Formal/academic isn’t exactly my preferred writing style, but I wrote this for a Contemporary Sociological Theory course and thought it was worth posting. ‘Cause queer theory is my favourite.

Queer Theory, Doing Gender, and Symbolic Interactionism:

Non-Gendered Pronouns and Fluid Gender Identities

The concept of gender is far more complex than the two binary, seemingly stable classifications of “male” and “female” suggest. There are many people, globally and historically, who can not be classified this way. Comprehension of gender is shaped by the language used in basic identification: the pronouns she, he, her, and him reflect the assumption that all people can be classified as either absolutely male or absolutely female. The categorizations of heterosexual and homosexual are based on the same binary gender assumption. The use of gender neutral pronouns, such as ze and hir, and singular they and them, among other examples, is a divergence from and rejection of the limiting binary conception of gender that dominates mainstream western understanding. A variance in pronouns accommodates the reality of a spectrum of fluid gender identities. The topic of gender neutral pronouns will be discussed using queer theory, the theory of doing gender, and symbolic interactionism.

As West and Zimmerman stated in 1987, “in Western societies, the accepted cultural perspective on gender views women and men as naturally and unequivocally defined categories of being… with distinctive psychological and behavioral propensities that can be predicted from their reproductive functions” (128). Twenty seven years later, this cultural perspective is only beginning to change, but there is the potential, especially through the use of gender neutral pronouns, for the perspective to evolve into one in which the popular cultural understanding is of gender as a spectrum with male and female at either end, and everyone existing in a different place on this spectrum at different times in their lives and in different social interactions and circumstances.

However, popular Western culture is still a long way from reaching this understanding. This can be demonstrated when we consider the pronoun most often used to describe an unborn child, whose sex, sex category, and gender are unknown. Many people refer to a fetus as it because of their ambiguous gender, rather than they or ze. This is due to a lack of popular understanding of the possibility of alternative gender identification and the appropriate terms associated with this.

Though gender neutral pronouns and fluid gender identities are becoming increasingly common in some subcultures, there is little analysis of the effect of gendered pronouns in academic discourse. Much of what is available on the subject is conservative and reinforces a limited and binary perception of gender. For example in their article “Split Gender Identity: Problem or Solution? Proposed Parameters for Addressing the Gender Dysphoric Patient” (2002) psychiatrists Osborn and Wise refer to transgendered patients’ preferred pronouns as “cross-gender pronouns” and discuss the times in which a psychiatrist should and should not respect their patients’ self identified pronouns. This discredits an individual’s autonomy and reinforces the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with a person who does not conform to the socially constructed binary categories of male and female. This article is also very limiting in that there is no mention of an alternative to identifying as either male or female.

Most discussion of gender neutral pronouns exists outside of the academic sphere; fluid gender identities are a common topic in feminist, queer, and progressive magazines and blogs. An article in This Magazine (Progressive Detective 2006, 11) encourages readers to ask for clarification when they are unsure of someone’s gender, and outlines that this should be done in a safe, private, and non-confrontational setting, elaborating that sometimes the response may be a gender neutral alternative to the binary pronouns such as ze or hir. Similar advice is given by Walsh in his article “Be Conscious of Other’s Sexual Identity” in Unwire Text (2014), and Walsh adds that “a conversation about gender pronouns is never as complicated as many people think.”

The popular social media website Facebook made changes in February of 2014 in order to become more accommodating to people with fluid gender identities, providing fifty four options in addition to male and female in the personal identification section (Nussbaum 2014). Some of these choices include “agender, transmasculine, and twospirit”. In addition, this gender identification does not have to be viewable to all users: a suggestion made by LGBQT activist groups working in partnership with Facebook to allow individuals to avoid outing themselves to people such as employers or family members who are not aware of their gender identification.

In his study of working-class men in New York in the nineteenth century, George Chauncey discusses how the construction of binary gender classification also applies to the categorization of individuals as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” (1994). This study focusses on men in the 1880s who Chauncey describes as “effeminate males, known as fairies or pansies, who were regarded as virtual women, or, more precisely, members of a ‘third’ sex that combined elements of the male and female” (48). Chauncey’s article brings to our attention that the “masculine” men who had intercourse with people of this “third gender” were not considered homosexual, because the binary conception of homosexuality and heterosexuality had not yet dominated mainstream thought. This concept is summarized articulately in Kathy Rudy’s article “Queer Theory and Feminism”:

“[Queer theorists] note that a homo/hetero system wrongly presumes that everyone has either an obvious penis or vagina, that everyone has an uncomplicated, positive relationship to that biological entity, and that owning that piece of equipment necessarily correlates to certain ontological characteristics. The categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality, they suggest, are themselves based on the assumption that everyone is either male or female and that gender identification is itself self-evident to all observers. These queer theorists note that the concept of gender is also socially constructed and very often exists on an unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both ‘men’ and ‘women'” (2000, 201-202).

