‘Just call me “ze”.’ The trouble with gender-neutral identities

by josieappleton

Genderimage A friend’s 14-year-old son goes to a south London comprehensive. Two of his classmates identify as neither male or female: one has two personalities, between which he alternates; the other is a ‘non-binary non-cis-gendered woman’.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with people going against their gender or primarily considering themselves a person or a human being. Nor is there anything wrong with androgyny. There is more freedom than ever to be or look androdynous: women can wear suits, men can wear sarongs and jewellery, with hair as short or long as you like.

But the gender-neutral identity is quite different. It is not an indifference to categories, just being yourself, ignoring demands to fit in with models or roles. Instead, there is an obsession with categories (gender neutral, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender questioning, agender, bigender, or many many others). The quest for the right category is the quest to establish a basis for the self. Your identity box and pronoun become as important as your name. One formerly gender neutral man introduces himself: ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are “he” and “him”, how about you?’

This means that the formation of the self plays out not in an interior world, nor in relation to close others, but in relation to reified categories that a person has invented or found on the internet. People go in search of an identity box that ‘fits’, in the way that in the past they might have sought a religion or vocation.

When Facebook announced 71 different gender categories for UK users, an adviser said that Facebook ‘will finally allow thousands of people to describe themselves as they are now’ and ‘allow future generation of kids to become truly comfortable in their own skins.’ Your feeling in your own skin; a website’s drop-down menu: there is no difference.

Traditional social categories, such as man or woman, or nationality or class, were based on some generally accepted physical distinction or division within social structure. The new categories, by contrast, exist apart from someone’s position in society or the social relations they enter into, as well as their physical reality. Your identity box can be independent of your appearance: you can identify as black though biologically white (as with Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be ‘trans black’); or identify as a woman though you have the body of a man. Your identity category can even be independent of your relationships, with one woman saying that she identifies as queer while in a long-term relationship with a man.

Gender-neutral websites always advise on never assuming someone’s gender, never assuming anything about someone on the basis of how they look or who they are with. The identity box is only incidentally related to social or biological reality. The box is both arbitrary – someone can choose anything they want – but also strangely naturalised as if they haven’t chosen it at all. Therefore, it is a private relationship with some sort of external determination.

Gender neutral identities involve a kind of grating at the social, an objection to being touched by anything social or universal in content. After all, a regular pronoun describes an individual as something general: to be called ‘he’ is to say that this person, Tom, is something universal, a man. The new identities express a dislike at being part of any general group or category, at being touched or judged by frameworks that are commonly accepted. One gender-neutral student said:

Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, “Who are you talking to?”‘

The gender-neutral pronoun is a violation of language and the meaning of words. To ask other people to use ‘they’ or ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is to make them twist their tougues into unnatural shapes, and use words in ways that violate their actual meaning. A person is called either a plural, or an object. It is worse with invented pronouns, such as xe/xem, zie/hir, e/em, fae/faer, and co/cos, because people do not understand what they mean. People are asked to use words that don’t mean anything.

(The problems are accentuated in gendered languages such as French or German, where things such as job positions are also gendered. A Humbolt university professor uses ‘x’ instead of gendered endings, replacing Professor (male) or Professorin (female) with ‘Professx’. Another man complains that his gender-neutral German pronouns are not being understood: ‘By using “xier/sier” most people think that I try to say “sie” with a bad German pronunciation, and if I use “nin” (although I quite like the sound of it), no one understands anything.’)

The pronoun-based identity is something that can only happen in public, through requesting a particular, unnatural treatment from the world. You find yourself by asking people to call you something different. One man says: ‘For two years I used “ze” and “hir” pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.’

A man (not a ‘cis-man’, just a man) can be relatively independent of his pronoun. His pronoun can be incidental to him; he does not think about it, which means that the individual is free to go his own way and do his own thing. In accepting a general category, the individual can go their own way as something distinct from this. Indeed, early philosophies of individual independence encouraged an indifference to the outside world: Stoicism, for example, recommended remaining steady on your inner axis through a cultivated immunity to anything anyone said about you or anything that happened.

The gender-neutral person has no point of independence, no point apart from the world on which to stand. They are their identity box; they are their pronoun. And the content of this identity box is nothing but the violation of the commonly accepted category. It is an identity founded on the negation of the categories of social life, declaring them ‘binary’ and null and void.

Therefore, the gender-neutral identity means the effacement of the independent individual, as well as the universal social category – both of which are collapsed into the drop-down menu and the pronoun ‘ze’.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.