Shortcuts That Cut

Updated: Mar 10

I’ve been obsessing over pronouns. For years now, to be fair. But these pandemic days are finally making the space to really listen to the hum in my head.

I grew up in a multitude of languages, countries, and cultures; I got a bachelor’s degree in English and Women’s Studies, I went on to run a newspaper during my Saturn Return, and have always been some sort of poet. I better know what a pronoun is.

I see it as cultural shorthand.

Tiny words - some only two skinny letters long - are used to refer to whole, complex human beings, to entire groups, physical objects, and abstract concepts.

We need them. (There are two in that three-word sentence alone.)

These shortcuts are essential to reference established elements when making a point succinctly.

But what happens when, in the reduction towards efficiency, the words left misrepresent the people they are meant to identify?

In this culture, and most of the dominant cultures I’ve experienced first hand in North and South America, Europe, and Australia, there are only two options when referring to singular individuals in the third person: she/her/hers or he/him/his.

A binary choice: one or the other.

What’s more, this choice is rarely given to the person being addressed; often, it is an assumption made by the speaker.

The recipient of the assumption also has a binary choice: to accept or to reject. Acceptance often keeps the peace, while also keeping an individual’s wholeness secret, while a rejection often comes with struggle: from the tedium of re-education to a real vulnerability as violence against all kinds of minorities is a part of the behemoth that is dominant culture.

Olga Chwa's face and shoulders, they are wearing a beanie hat and looking slightly off to the side. There is a two-toned wall behind them. The photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 2021'

For myself, I can accept and allow the cultural shorthand for me to be “she” because that’s what is expected of me based on a biological marker I was born with. Assigned female at birth (afab) for a significant majority, means they grow up to be women. Or, in the least, not male.

This feels true for me in a way I know is not true for some of my transmasculine brothers, who may have been assigned female at birth but grew up to be men.

I personally can live my life with a baseline sense of coherence enrolling completely in the identity of ‘woman’ - something I have often felt compelled to do, and defaulted into, over the years.

But as I listen in, to my internal hum and go through my days without being asked to perform my femininity in the ways our pre-pandemic social living expected of me, my heart is beginning to beat a bit differently.

I’ve been diving into some of the deepest trenches in online conversations, with other queer people and folx who call themselves enby (n.b./non-binary). We discuss identity and gender, denouncing the binary as we seek to find agreement between our inner experience - and our physical, lived embodiments. Time and time again, our stories fall somewhere beyond and outside of the paradigms that create and appear to uphold this society.

What’s more, the closer I look, I can see how some of the deepest ingrained beliefs contribute to much of what is wrong with heteronormative patriarchy and the white supremacy it colludes with.

This, in turn, awakens in me a desire to defy: denounce the binary and demand a language with a broader spectrum of human gender identities.

I feel lucky to be able to live my adult life in English, which is known for its linguistic plasticity and ability to create new words for new concepts easily, and therefore makes defiance and re-definition of culture actually possible.

Olga Chwa is carrying a 2-foot long, 18-inch diameter log towards a pile of logs on the ground, at the edge of a wooded treeline. She has short dark hair and is wearing a dark green tank-top, loose, faded jeans and black gloves. The photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 1999'.'

Even luckier, to know I am not alone in my frustrations, as I meet more and more people like me - born in female bodies but living somewhere somewhat exiled if not totally alienated from the mainland of ‘womanhood’ and the demographic popularly known as ‘she’.

Given the binary options, ‘she’ or ‘he,’ I do choose “she”, however incomplete it feels. And I blame language for this polarization of gender. Maybe if I had more words to choose from, the culture would better accommodate me and my many gender-nonconforming siblings.

From a linguistic grammatical perspective, using “they” as a singular pronoun has always made very good sense to me.

Historically, there were more pronouns in the English language, although not necessarily for gender diversity. From the 13th to the 17th century, the words ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ functioned ubiquitously in reference to a singular person. ‘You’ and ‘your’ were also in use, but reserved for addressing a group, the way some dialects use ‘ya’ll’ or ‘all’ya’ll’ today.

These days, modern English no longer differentiates between these singular and plural second-person pronouns. ‘You’ addresses one person or many. The language is simplifying. Following this progression we’ve also got the royal we (pluralis majestatis) - with which a singular individual can refer to just themselves by a plural pronoun.

And there it is. ‘Themselves’ - one person. They can call themselves whatever they want really, and grammatically we understand.

In the English language, this third-person plural, ‘they,’ has long functioned in tandem with the singular third-person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but recently, it might be receiving some extra attention, as it has one most handy feature: it is gender-neutral.

It is this neutrality that allows for the non-binary to exist.

At all.

I feel especially sensitive to the way language shapes our lives and how we see the world because I grew up as an immigrant child, speaking 3 languages fluently by the age of 12 and going on to learn a few more just out of momentum.

I witnessed firsthand how having words for anything creat