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Sweden Pwns U.S. on Gender by Introducing Gender-Neutral Pronoun

"Hen" will give Swedes an option beyond male and female-marked pronouns. Could the move serve as a model for Americans?
 
 
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This piece first ran on xojane. Visit them at xojane.com.

Sweden has recently introduced a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” allowing Swedes an option beyond male and female-marked pronouns. The country is famously progressive when it comes to gender politics, not just in terms of equality for women, but in terms of thinking outside the confines of the gender binary, and this is just one more example of Sweden’s attempt to confront the gender divide.

 

I’m excited about the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun with etymological roots into Swedish, because I’m continually frustrated by the lack of a widely accepted and non-clumsy gender-neutral pronoun in English. Singular “they” is catching on in many areas, and, yes,  actually has solid linguistic origins, but it doesn’t quite sit right with everyone. Any attempts to introduce pronouns seem to be flopping; for those of us outside the binary, sometimes avoiding pronouns altogether is the best defense.

What do you use when you don't know the gender of the subject, or when you want to leave it open? How about when your subject isn't a man or a woman?

Thus, I’m looking to Sweden as a model, watching closely to see the reaction to “hen” and how well it’s introduced into the language.

New words enter languages all the time; think of the plethora of tech terms that exploded in the last decade and are now used totally casually. The deliberate introduction of a new pronoun, however, is much more fraught, and the reactions are truly fascinating as well as depressing.

Many cis people -- those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth -- feel actively threatened by the idea of a nonbinary pronoun and the idea that some people aren’t men or women.

Meanwhile, others are screaming about “the feminist agenda,” arguing that the use of a gender-neutral pronoun will erode the very fabric of society, and obviously those hairy-legged hoydens are bent on the utter destruction of gender. They act as though this is a mandate to only use gender-neutral pronouns, even though people who are comfortable with he and she are of course encouraged to use the pronouns they identify with. 

This article in Slate has a collection of the usual scare-mongering; evidently advocating for a gender-neutral pronoun is a “political agenda” that will damage children and flout the conventional wisdom that humans are a gendered species, with only two options available. In fact, this wisdom is more like folklore – “male” and “female” are not the only options, and substantial evidence indicates that early human cultures were both  aware of this and accepting, in some cases.

Biologically speaking, people like to argue, you’ve got your XX and your XY, and that’s it. Except that’s not actually the case. Chromosomally speaking, there are actually a lot of different arrangements; and many people are not aware they are  intersex until later in life, or it’s a discovery made after death. Those of you who assume you are XXs may not actually be, for example, unless you’ve had genetic testing to confirm it. On a base biological level, gender is complicated.

Level heads at The Economist pointed out that many of the headlines covering “hen” were deeply scare-mongering: Sweden isn’t trying to “abolish” gender, but rather  to add another option, which is precisely the point of gender-neutral pronouns. To expand the playing field and add a few more players to it.

 

On an anthropological and social level, gender is even more complicated. Transgender people clearly illustrate that gender is not as simple as genetics. Furthermore, nonbinary people exist ( hi!), and  we aren’t just a passing phase or an affectation. Creating inclusive language for us makes it easier for us to define and express our identities -- and far from confusing the children, it creates a world where children can better articulate themselves. Children tend to be pretty genderfluid by nature, but as they grow older, they grow into their gender -- and are forced into more rigid gender roles.

 
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