Bang the Drum!: Pronoun Trouble

Bang the DrumI filed my first record review in months last week. I tackled the new record from Rae Spoon–you can read all about it in this week’s print edition of prairie dog. Spoon, if you don’t know, is a Montreal-based singer-songwriter. Spoon is also transgendered. In my review I followed the lead of Spoon’s publicity material and used the pronoun he in reference to Spoon. Then yesterday, long after I had filed my review, I saw this post on Rae Spoon’s Twitter feed: “I like being able to be spoken about without my gender being pointed out every single pronoun #callmethey

My first thought was that I understand the frustration with pronouns, but they is plural. Rae Spoon may not be beholden to gender labels, but Rae Spoon is most definitely singular–and I mean that as a compliment. The trans community should create a pronoun not already in use, I thought.
This afternoon, though, it’s still bugging me. It’s not at all as cut-and-dried as that. I consulted my go-to source for grammar and usage issues, Roy Peter Clark. Clark gives a good deal of space and consideration to the issue in his 2010 book The Glamour of Grammar.

The grammatical problem, of course, is that the plural pronouns “they” and “their” do not agree in number with the singular antecedent “person.” Given that clear violation of standard usage, why would anyone encourage it? There are at least two good, if not persuasive, reasons: (1) These days, gender equality trumps the arithmetic logic of formal grammar; (2) that’s the way we talk.

Clark goes on to talk about transgendered writer S. Bear Bergman, champion of gender neutral pronouns ze and hir, before concluding:

If you have not yet had a conversation with a transgender person, you will. When you do, the problem of pronoun will become pronounced. So, you must be thinking, what are you suggesting? Are you slouching toward blasphemy in approving number disagreement?
My answer is an enthusiastic but limited yes […] Another answer is to write from your heart.

Frankly, I’m relieved I had filed my review when I did and can honestly plead ignorance on the issue. I graciously leave it to writers and editors in the queer community to sort it out and shall follow their lead. I looked into the issue some more and found a blog posting on Spoon’s Tumblr blog:

I decided that I too prefer “they” as a pronoun. I was tired of often being expected to perform a male role because my pronoun was “he.” After so many years fighting to be called “he” and having people ask me when I was going to modify my body (physically transition), I realized that for me being trans is not about being read as a man or changing my body. I am happy with the body that I have. What I’m unhappy with is the way things are gendered by society in general. I don’t feel like I want to carry out a male or a female gender role. Gender-neutral pronouns made sense to me personally and felt like the right decision.

The post details the ongoing struggle to get queer weekly Xtra to adopt the pronoun they for trans people.

Here are Rae Spoon and Elisha Lim singing “Stand By Your Trans” in support of their (plural, no controversy, whew) campaign for they.

UPDATE 01/27: Toronto’s NOW Magazine, as usual, rides my coattails with an interview with Spoon about pronouns and their new album. Includes audio snippets!

Emmet Matheson is a freelance writer who blogs at A Bulldozer With a Wrecking Ball Attached. You can e-mail him at: bulldozerDOTwreckingballATgmailDOTcom

Author: Emmet Matheson

Saskatchewan Diaspora

3 thoughts on “Bang the Drum!: Pronoun Trouble”

  1. Another reason that we may as well use the singular they is that there is a ton of historical precedent. It wasn’t until the 18th century that grammarians decided that it wasn’t acceptable anymore.

    It wasn’t clear to me whether when you wrote that the trans community should create a new pronoun, you were indicating that this was a thought you had before your research, and that was cleared up for you? There are lots of great resources out there, if you’re uncertain; googling “Trans 101” is a good bet.

    In get what you mean by saying that you’ll follow the queer community’s lead, but honestly, this is such an individual, personal issue, that the community can’t suggest a one-pronoun-fits-all approach. And like in Spoon’s case, pronoun preferences can change (I didn’t know about Spoon’s shift to they, and I’m a fan!).

  2. Yes, my “trans community should create new pronoun” thought was pre-research. I’ll do a quick edit to make that more explicit.
    I think it’s really interesting that this is playing out in mainstream media (by which I mean Xtra, as it’s a free weekly available all over big cities). Journalism demands consistent usage standards (ie, style guides) and journalists are rightfully reluctant to let the people they write about dictate which words can be used. The more I read about it, though, the more I’m in favour of they. It’s a fascinating conversation to follow.

  3. Yeah, it’s nice to see this being addressed! Especially since mainstream media has traditionally been pretty terrible about misgendering trans people.

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