He, she and…

Two Face

Although identifying people and actions as feminine or masculine has long been commonplace in North American culture, more and more people are stepping out of the binary gender system. Non-gender conformists and those transitioning from one gender to another are having to identify and be addressed as something they are not for lack of an alternative. Research suggests that removing the traditional male and female identifiers may create all sorts of positive changes within society, and not just for the minority.

Identifying as transgender is not an easy feat, especially for youth. A national U.S. survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in 2006 found 90 percent of transgender respondents reported hearing negative remarks about one’s gender, specifically remarks about not being feminine or masculine enough. Introducing a gender neutral pronoun to everyday language may, albeit slowly, rid the traditional assumption that matching sex and gender is necessary, making education a more enjoyable experience for the currently harassed youth.

Alongside hallway harassment, eradicating the familiar ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns may even be beneficial inside the classroom. One study analysed gender stereotypes by creating a writing assignment on two identical essays, one said to be narrated by a female and the other said to be narrated by a male. The students who were assigned the ‘male’ essay deemed the narrator to be heroic and described him with high esteem. The students who were assigned the ‘female’ essay described the narrator as submissive and vulnerable. It can be assumed that by withholding information about the narrator’s gender any preconceived notions of how the narrator should behave would be relieved, creating an opportunity for an interpretation of the essay untainted by gender bias and stereotypes.

Language and the written word are not the only occurrences where male and female gender assignments are used. Binary labels are common requirements for surveys, higher education applications and voter registration forms. Corporations and organisations worldwide are beginning to make changes to be more inclusive of all persons: in 2009, the University of Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution to rid gender-specific pronouns from the university’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, Google+ offers ‘other’ as a gender assignment and Australians can identify as ‘indeterminate’ on their passports.

With a third gender pronoun, individuals will be able to identify as their true self, gender-based stereotypes within literature may dissolve, and the possibility to increase learning in the classroom may occur. Some action has taken place but more is still needed, and with these benefits coinciding with the change, there is no reason not to.

This is an amended version of Making a Case for a Third Gender Pronoun published on the medes, an online multimedia publication that seeks to bring awareness to the gamut of human rights issues which receive little to no attention through conventional media outlets. The medes is a project of Media Action Network (@MediaActionNet).

Kristen Francis is a co-founder and Chair of the non-profit Media Action Network and staff writer for the medes. Contact her at kristen@mediaactionnetwork.org.

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