Recently I attended an awesome class at Google called Bias Busting. Initially I thought that I would not get anything out of it; after all, I have absolutely no biases whatsoever, right? Not so fast, buddy.
I quickly realized that something in my perception was not quite clear. I felt the need to question the use of personal pronouns. Specifically, I felt friction with the use of them, theirs when referring to singular individuals. Initially my perception was based on my understanding of the transgender concept and also on my own use of language.
The dictionary definition for the term transgender states: “denotes or relates to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex“; and this is compared to the term cisgender, which “denotes or relates to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.” I understood the transgender definition as the rightful choice of any person to identify with their inner gender as opposed to the gender that was assigned to them at birth. This makes complete sense to me, and I support it. But for me it also means that a transgender person is not genderless. Therefore, there is still an association of gender in my perception according to their gender identity. And, from a linguistic perspective, that gender association corresponds to gender-specific language constructs. This is particularly true in my native tongue, Spanish, where every single thing I can refer to has a linguistic gender (i.e. she, he, his, her, etc). This certainly plays a role in the difficulty I experienced referring to individuals by theirs or they.
The other aspect is also related to language. I find it difficult to use plural pronouns when I am referring to individuals; e.g. “Hey, have you seen Alberto? Yes, I saw them.” That kind of language use triggers some sort of short-circuit in my brain. Perhaps if I use it for an extended period of time I will rewire those linguistic neural connections and it will feel better; but at the moment, it is hard.
I expressed these difficulties and received a kind response: don’t worry about it, just apologize when you notice and try to do better next time. The problem with this approach is that people who “suffer from the same things as me” will have to be frequently apologetic when their linguistic constructs make them appear insensitive to the needs of transgender people. But until we agree on another approach I will continue doing my best to adapt to the new uses of familiar linguistic constructs, and apologize when I get it wrong.
In the meantime, I just want to ask honest questions and find out where my perception is wrong and where I may not be wrong. The question is this: why is calling an individual their (instead of she/he) an important battle to fight? Does not referring to an individual using the language constructs for their chosen gender identity make sense? Does that violate any fundamental principle? I think we can have another debate on the merits of having notions of gender engrained in our society and focus first on ensuring full inclusion and equality.