Scene: My first poetry class, many years ago, while visiting a college in Indiana. In the slow rumble of students before class, I peeked over from my eager spot in the first row and read a button on a chest. “Ask me about my Pronouns.” A volta. Before I know it I’m out of my seat and clamoring to get closer to the person, something deeper than curiosity burning.
“Hey,” I say, and I ask about pronouns. After a smile like a cresting wave, I learn about their pronouns. They didn’t fit into the gender binary, and instead of settling for he or she, they chose the gender-neutral alternative. We kept chatting, “River! Oh my, what an androgynous name. You lucky duck.” I was blushing and fanning myself when the professor entered, and I switched seats and sat next to them for the class. I didn’t end up writing poems or plays in Evansville, Indiana, but my 48 hours in the Midwest were truly illuminating.
I couldn’t help but think of them when I heard that the American Dialect Society named gender-neutral “they” the word of the year for 2015. Finally! The scholars threw us a scrap (of course they’d be somewhat anthropological in nature). I’ve tried to broach the topic in poetry class, after prose class, after studies on literary studies, only to hear the same old stale shrug. It’s too hard to repurpose a word, Academia whines, ignoring the mutability of language that brought us from “to be or not to be” to “lol.”
But to bring Shakespeare into the conversation is to bring in the literally literary history of the gender-neutral “they,” which can be found in the works of Jane Austin, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Crowning jewels of the Canon, no? It’s not new. We aren’t just angsty. We are at the cusp of the gender binary, insidious in our culture, media, and language (do I dare need to say politics?) If we, wordsmiths and sentence architects, cannot communicate the needs we have of our language, then our very medium becomes a collection of useless rocks that we hoard and throw at each other, all the while babbling (un-?)intelligibly.
In those moments, when the bureaucracy of language seems so much bigger than all of us, mere sentient beings, I hope to remember that language is our donkey. It works for us. Turn to those you do not understand and ask, “Why do you think that?” Oh, Liberal Arts College, let’s deem language as a means of communication and camaraderie, not another barrier itself.
This article was written by River Ribas. Click here to see more of River’s work.