Jay Bernard won the Ted Hughes Award last week. I managed to hear a snippet of the winning poem on Today and was pleasantly surprised by its poetic quality. My husband was harrumphing a bit because the poet began by saying, ‘Soo… basically,’ and in his opinion went downhill from there, by talking about the poem being an ‘intersectional exploration’ seen ‘through a queer lens’.
‘You used to be she and her,’ Sarah Montague said. ‘Now you’re they and them.’ On Twitter, Jay Bernard told off The Bookseller, for having ‘misgendered me. The press release says “they”, as does my profile. Why do you use “he”?’ The Bookseller changed its copy.
I’ve mentioned before the use of they and them when we don’t want to specify the sex of the person we’re talking about: ‘I met an old friend and they asked me for a drink.’ It sits with the British English practice of calling institutions they: ‘I phoned the bank and they were hopeless.’
But to be expected to use a plural pronoun for someone, at the peril of obloquy, is a different kettle of fish. A popular website, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Centre of the University of Wisconsin, explains the need. ‘When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel, disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (often all of the above). It is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but also oppressive,’ it says. ‘Some people prefer not to use pronouns at all, using their name as a pronoun instead.’
How can you tell? Advice for introducing someone publicly (if they haven’t been no-platformed) is to say: ‘Tell us your name, where you come from, and your pronouns.’ It’s not just they. Alternatives to they, them, their include fae, fer, fer; per, per, pers; ve, ver, vis; xe, xem, xyr; ze, hir, hir. Talk about oppressive.
Of course, his and her are often not pronouns at all but possessive adjectives (her identity; his fault). In many languages, such as French, they agree with the grammatical gender of the noun they qualify. Jay Bernard would have to say son poème and sa identité, unless the French could be persuaded to rewrite their language specially.