I am writing this entry from a bus, traveling along the open roads that connect the sparsely populated farm towns between Chicago and Columbus. This weekend, I attended a conference hosted by the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG) in Evanston, IL. My presentation was yesterday morning, and on my panel was a person interested in exploring the ways that our language makes certain types of people (im)possible. This speaker suggested that we are constantly reinforcing a gender binary in our speaking. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! An interesting insight, I thought, was that in speaking, we generally accept gender as a primary descriptor and organizer (more so than race, class, or any other demographic characteristic) to such a degree that most people find it unproblematic to refer to businessmen and businesswomen, but we would never dream of calling someone a businesswhite or a businessblack!
Furthermore, the awful dilemma of limited pronouns forces us to make reference to someone’s genitals whenever we want to speak of them without using their name. “She” – vagina; “he” – penis. When you write, what pronouns do you use? I used “he” unproblematically until I was in college and had a communication professor explain to me that, despite what my English teachers had taught me (reinforced by red scribbles in the margins of every paper), masculine pronouns are not neutral. So I adopted s/he, preferring this to the cumbersome “he or she.” However, my conference colleague pointed out to me that using s/he still works within a gender binary that assumes the categories of female/male. I am still invoking normative genitalia as I type.
This whole conversation became even more problematic when considered in light of this week’s readings. Where does the transgendered or intersex person fit in my pronoun? This conference speaker seemed to be saying exactly what Riki Wilchins tells us: “what isn’t named doesn’t exist” (p. 45). So, what about “ze” and “hir”? My esteemed colleague responded, unless that language is adopted by everyone, it merely highlights that someone doesn’t fit into normative categories. So, as Sarah Kennedy asks, “What can we do to expand the number of boxes, and make an option not to be in a box at all?” (p. 165). The speaker on my panel suggested adoption of the plural—they, their, we, our—even when attached to a singular person. This was the speaker’s suggestion. This was THEIR position. A gender scholar in the audience responded passionately to this solution: SHE argued that the solution cannot be to erase gendered language because that is an absolutist position that can be just as problematic and oppressive. Rather, SHE argued that WE need more categories, more boxes—WE cannot exist without being placed in a box as people try to make sense of US in interaction, but WE can make the boxes bigger and more numerous.
I have often joked in recent years that graduate school is making me develop a stutter. I find myself aware of more and more ways in which the words I choose are problematic. Words organize and classify reality. I use words to communicate with you, but words are symbolic constructions and, as such, they are limited and limiting. In some ways, that is a valuable characteristic of words—they allow me to refer to this and not that. However, there are times, when I stutter over my pronouns or delete and retype one sentence half a dozen times, that I throw my hands up in frustration and think, “Talking would be so much easier if I didn’t have to use WORDS to do it!!”