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Nonbinary: Beyond the Pronouns

Amy Leibowitz gender identity nonbinary

Several recent “discussions” (I use that term loosely) have popped up regarding use of singular they in a book. Yes, again. Honestly, it’s a bit tiring because these conversations rarely involve those of us who use either singular they or neopronouns. More than once, I’ve seen nonbinary folks with some internalized antagonism.

The biggest conversations seem to involve telling nonbinary people that our pronouns are confusing, strange, contrived, tricky, or unnatural. Funnily enough, I rarely see a discussion commenting on how writing about a same-gender couple is “confusing.” When it does happen, it’s usually about poor writing, not the pronouns. But every single time a nonbinary character is involved, someone has to leave a string of comments on how awkward or uncomfortable it is to read about our pronouns.

It’s not an argument we can win, either. We get dumped on if we use singular they, with people asking why we can’t “invent” a third set of pronouns. Yet when we do use neopronouns such as ze, xe, or ei, we get complaints about it being unfamiliar. It’s long past time to stop asking about pronouns and move on to other things.

I’ve written on the subject of pronouns on my personal blog, and I believe I’ve expressed all I want to say on the topic here (on cis folks giving us “permission” to use singular they) and here (on singular they and being grammatically correct). At this point, we really should be well beyond quibbling over the use of singular they as a personal pronoun. The discussion has been going on for years, and frankly, I’m weary.

Instead, we need to be pushing the conversation forward. There are dozens of excellent discussions to be had about nonbinary characters. This is at least in part due to: 1) the myriad nonbinary identities that exist and 2) the fact that we are not a monolith.

For example, some of us feel we should also go beyond representing nonbinary identity with aliens, robots, or creatures. Others enjoy the freedom in exploring gender with nonhuman characters. People have pointed out the problematic trope of magical or science-based gender shifting, where the entire body changes to “match” the gender. Meanwhile, some readers still enjoy this and feel there are new ways to explore it. There are readers who prefer if no reference is made that would indicate a character’s birth-assigned gender, and there are readers who appreciate when a writer understands that birth-assigned gender affects how nonbinary people are perceived.

The thing is, this was never about pronouns. Most people genuinely have difficulty grasping what nonbinary genders are, let alone writing them effectively. A common mistake is the belief that all nonbinary people are entirely devoid of gender, are perceived as androgynous, or “cross-dress” to express ourselves. The truth is, while sometimes those things are true, they aren’t always and not all nonbinary people even want them to be.

If we really want to move beyond tired questions about pronouns, then we have to be willing to set them aside. We have to accept that singular they and neopronouns exist and stop fighting them. Then we can begin the hard work of grappling with bigger issues.

For anyone interested, here is a sample of my writing that includes use of singular they with multiple characters.

Happy reading and writing!

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