Columns / Discourse / February 4, 2015

Breaking through the gender binary

We exist in a gendered society. From the division of labor to gendered bathrooms, most of  today’s world operates with the assumption of a gender binary. From the early 1900s, what we refer  to as ‘first wave feminism’ to the second wave of the 1960s, feminists have raised the consciousness of the man to the complex and hierarchical gender asymmetry that has treated women as second-class citizens for so long. Our conscious growth through the last few decades can only be described as exponential. And with that we have evolved past a binary understanding of gender into an understanding of the fluid gender spectrum (and we are at the point of entering a post-gender framework).

The gendered roles are no longer understood to exist in the binary of man and woman.  In fact, man and woman are only two points on a rather complex map of the dynamic interactions between what is socially constructed of sex and gender (enforced) and what is organically constructed of them (embodied).

The academia, being one of the institutions on the frontlines of this investigation into the notions of gender, should always set the tone for the inclusivity of people who have actively questioned the gender binary and decided to step out of that oppressive construct. These are the people that are directly affected by the analysis, the theories and the research that academia conducts. It’s for this reason that I am often disappointed by the way in which faculty at Knox conducts itself. The  classroom is still gendered in that binary construct.

During my time here, no faculty member (except for one) insisted on asking students for their preferred personal pronouns during introductions. This concerns me for several reasons. Firstly, I identify as a gender non-conforming person who prefers to go by the pronouns ‘they/them’. Secondly, it makes me extremely uncomfortable when my appearance affords me male privilege from the get-go. That is, when the faculty assumes that I use the pronouns  ‘he/him’ and refer to me with them.

The pervasive nature of male privilege is such that it identifies  itself and immediately takes up a large amount of space in conversations, classrooms, etc. I accept the fact I have been afforded this exclusively male privilege of being taken more seriously, of being allocated more time and space in conversations, of repeatedly being told that mine is a voice of reason and power even before I spoke up.

It is discomforting on a deeply personal level to be afforded the male privilege and the symbolic violence that comes with it, when I do not identify as a man. I have been actively engaged in working against these micro-level instances, and the assuming  (and thereby oppressive) behaviour of many of the faculty at Knox makes it extremely difficult for  me.

My suggestion to the faculty and to the administration in general is to make Knox a gender-friendly  environment. Ask students to actually mention their personal pronouns in classes and in discussions.  Picking a pronoun outside of the gender binary is a very political claim. It means a rewriting of official documents, of the assumed divisions of labour and societal segregations. It means an acknowledgement of the fact that the gender binary is a restrictive and uncomfortable space for  many and that we have a right to a comfortable space whether we are gender-fluid, gender non-conforming or post-gendered.

As much as this is a message to the faculty, it is also a message to  allies and students in general. Reevaluating one’s gender is not an easy feat by any means, especially in light of the numerous ways in which society bombards its cultural politics onto our  bodies. We must be careful in our good intentions to make sure that space is not appropriated back into the binary.

For example: an uncritical claim such as saying ‘all pronouns work for me’. What such a claim does is create a space in which the speaker will be taken at face value (because of societal norms) and the political claims of many of those outside of the binary will tend to become devalued. Maneuvering gender is not easy, but I believe that the Knox community can do a better job.


Ahmad Ibrahim

Tags:  binary feminism gender inclusion Knox personal pronouns privilege

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Feb 06, 2015

The words “they” and “them” are plural. I’m not implying the author aren’t aware of this, nor am I saying that they shouldn’t present themselves as multiple people. I’m just pointing this out because the terms are frequently misused (but not implying that’s what the author are doing).

    Feb 08, 2015

    Maybe this is not your intention, but it is really obnoxious of you to refer to Ibrahim as if they were multiple people. I’m pretty sure you don’t correct people who say “someone left their book in my room” (and if you do, you really are obnoxious :P) My point is, your concern isn’t really about grammar, it’s about what feels right/wrong to you. I’m in favoring of changing what feels right, and of changing grammar as well, in order to honor people’s identity and integrity. That’s what this is about. On the subject, I’d really recommend people read Davey Shlasko’s article “Using ‘They’ As A Singular Pronoun.”

      Feb 09, 2015

      One would probably say “they are” instead of “they is.” So to be consistent, I said “the author are” instead of “the author is.” If that’s wrong, then maybe advocates of preferred pronouns could also state their preferred conjugations.

      But here’s the thing, creating/finding a gender neutral pronoun and getting the general population to accept it is not a new problem. It’s been an issue definitely for decades, and arguably centuries.
      Wikipedia has an article “Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns,” which outlines some of the efforts and some of the proposals. (My favorite is Ze & mer)

      This issue is not going to be solved by fiat (e.g. Shlasko’s opinion piece), and villifying people who disagree will lead nowhere.

      On a related note, It’s also obnoxious to write comments in second person. I’ve found that constructive discussions on the internet (reddit, forums, etc.) tend to have comments that are in 1st & 3rd person. Whereas comments written in 2nd person tend to contribute little to the discussion.

        Feb 10, 2015

        I’m realizing that max is right, comments that go “you are, you think” etc. can get antagonistic too easily. They also lend power to people on chat boards who don’t need any more of it.

        But what I’m noticing here is that the language problem of singular they/them is solved prettily easily by way of not being a grammar nazi. By attaching so much weight to this simple problem, max is obfuscating this discussion rather than contributing to it – even while they’re appearing to be consistent/reasonable. This is the singular skill of the intellectual dudebro.

        Anyway, my point is that singular “they/them” is a pretty good construction since we already use it all the time for people of unknown gender.

          Feb 10, 2015

          Well it’s not at all my intent to detract from the author’s premise. Perhaps I could have started my original comment like this:

          “I agree with all the points above except for using they in the singular.”

          I believe that position was implied, because if I disagreed with the author’s cause, I would have said so in my comment.

          Either way, that is where I stand: Breaking down gender barriers and checking privileges is a great cause.

          But the jury is still out on the terminology and grammar. Leland’s only rationale for their position is that *everyone is doing it.* That makes them look like an anti-intellectual at best, a groupthinker at worst.

          I would also invite them to write an editorial on the label “intellectual dudebro” and the importance of labels in general.

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