally an all-woman’s college, a group of students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender call themselves Mouthing Off! Skylar Crownover, 19, who is president of Mouthing Off!, and wants to be referred to as “they” but is content if she is referred to as “he,” said, “Because I go to an all-women’s college, a lot of people are like, ‘If you don’t identify as a woman, how did you get in?’ I just tell them the application asks you to mark your sex and I did. It didn’t ask me for my gender.”
The terms genderqueer, agender, bigender, third gender or gender-fluid, called “preferred gender pronouns” (PGPs), are now bandied about as substitutes for the old stodgy “he” and “she.”
At the University of Vermont, students can now be addressed as she, he, and ze; intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center allow the students to mark themselves as male, female, or other.
Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who used to call herself “ze,” and now prefers “they,” said, “Certainly we see students who are transitioning, particularly female to male, but the vast majority of students who identify under the trans umbrella identify in some way outside the binary, and that’s really causing a shift on college campuses. Having role models and examples allows people to say ‘Yes, what I am feeling is legitimate.'”
Lucy Ferriss, writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Connecticut who also writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog, Lingua Franca, commented, “There is an initial discomfort. I think it’s probably hypocritical to pretend there isn’t, to say, ‘Ok, that’s what they want to do’ and leave it at that. The people I know who teach will say ‘This is weird and it’s cumbersome and it’s not going to last because it’s not organic.'” However, she added, “Mail carrier did not evolve organically and it’s a lot easier to say mailman. Decades ago there were poets who refused to be called poetesses. Most language has evolved organically, but there have been times–and when it comes to issues of gender there probably have to be times–when there are people willing to push the envelope.”
Mel Goodwin, 28, youth program director at the gay and lesbian community center in Las Vegas, who likes to be referred to as “they,” defended the new practice as a worldwide phenomenon, saying, “This is not about young people in the U.S. over the last 20 years kind of coming out of the woodwork and making up labels that aren’t real. This is a real variation among humans, period.”