Sweden has recently introduced a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” allowing Swedes an option beyond male and female-marked pronouns. The country is famously progressive when it comes to gender politics, not just in terms of equality for women, but in terms of thinking outside the confines of the gender binary, and this is just one more example of Sweden’s attempt to confront the gender divide.
I’m excited about the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun with etymological roots into Swedish, because I’m continually frustrated by the lack of a widely accepted and non-clumsy gender-neutral pronoun in English. Singular “they” is catching on in many areas, and, yes, actually has solid linguistic origins, but it doesn’t quite sit right with everyone. Any attempts to introduce pronouns seem to be flopping; for those of us outside the binary, sometimes avoiding pronouns altogether is the best defense.
What do you use when you don't know the gender of the subject, or when you want to leave it open? How about when your subject isn't a man or a woman?
Thus, I’m looking to Sweden as a model, watching closely to see the reaction to “hen” and how well it’s introduced into the language.
New words enter languages all the time; think of the plethora of tech terms that exploded in the last decade and are now used totally casually. The deliberate introduction of a new pronoun, however, is much more fraught, and the reactions are truly fascinating as well as depressing.
Many cis people -- those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth -- feel actively threatened by the idea of a nonbinary pronoun and the idea that some people aren’t men or women.
Meanwhile, others are screaming about “the feminist agenda,” arguing that the use of a gender-neutral pronoun will erode the very fabric of society, and obviously those hairy-legged hoydens are bent on the utter destruction of gender. They act as though this is a mandate to only use gender-neutral pronouns, even though people who are comfortable with he and she are of course encouraged to use the pronouns they identify with.
This article in Slate has a collection of the usual scare-mongering; evidently advocating for a gender-neutral pronoun is a “political agenda” that will damage children and flout the conventional wisdom that humans are a gendered species, with only two options available. In fact, this wisdom is more like folklore – “male” and “female” are not the only options, and substantial evidence indicates that early human cultures were both aware of this and accepting, in some cases.
Biologically speaking, people like to argue, you’ve got your XX and your XY, and that’s it. Except that’s not actually the case. Chromosomally speaking, there are actually a lot of different arrangements; and many people are not aware they are intersex until later in life, or it’s a discovery made after death. Those of you who assume you are XXs may not actually be, for example, unless you’ve had genetic testing to confirm it. On a base biological level, gender is complicated.
On an anthropological and social level, gender is even more complicated. Transgender people clearly illustrate that gender is not as simple as genetics. Furthermore, nonbinary people exist (hi!), and we aren’t just a passing phase or an affectation. Creating inclusive language for us makes it easier for us to define and express our identities -- and far from confusing the children, it creates a world where children can better articulate themselves. Children tend to be pretty genderfluid by nature, but as they grow older, they grow into their gender -- and are forced into more rigid gender roles.
For trans children, binary and nonbinary alike, these roles become constrictive and suffocating. In a world where people can freely admit that gender is complicated, those children have a fighting chance at identifying their gender dysphoria and getting treatment for it. For them, “hen” is the voice of liberation, not confusion.
Level heads at The Economist1 pointed out that many of the headlines covering “hen” were deeply scare-mongering: Sweden isn’t trying to “abolish” gender, but rather to add another option, which is precisely the point of gender-neutral pronouns. To expand the playing field and add a few more players to it.
Gender is complicated stuff, and a lot of discussions about gender seem to make cis people extremely uncomfortable. Any attempt to expand the definitions surrounding gender, to talk about normativity and probe into social attitudes about gender, is met with resistance. Nonbinary people are threatening, and so are gender-neutral pronouns, because this is a world that is supposed to fit neatly into categories and boxes.
The frightened and agitated response to “hen” says more about the reactors than the introducers; if gender roles are so “innate” and humans only come in two genders, then surely this is a harmless experiment that will fizzle out, right? So what’s the big deal, cis people? If this popular conception is wrong, though, the reality is perceived as a threat to gender for those who have relied on a “stable” binary system throughout their lives.
This isn’t about saying that men and women don’t exist: it’s about saying that the world is a whole lot bigger than dudes and ladies.
1. Shut up, you totally read it, too. Return