We like to think that all the words have been invented, that everything has been named and that the language is encasquetados in what a dictionary or some academy dictates. But reality shows us. Last week, Demi Lovato posted a video identifying herself as a non-binary gender person, as Sam Smith and Elliot Page have already done. And what is it to be a non-binary gender person?
For many people, both gender identity and expression are a matter of masculine and feminine only. But there are many nuances in between and, for other people, gender is fluid, it is between masculine or feminine, or it’s completely different to the masculine and the feminine. It is the latter who identify as gender non-binary or genderqueer.
But why all the fuss with the pronouns and the advertisements around them? In his book What is your pronoun?, Denis Baron signals the beginning of this practice in September 2017 when a teacher in Florida sent a school message to say she used the pronoun they (accompanied by the pronoun them: les). In that year, many American schools began to ask people to specify the pronoun with which they want to be named. This measure has been extended to email signatures, social media bios, business cards and conference presentations.
In English – the language of the people mentioned – a use has been made of 600 years ago: they (the third person of the plural) used in the singular not to make a gender mark, that is, not to speak of feminine or masculine as is done with he (he) or she (her). The debate about the lack of a neutral form in that language has more than two hundred years and only in 2017 was it taken up again among various circles. Its adoption has been such that in October 2019 the American Psychological Association (APA, for its acronym in English) admitted it and encourages its use: “APA promotes they unique because it is inclusive of all people and prevents the writer from making gender assumptions ”.
Our language, like English, is divided into two grammatical genders. Yes, it is true that we have some neutral words, but none of them serve as a personal pronoun to refer to a person without making a gender mark.
Since in Spanish there is no antecedent as there was with they, you have to create neutral alternatives (as they did in Sweden in 2015 with the neutral personal pronoun hen) to express this reality of non-binary people that may feel distant but exists and must be named. Already in 1976 in Spain there were those who found in words ending in -e a neutral, non-binary alternative to refer to someone without making explicit mention of the gender with which they identify. To do this, many of us use the personal pronoun elle –so in the singular– which is neither masculine nor feminine, but neuter. Their employment has permeated more in some areas than in others and in Argentina, for example, since there are eight universities where they are admitted texts and oral presentations using the -e.
It is a surprise to note the disconnection of who we are journalists with the linguistic changes. We betray the commitment to truthfulness, precision and use of language when we refer to a person of a non-binary gender with binary pronouns, articles and adjectives, in masculine and feminine, because it is just what they are stating that they do not want. To do? Considering how Spanish works, the agreement of the pronoun or noun must be done with the articles and the adjectives that accompany it. Instead of writing: “Demi Lovato is proud to share that it is non-binary,” what would correspond is: “Demi Lovato is proud to share that it is non-binary.”
Respect for the way someone wants to be named must be as blunt as the fidelity we have with the figures or the information we present, even if this requires creating words, modifying grammar and looking for a more neutral language.
Paulina Chavira (@apchavira) is a journalist and language consultant. She hosts the morning coffee podcast and was editor of The New York Times in Spanish, where she was in charge of writing the style manual.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.