Progressive contemporary academic discourse regarding gender fluidity and neutrality can generally be classified as queer theory. The concept of queer theory was introduced by Teresa de Lauretis in 1991 (Rudy, 197), and since then has grown as a movement alongside (but distinctly different from) the feminist movement, involving radical activism, social organizing, and academic discourse. Queer theory is applied in a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, gender studies, ethnic studies, and psychology, among others (Shlasko 2005, 123).

As Shlasko outlines, identification as a “queer” person can be either a subject proposition or a politic. As a subject proposition, to be queer means to be different from the cultural expectation of a straight, cisgender person. Queer identities include gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, intersex, and twospirit, among others. Some cisgender, straight people identify as queer because they have otherwise marginal sexual preferences, such as people in consensually open (or non-monogamous) relationships. Shlasko states that “as a politic, queer challenges the very idea of ‘normal’” (2005).

As a politic, queer theory differs from feminism in that the primary focus, instead of on the equality of women, is on the reconstruction normalcy, particularly in terms of sexuality and the categorization of male versus female. In Rudy’s article she outlines four assertions that distinguish queer theory: the interpretation of all social interactions, the historical relevance and social construction of these interactions, “aggressive and confrontational” political organizing, and sex-positivity. An important aspect of queer theory is gender fluidity, and thus a divergence from the use of gendered pronouns. Queer theorists acknowledge that there is no scientific way to concretely determine a person’s gender: “there is no hormonal, chromosomal, or anatomical test that can be administered which in every case guarantees that the subject being tested is either a man or a woman” (202). Gender is therefore not a scientific fact: gender is a social construction. Gender is based on the social expectations of what it means to be manly or womanly; a construction that tells us to speak in a certain manner, participate in a certain kind of work, form a certain kind of relationships, and make many other everyday decisions based on whether we have a penis or a vagina. In the cases where someone’s anatomy is not as simple as having only female parts or only male parts, doctors often recommend medical surgery in order to “fix” the genitals at birth, making the person easier to categorize.

Shlasko expands on the concept of queer theory in their discussion of queer pedagogy, “as a means to address what queer theory can tell us about teaching and learning” (2005). Queer pedagogy is a combination of progressive pedagogy and queer theory, and the goal of queer theory is to “constantly multiply the possibilities of knowledge. We can not simply search for the answer, because the answer is never quite reachable” (2005). A queer pedagogy is accepting and embracing of queer students as as well as queer concepts, including the use of non-gendered pronouns.

The second theory that will be used to understand the significance of gendered pronouns is West and Zimmerman’s concept of doing gender. This theory is based on the understanding, as described above, that gender is a socially constructed concept rather than one that is biologically present inside each of us. Therefore, masculinity and femininity, or lack thereof, can be understood as an action that individuals do, rather than a trait that individuals are. From the time of birth the gender construction is taught, reinforced, and reproduced through actions and language. “Pretty little girls” are dressed in frilly pink dresses, “handsome strong boys” in pants and blue shirts. Girls are often given dolls and accessories as play things, while boys are more likely to be given cars, trains, or even toy guns to play with. This can all be understood as doing gender. As Rudy states, “gender isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something that we are born into” (203).

West and Zimmerman refer to gender as a “routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction” (1987, 125). Therefore, as everyday interactions vary significantly, it is not a big leap to understand that a person’s gender may not be permanently, concretely, or absolutely male or female, but a fluid and complex identity that could fall somewhere in between or outside of the categories of male or female. West and Zimmerman place emphasis on the importance of understanding the difference between sex, sex category, and gender. Sex should be understood as the biological categorization of male or female before or at birth, based either on genital organs or chromosomal structure, which West and Zimmerman acknowledge sometimes contradict each other. Sex category is the everyday assumption that other people make about an other individual’s sex, based on various notable features that are socially constructed signifiers of masculinity or femininity, such as hair style, voice, clothing, facial hair, etcetera. Gender, however, is a more complex and fluid concept that must be understood as a “routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment” (126). Gender is something that we “do” consistently throughout our lives, and consists of a range of “socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits and expressions of masculine and feminine ‘natures’”(126).

The outcome of a society of people who are actively expressing their socially constructed gender identity in turn provides a justification for the existing inequalities between sexes. This creates a circle whereby “women” engage in “feminine” activities because it is socially expected for them to do so, while “men” engage in “masculine” activities in order to demonstrate their “manliness”. This leads to the justification of such activities being classified as “masculine” or “feminine”.

Catherine Connel applies West and Zimmerman’s theory of doing gender by interviewing nineteen transpeople about their experiences of doing, undoing, and redoing gender in the workplace (2010). Connel concludes that doing transgender is a significantly different concept than doing gender. If non-gendered pronouns were commonly used in popular culture, specifically in the workplace, the experiences of these transpeople would be vastly different, and more like the experiences of cisgender people, as the use of non-gendered pronouns represents more acceptance and understanding of fluid gender identities than characterizes current mainstream Western society.

The theory of doing gender leads directly to the relevance of symbolic interventionism, as the “doing” of gender is structured around our “shared meaning” of what implications a male or female role carry in guiding our everyday actions.

