From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
What follows is not a discussion on the validity of the LGBTQ community or any of its members. This is a discussion about linguistics, as it relates to the recent sense of the “right to your own pronoun.”
My 13-year-old son and I were having a conversation on the way home from a weekly youth event at his local LGBTQ community center. As an old straight man, it has taken me some time to get the nuances of the Queer universe and learn how to speak respectfully about his friends. Yes, I have a few gay friends, but most of his friends are queercentric, so the conversation has evolved as we discuss this and that person.
Here is the linguistic question. If a person is non-gender specific (NGS), typically, we use the 2nd common definition of the word “they” or “their” or “them”, to mean one person whose gender is not known or defined.
A male: ‘he is going’. A female: ‘she is going’. NGS: ‘they are going’
Here is the problem. If we use they for one person, which is completely legitimate, not only because a person has the right to be called what they are, not what we are comfortable with, but because it is also a well-established use of these words, though usually in a different sense. I might say “They helped mama off the train” because I wasn’t there and thus could not identify the gender of the Good Samaritan. Now we simply recognize that we cannot and should not determine a person's gender simply by looking at their physical appearance.
So finally, would it not be more proper, when referring to a single person who is NGS in the example above, to say “They is going.” It sounds funny, at least at first, but as it is appropriate to use a singular verb when we are speaking of one person, isn’t "They are going." more incorrect?
This discussion has already begun among some of my more linguistically talented friends, please feel free to join in. Language, as much as some folks would like it to be, is not a set group of rules, it is the system of communication between people and within communities, so by the very act of considering these possibilities, you are part of the dynamic growth and change of the English language!
In Another Twist
Many readers love crime novels, and yet so many highly educated writers insist on writing in a manner that makes even moderately sophisticated readers tune out in the first 5–10 words. It occurred to me that maybe a bestseller crime novel poem was in order. I hope you like it. I also would love to know if you can figure out what fictional character I am sending up:
Me and Crystal
waited on the day bed
that functioned as both
client couch and sleeping arrangements;
I waited for a client.
Crystal waited for me
to open another slim jim
and break off a piece for her.
Hard ball, gum ball,
gum shoe, soft shoe,
need new shoes.
As long as I can
remember, I’ve needed
new shoes, new soles.
Someone once told me
you can judge a man by his shoes
but I never took it to heart,
loose soles hand stitched
by me in the dark.
I don’t look much
at my feet,
I wash and comb my hair.
There is a knock, I shift to the desk
Crystal closes her eyes,
knowing the slim jim moment has passed.
“Does that dog bite?”
“Should she?” I reply.
Another client, charmed, I’m sure.