The poet Hank Rodgers, a regular reader of this blog, questioned my use of the gender-neutral pronouns “s/he” and “hir” for Stacey Waite in my recent review of Waite’s chapbook the lake has no saint. I thought our conversation might be instructive to readers who care about transgender issues and etiquette, so Hank has kindly allowed me to reprint an excerpt from our emails here.
…”Ms” was a useful creation, to eliminate an outdated and unnecessary distinction, and, it can be applied universally. But “Hir”? This seems new, and certainly is to me, but it is both unusual and confusing — and is it really necessary? It seems, as my comment says, a “tortured construction”; and an unnecessarily excessive, and in-distinctive “imposition” on the language. Of course there may be times when not distinguishing is exactly appropriate to the circumstances, but “Hir” seems a very “tortured” approach to any such need.
As to any real necessity you might argue for “tortured construction”, Tony Judt is quoted, in a review of his new, posthumous memoir (The Memory Chalet) in the New York Review of February 10, “…I was – and remain – suspicious of identity politics in all forms…”. I’m with Tony, particularly when applied to our language.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. Our discussions always make me think. “Hir” (a hybrid of “his” and “her”) is actually a pretty common gender-neutral pronoun used by transgender and genderqueer people who don’t identify as either male or female. I can’t take credit for it.
I’m not a fan of identity politics either. On the other hand, the English language is inescapably gender-binary, unlike many European languages that already contain a neuter pronoun.
When I call myself “she” and “her”, no one considers it identity politics, it’s just “normal” because our language recognizes my gender. Folks who identify as third-gender are just trying to expand the vocabulary to give them equal access.
Now, I agree that using “s/he”, “zhe”, “hir”, etc. as the default pronoun for everyone, to be politically correct, is excessive and awkward. They sometimes tried to make us do this in college. The modern trend is to alternate male and female examples when writing a nonfiction book (e.g. “Read to your child before HE goes to bed”, then “What to do if SHE has trouble with bedwetting”, etc.).