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New book gives nuance to gender-neutral pronoun controversy

Retired linguistics professor offers historical context to ongoing debate

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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.

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Books

A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Books

Six books not to miss this fall

Memoirs, love stories, and ballroom await

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‘Unprotected: A Memoir’ by Billy Porter is out next month. (Book cover image courtesy Abrams Press)

Staying inside and curling up always seems like a great idea but in the fall, it almost feels urgent, doesn’t it? The great news is that there are a lot of good reads slated this fall for the LGBTQ reader.

Not your normal coming-of-age tale, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif, Jr. is the story of the author’s youth during the Arab Spring in 2010. But that’s only the launching point for the rest of the story: Sharif, the grandson of the great actor Omar Sharif, writes of his grandfather and the rest of his scattered family, and visiting them on various continents. He also writes of danger: a job he took that wasn’t the kind of work he thought it was, and the threats he received for speaking out about his homosexuality in homophobic Egypt. It’s a thrilling book, salted with memoir and you’ll love it. (October)

If you’re obsessed with the most recent incarnation of “Cinderella,” then you’ll likewise want to have “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter on your shelf. This is a story in the author’s own words, about growing up Black and gay, raised by parents who hope to change the latter, and seizing the strength to stay use your talents and stay the course. (October)

Who doesn’t want it all?  In the memoir “Greedy: Notes from a Bi-Sexual Who Wants Too Much” by Jen Winston, the author humorously examines what it means to be bisexual, why coming out as bi is fraught with landmines; dating, pronouns, sex, and more. Yes, you can have it (almost) all. (October)

Nightlife in Seoul is the backdrop for “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur. It’s the story of a young gay man and his best female friend, and the fun they have exploring the clubs and bars in Seoul. As with many friendships, they both change and he is left to look for the love of his life alone. Fun, sassy, and poignant, this was a big best-selling debut novel in Korea. (November)

If something on the light side appeals to you, look for “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling. It’s a novel about a young woman who knows how someone will die, just by touching them. Understandably, she’d love to lose that power, until a young vampire is sent to help her, and they fall in love. Can the two thwart the danger in their town that’s coming from another, more sinister, paranormal figure? This is a book for young adults, but grown-up readers who love vampire stories will love biting into it.  (December)

And finally, for the reader with creativity and movement in their bones, “And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community” by Ricky Tucker is what you’ll want this fall. Go into an “underground subculture” for Black and Latinx trans and queer people, where marginalized LGBTQ individuals find acceptance, family, and help. With its roots in Harlem more than a century ago, you might not think you know much about ballroom, but you’ll be surprised… (December). Season’s readings!

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Books

Sullivan’s new book a cornucopia of wit, provocation

‘Out on a Limb’ offers queer cultural history with a point of view

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(Cover image courtesy of Avid Reader Press)

‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021′
By Andrew Sullivan
c.2021, Avid Reader Press
$35/576 pages

Gay writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s first day in journalism began on a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in London at the Daily Telegraph.  The paper was housed on the “original Fleet Street,” Sullivan writes, “the place Evelyn Waugh had made eternal in his satirical novel Scoop.”

The editor that day, “a high Tory intellectual,” was completely blind, chain-smoked and “wore a patch over one eye, like a pirate,” Sullivan writes.

He was told to write an editorial on a topic he knew nothing about. Using, “all the skills my Oxford training in extemporaneous bullshitting had given me,” Sullivan writes, he wrote the piece.

Sullivan, who was instrumental in bolstering support for mainstream equality and for dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, hasn’t stopped writing since.

Sullivan’s writing is as colorful as the Fleet Street editor with the eye patch.

I’m a blind lesbian. Reading “Out on a Limb” (on Audible and Kindle), there were times when I rolled my blind eyes.

At other moments, I marveled at Sullivan’s bravery and compassion.

But, whether I disagreed with or applauded Sullivan, I couldn’t stop reading him.

I’m betting this will be the case with you.

An Irish Catholic gay man, Sullivan is one of our most provocative and fascinating writers.

The essays in “Out on a Limb” cover everything from the death of Princess Diana to AIDS to “Brokeback Mountain” to Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality.

Sullivan, a self-described small-c conservative who was one of the first to bring Barack Obama to the attention of the mainstream press, has angered many.

“I have been criticized for abandoning the right,” he writes, “and for criticizing the left.”

Sullivan’s voted for, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, and Ronald Reagan, Obama and Joe Biden in America.

The causes he has supported over 40 years include: marriage equality, the legalization of recreational drugs, welfare reform and, as he writes, “a very expansive concept of free speech.”

If you didn’t disagree with Sullivan on anything, you wouldn’t be human.

But, if you didn’t agree with him on some things, you wouldn’t have a heart or a brain.

The essays in “Out on a Limb,” are a time capsule of Sullivan’s career from his time with The New Republic (where he was the youngest editor in the magazine’s history) to his current perch with “The Weekly Dish.”

The collection shows how Sullivan’s views have evolved over the years. Sullivan, who with “The Dish,” was a blogging pioneer, is a refreshingly honest writer.

Some writers never want to cop to a mistake. This isn’t true with Sullivan, who says he was wrong about supporting the Iraq war.

It’s hard to remember how brave it was for Sullivan in 1989 to pen the essay “Here Comes the Groom: A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” for The New Republic.

Then, when sodomy laws were on the books in many states, it was courageous to be out as Sullivan was.

Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon – let alone on a magazine cover.

Sullivan writes movingly about seeing the AIDS quilt in 1992 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The collection includes some controversial pieces such as “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic.”

It’s true that for many AIDS is no longer a deadly plague.

But AIDS is still a death sentence for many who don’t have health insurance or access to care.

Sullivan’s essays on gender and campus life such as “The He Hormone” or “We All Live on Campus Now” made me want to throw the book across the room.

I wish Sullivan hadn’t published a symposium on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic. (The book says there is a connection between race and intelligence.)

But I was moved by the essay “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” in which Sullivan explains why he felt compelled to air writing of, as he writes, “sometimes painful topics.”

“Out on a Limb” is a cornucopia of wit, queer cultural history and provocation. Enjoy the feast.  

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