Zee Utilikilt

Today I took Sam to the Apple store to look at a Star Wars video game he wants for his birthday. He was very excited, and sat down on the floor next to the software to review his options. He looked like he wanted to settle in for a while.

An Apple employee wearing a Utilikilt walked up to us. “She looks quite happy there,” he said of Sam, who wore a black Return of the Jedi t-shirt and olive-drab pants. Even to this man in a skirt, my long-haired boy looked like a girl. “He is definitely happy about Star Wars,” I replied.

I knew that I could avoid pronouns, as I have many times in the past: “Yup, Sam is definitely happy about Star Wars.” Today, I liked the idea of letting a stranger know that boys can have long hair (and I figured that we were pretty safe, given the Utilikilt and all). But I found myself thinking that life would be easier if pronouns were gender-neutral.

It seems unfortunate that we call every child a “he” or a “she.” Why should I have to reference what’s in my child’s underwear every time I reply to a store employee, order food in a restaurant, or talk to a parent at the park? And why should my son have to defend his right, as he has for so many years, to like the things he likes and look the way he wants to look? If he had no pronoun, no one could say that boys don’t wear pink.

There has been some debate about shifting to gender-neutral pronouns like “zee” in place of “he” and “she.” Changes to language are awkward and difficult to bring into mainstream acceptance; we’ve had a hard enough time moving from “fireman” and “stewardess” to “firefighter” and “flight attendant.” I know much of our world is not ready for boys who have long hair, let alone for invented pronouns meant to draw attention away from biological gender.

But then again, a few short years ago, Apple employees weren’t walking around  in Utilikilts.



    • shoffman says

      Leela, I think your essay is great, and follow your argument in favor of the simple “they”–because if we try to capture every moment on the gender spectrum, we’d have some complicated language indeed. And if we don’t, even if we added another couple of pronouns, then we end up where we are now–with boxes that are too small for many people to fit.

      I hope you don’t mind, I posted the link to your essay on my facebook and twitter accounts. I would love to see more people having this conversation.

      And thank you for your kind words!

  1. Wallace Ayres says

    I continue to appreciate the way you combine so much wisdom with so much wit. I learn and I laugh. Thank you for both.
    Your loyal reader,

  2. says

    I agree with Leela… In the UK, the singular they is still usable. It’s a natural part of speech and works well. It would be lovely if we did have dedicated gender-neutral personal pronouns, but as you mention, I think it will take a long time before they are accepted generally (especially since there are several alternative gender-neutral personal pronouns in use at the moment).

    Of course, when someone indicates that they want to be referred to by one of the existing gender-neutral personal pronouns, I try to ensure I keep on using their choice when referring to them (which can get complex! :))

    As for those Utilikilts, I’d never seen them before!!! How funny, though, that they have to butch them up to make them ‘acceptable’ to the male world. The heavy materials, dark colours and extra-wide belts look a little like they’re trying a little to hard to be extra masculine. However, it would be cool if they’re still around in a few years and they start getting accepted. Blurring those gender lines is always fun! :)

  3. Z says

    Pronouns don’t always refer to what’s in your pants. They *should* refer to what’s in your head. Going by what’s in someone’s pants over what’s in their head is misgendering unless the two match up- which is ot a nice thing to do.

    If your kid is a boy- he would be a boy no matter what was in his pants (as well as on his head, in his wardrobe, etc). If your kid is a girl- she would be a girl no matter what was in her pants. Most people probably see pronouns as going by what’s in their pants, but ‘he’ really should be “My child is a boy and should be referred to as such, and what’s in his pants is none of your business- so you shouldn’t care if what he has is what you think boys should have”.
    If Sam were a trans girl- you’d be correcting people the other way and wouldn’t think of it as telling people what’s in their pants so much as what’s in their head. That’s what it is- the only difference is that what’s in Sam’s head happens to match what’s in his pants.

    Also- I’m a fan of singular they for a pronoun. It basically is grammatically correct, is familiar, and has been around for centuries. I’ve been using it for as long as I can remember and get next to no problems for it. People don’t get offended like they do with “it”, or snarky like they do with the made-up pronouns, and I very rarely see people have a problem with it unless they’re grammar freaks trying to feel superior. (I know a lot of grammar freaks who support singular they, not all of them trans) It’s fine in the US as well.

    • shoffman says

      One of the difficulties is finding a pronoun when a person doesn’t necessarily feel like one gender or the other (or feel like talking about it with strangers). If a person is strongly in their gender–either their biological gender or the one they feel they are–their he-ness or she-ness is more clear. For those in between, I agree with you that “they” is a fine answer indeed.

  4. Melissa says

    I love the idea of some form of gender neutral pro noun to describe people. I have found with Chris there are many days he seems to specifically identify with being a ” she “, a rare few days he wants to identify with being a ” he “, and other days where he just doesn’t seem to care or think about it. Of course to others it seems the fact that a child has beautiful long hair automatically means ” she ” regardless of clothing. I gave up explaining that my child with the waist long ponytails and barrettes with jeans, a ugly tee shirt, and old sneakers is a ” he ” . They just cant get it. And of course on ” dress days ” the ” she ” is just a foregone conclusion.

    And here even in me describing it I used the pronoun “he” even though today ” he ” seems to be identifying with being ” she “.

    Ok that’s enough I am going to go lay down..I just got dizzy :)

  5. Ren says

    In the Chinese language, the third person is simply (in Chinese) “ta”. It doesn’t matter if they are male, female, somewhere in between or nowhere at all. They’re all “ta”. Has it helped much? Not really.

  6. Sensei says

    My 10-yr-old son has past-shoulder-length thick golden-brown hair that is the envy of adults everywhere and gets him ridiculed by his classmates and soccer team alike and mistaken for a girl at checkout counters and restaurants all the time, despite the fact that if those boys would just watch some international soccer games they’d note lots and lots of long hair. He can handle it and knows his parents are behind him whatever length of hair he chooses.

    I have found, anecdotally, that it’s also about region. When we go to CA, no one calls him a girl. Here in TN, EVERYONE does.

    And I’m all for converting “they” to a singular pronoun.

  7. Jeanie says

    Thank you so so much for this work that you are doing!! As for anecdotes. I was afraid of pink during my childhood and have slowly regained my self in halting steps that have cost my loved ones dearly. I believe that my mother would have defended me if I had known what I was feeling, but I got the signals early and followed them assiduously. And it never really occurred to her. As for pronouns. The word ‘sir’ is really starting to grate on my nerves. But, thanks to many, many brave and wonderful souls, the world is a different place for us, including Sam and his Mom, and getting better. There are very definite reasons for “boy” and “girl,” for “he” and “she.” We simply must continue to grow out of our stasis. Or, as Dori says, “Just keep swimming!”

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