Symbolic interactionism is a theory based on the presumption that all social actions are shaped by the actors’ shared meaning of situations and roles. An important aspect of this shared meaning is the categorization of people into various groups. This categorization is sometimes very specific, such as the role of a taxi driver or a kindergarden teacher, but sometimes very general, such as the roles of men or women. Symbolic interactionism was coined as a sociological term by in Herbert Blumer in 1969, though Blumer credits George Herbet Mead, among others, for laying the theoretical foundation (Appelrouth and Edles 2011, 183).

These gender roles can be understood more thoroughly with regards to West and Zimmerman’s theory of doing gender. West and Zimmerman specify that gender roles are unique because they are lacking in specific circumstances or contextual situations. For example, the role of a taxi driver is only applicable inside of a taxi cab: if you see a person who is a taxi driver in a grocery store you do not expect them to fulfill their role as a taxi driver. Master identities, such as sex category, are different from roles in that they “cut across situations” (West and Zimmerman, 1987, 128). The gender role therefore is more complex than other roles, because although it is a situated identity, “assumed and relinquished as the situation demands,” it is often perceived as a master identity that is permanent and applicable regardless of situational context. This relates to Nakamura’s explanation of how identity, which Nakamura calls a Western concept, is understood differently in Japan. In Japan a the concept of identity is generally understood in a far more fluid sense; instead of identity as an internal part of an individual, identity is understood in terms of a person’s relation to the people around them in each particular time and place (2008).

Through individual interactions the shared meanings of a society are reinforced and challenged. As Appelrouth and Edles state, “even established patterns of group life are constantly ‘formed anew’” through the interactions that reinforce them. Therefore, our everyday use of gendered pronouns reinforces the existing binary assumption of gender, where as use of gender neutral pronouns challenges this assumption.

Stryker’s interpretation of social interactionism differs from Blumer’s in that Stryker recognizes a causal relationship between self and society that goes in two directions: Stryker theorizes that while the self produces society, society also produces the self (178). As discussed above with regards to doing gender; while the reason that gendered pronouns are used is because society reinforces the assumption that gender is a simple binary categorization, the used of gendered pronouns reinforces this assumptions. This creates a circle where the action (use of gendered pronouns) reinforces the assumption (gender is binary), while the assumption (gender is binary) also encourages people to do the action (use of gendered pronouns).

The power lays in the hands of each individual to reconstruct the social order that is categorized by a limited binary assumption of gender through interpreting and defining situations in which the construction of gender is portrayed to be something different from what queer theorists understand it to be. The use of gender neutral pronouns could eventually lead to a widespread shared meaning of gender that is radically different from the shared meaning discussed in this paper; a shared meaning that does not unnecessarily define each person’s roles based upon their assumed genital organs.

With all social change comes changes in language. For example during the enlightenment, philosophers began using terms such as equality, stratifications, class conflict, and egalitarianism, and these revolutionary terms eventually became a part of popular discourse, as one aspect of radical social change. In contemporary times, progressive “new” words to express various aspects of gender fluidity include but are not limited to transgender, cisgender, gender spectrum, gender fluidity, heteronormative, preferred pronoun, ze, hir, and queer. While these words may not yet have penetrated popular culture, they are becoming increasingly common in what could, to queer theorists, be considered high culture.

As discussed in Reza Barmaki’s lecture, high culture consists of a shift away from popular culture. Barmaki describes this shift as oppositional to mass culture, negating the identification and affirmation associated to conforming to such culture. High culture challenges mass culture, by expressing ideas that oppose existing reality. While Professor Barmaki’s example of high culture was a beautiful piece of classical music, the use of gender neutral pronouns can also be considered high culture because this change in language is oppositional, negating, and challenging of popular culture. The use of non-gendered pronouns is elevating because it frees people from the restrictions of acting always in a way that reflects their categorization of male or female.

While it is elevating to shift our focus on categorizing people as either male or female, it is not elevating to disregard the value of traits that are considered “feminine,” as is often done in the patriarchal perspective that dominates mainstream western society. “Feminine” activities include preparing meals for others, caring for children, and insuring the home is safe and comfortable must be valued as they are important aspects of social human life. As Rudy states, “we need to focus both on women and beyond them in order to prevent a new queer world from becoming another cover for the discrimination and disregard of women” (214).

A physical, structural change that illustrates the introduction of gender neutrality to mainstream culture is the presence of gender neutral bathrooms. Though gender neutral bathrooms are certainly less common than gender specific bathrooms, some locations of non-gendered bathrooms in Guelph, Ontario include a few on the the university campus, and some in cafes, restaurants, and bars downtown including Taboo, With the Grain, and Atmosphere.

Through the use of non-gendered pronouns individual people have the ability to be part of a revolutionary social movement that frees us from the restrictions of a binary gender assumption in popular culture. Using gender neutral pronouns such as ze, hir, they, and them is part of a queer movement that encourages every individual to embrace their dynamic, unique, and fluid position on the vast spectrum of femininity and masculinity.

Reference List

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Barmaki, Reza. 2014. “Social Control, Conflict, and Critical Theories.” Lecture, University of

Guelph, Guelph, ON, Oct 27.

Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay

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