There has been a lot of discussion in the past year over people using gender-neutral pronouns, specifically the use of “they/them” instead of “he” and “she.”
This may be because the use of they/them is becoming more common and widespread, or because people like to find new, relatively mundane things to make controversial. Reactionaries everywhere have griped that “they” and “them” are plural pronouns, and it’s breaking traditional rules of grammar to use them to refer to a singular person.
Language has never been an objective or static truth, but rather is constantly being created and recreated to meet the needs of people. This pedantic interest in words is masking something much more sinister: a basic discomfort with people who are different, and a fear of the undermining of the traditional gender roles that have long structured certain people’s sense of the world and of themselves.
So, surprising to no one, there has been considerable right-wing media outrage over Berkeleyside’s decision to use the preferred gender pronouns of Pablo Gomez Jr., 22, the main suspect in the killing of Emilie Inman, 27, on Jan. 6 in a home in the 2400 block of Ashby Avenue and the stabbing of another woman. Berkeleyside, based on police reports, first referred to Gomez as “he.” But after learning that Gomez prefers “they/them” pronouns, Berkeleyside corrected its initial identification and started to refer to Gomez as “they.” Berkeleyside then continued on with the normal reporting of the homicide, which was totally unrelated to Gomez’s gender identity.
This correction was picked up by the likes of Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, and has prompted the absurd but unfortunately expected question: “Should murderers get to choose their gender pronouns?” Many people responding to Coulter’s tweets said Gomez should not. The idea behind this line of questioning is that the right to decide your own gender is a privilege that one should earn. That argument would hold more weight if it had ever been applied to murderers with traditional gender pronouns. (Like: Why shouldn’t we call this man “she” because he murdered someone?)
So what’s really being expressed by this sentiment is that gender queer or gender non-conforming individuals deserve less respect than cis (gender-conforming) people. Not to mention the fact that Gomez being an alleged killer is just a convenience to Ann Coulter’s bigoted agenda, which probably wouldn’t allow Mother Teresa the right to gender-neutral pronouns.
The they/them backlash is just the latest manifestation of the general discomfort with the knowledge that gender is not a natural truth; or in other words, that our genital and chromosomal makeups don’t necessarily decide our personalities, presentations, behaviors, sexual preferences or social roles. And, for those of us whose gender presentations and preferences don’t cohere to our assigned genders, “they/them” offers an alternative that feels good. For other people, “they/them” may feel more comfortable because it offers an opportunity to define your gender on your own terms, outside of traditional social norms. And other people may not like it, for whatever reason, and that’s also their prerogative.
While some may use this tragedy as an opportunity to mobilize queerphobia, I would insist that one can mourn the loss of a life without taking away Gomez’s right to their gender. Part of understanding and treating gender-queer people as people means accepting that some of us may not be good people, but all people should have the right to gender self-determination.