Connect with us

Books

New book gives nuance to gender-neutral pronoun controversy

Retired linguistics professor offers historical context to ongoing debate

Published

on

What's Your Pronoun? review, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image courtesy of Liveright Publishing)

‘What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He&She’

By Dennis Baron

Liveright Publishing

$25.95

283 pages

“Ask the question: What is your pronoun?,” Lady Gaga told an audience last year at a concert on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, “For a lot of people, it’s really hard, and their pronouns aren’t respected or they’re not asked.”

This is one of the many stories that Dennis Baron tells about the passion and politics surrounding pronouns in the new book “What’s Your Pronoun?”

You might think a book on a part of speech is as fascinating as reading the tax code: that it has as much to do with your life as climbing Mount Everest. But you’d be wrong.

Today, pronouns are up close and personal for everyone. We sign our emails with our pronouns. Trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming students and prisoners fight to be addressed by their preferred pronouns. The Meriam-Webster dictionary declared “they” to be the word of the year in 2019.

“Pronouns are suddenly sexy,” Baron writes, ”They’re in the air, on the news, all over social media. People are asking each other, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ — it’s the new ‘Hello, my name is ___.’”

Asking about pronouns is a question about a part of speech, Baron writes. But, he adds, the question is also “an invitation to declare, to honor, or to reject, not just a pronoun, but a gender identity.”

It’s cool now to talk about pronouns, but the discussion is often heated. Why is this such a contentious topic? Because, “English has masculine and feminine and neuter pronouns,” Baron writes, “but it is missing a pronoun for someone whose gender is unknown, unclear, nonbinary, or ‘other.’”

Historically, “he” has been used to refer to everyone (male, female, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, etc.). Many grammarians thought using the “generic” he was fine. But, using the “generic” he left many feeling excluded. “Too often he means ‘only men,’” Baron writes.

Feminists have decried this exclusionary use of he. People who are nonbinary or gender nonconforming feel excluded when the pronoun he is used to describe them. Many find using “he or she” to be both too clunky and binary.

“The grammar sticklers are always sure that English speakers don’t need any new pronouns,” Baron writes, “they’ve gotten along just fine with generic he, thank you very much.”

Many people are working to fill the void of the “missing,” inclusive, gender-neutral pronoun by creating new pronouns such as zie or tey. Fortunately, the grammar “sticklers are becoming hard to find,” Baron writes.

Finding a new gender-neutral, inclusive pronoun that people will use isn’t easy. Language is always evolving. Yet new words, especially when they’re personal like pronouns, often sound or look strange to us. Yet a growing number of people realize that we’ve had the pronoun we’ve been searching for all along, Baron says. “It’s singular they,” he writes.

Saying “Alex eats their burger with mustard” may sound strange to some of us. Yet we’ve been saying sentences like “everyone forgets their passwords” for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the singular they back to 1375 in the medieval romance “William and the Werewolf,” Baron writes.

In “What’s Your Pronoun?,” Baron connects the current buzz around pronouns to our focus on gender inclusivity, nonbinary gender and gender non-conformity. Discussing pronouns could be an exercise in deadly earnest pedantry. Thankfully, Baron, professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois (who does not give his own sexual orientation, gender identity or preferred pronoun in the book), has a sense not only of the seriousness of language, but of fun.

No matter how impassioned you are about using inclusive pronouns, Baron is bound, at times, to make you smile. Some students resist declaring their pronouns. One “did by declaring that his pronoun was his majesty,” he writes.

Arguments over gender and pronouns aren’t new: they began centuries before Stonewall. “What’s Your Pronoun?” is a bit repetitive, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a riveting history of gender, language and pronouns. If you want to understand why pronouns matter, it’s the book for you.

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Books

‘On Bette Midler’ is a divine new read

Part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

‘On Bette Midler: An Opinionated Guide’
By Kevin Winkler
c.2024, Oxford University Press 
$29.99 232 pages 

Superb.

That word’s appropriate in this situation. Fantastic, that’s another. Transcendent or celestial, if you’re of that mind, or perhaps anointed. There are many adjectives you can use for a performer who transports you, one who sings to your soul. Sensational, breathtaking, outstanding, or – as in the new book “On Bette Midler” by Kevin Winkler – another, better word may be more suitable.

Born in Hawaii a few months after the end of World War II, Bette Midler was named after film star Bette Davis. It was a perhaps auspicious start: despite a minor disparity (Midler’s mother thought the movie star’s first name was pronounced “Bet”), young Midler seemed at a young age to want to follow in her almost-namesake’s footsteps. By age 11, she’d won accolades and prizes for her performances and she “yearned to be a serious actor.” As soon as she could, she headed for New York to seize her career.

Alas, her “unconventional” looks didn’t help win the roles she wanted but she was undeterred. Unafraid of small venues and smaller gigs, she “just blossomed” in New York City. Eventually, she landed at the Improv on 44th Street; the owner there helped her negotiate some minor work. Another man became her manager and secured a job for her at the Continental, a New York bath house strictly for gay men. She was hired for eight summer nights, Friday and Saturdays only, for $50 a night.

Almost immediately, her authenticity, her raunchy language, and her ability to relate to her audience made her beloved in the gay community. Midler’s tenure at the Continental expanded and, though legend points to a longer time, she worked at the bath house for just over two years before moving on and up, to television, recording studios, movies, and into fans’ hearts. Still, asks Winkler, “Did it really matter what stage she was on? She touched audiences wherever she performed.”

In his earliest words – and, in fact, in his subtitle – author Kevin Winkler reminds readers that “On Bette Midler” is a book that’s “highly opinionated, filled with personal contemplations…” He is, in other words, a super-fan, but that status doesn’t mar this book: Winkler restrains his love of his subject, and he doesn’t gush. Whew.

That will be a relief to readers who wish to relish in their own fervor, although you’ll be glad for Winkler’s comprehensive timeline and his wide look at Midler’s career. Those things come after a long and fascinating biography that starts in 1970, takes us back to 1945, and then pulls us forward through movies, television appearances, stage performances, and songs you might remember – with appearances from Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Cher. It’s a fun trip, part confidential, part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate.

Despite that this is a “personal” book, it’s great for readers who weren’t around during Midler’s earliest career. If you were and you’re a fan, reading it is like communing with someone who appreciates Midler like you do. Find “On Bette Midler.” You’ll find it divine.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

Published

on

(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular