Gender-neutral pronouns: Ze problem solved


Oxford University Students’ Union is reportedly calling for the adoption of the pronoun ‘ze’ as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’. There seems some uncertainty online over the extent to which this an accurate report, but whatever the Oxford situation there’s no doubt that this is a new battlefront being opened up by progressives. Ostensibly this is to make life easier for ‘the transgender community’, although it is not hard to see behind it a deeper agenda to erase gender entirely from public discourse.

There’s lots that could be said about this. But here is a simple observation. The search for a gender-neutral pronoun to replace the irretrievably gendered ‘he’ and ‘she’ is entirely unnecessary, for English already has one: the word ‘it’. It is a non-gender-specific, singular pronoun, conveniently (unlike he and she) the same in nominative and accusative cases, and with a simple, regular genitive form ‘it’s’. Why introduce a new set of invented gender-neutral pronouns when we already have a perfectly serviceable one? ‘It’ solves the problem of needing a gender-neutral pronoun perfectly.

I am not being facetious about this. I am of course aware that this will be totally unacceptable to those contending for ‘ze’, ‘per’ and other proposed neopronominal gibberish. For of course ‘it’ is not suitable to be used for a person; it is for sub-human objects, not human beings. How could I propose something as insulting as referring to valued members of the human race as ‘it’?

But that is exactly my point. For maleness and femaleness are so integral to being human that it is impossible to be human without being male or female. Humanity does not subsist in any other than male and female persons. This is established in the creation of mankind in Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Man is made in the image of God, and that image consists in, and only in, people who are in their created being either male or female. Indeed our maleness and femaleness is part of, and an essential part of, being the image of God. Apologists for transgenderism are fond of saying that gender is assigned to children at birth. But of course no ‘assigning’ takes place, and it is plain falsehood to say that it does. The sex of a child is observed, not assigned, at birth, but it has been integral to the very being of that child from the moment of conception onwards.

Some Christian writers have countered the language of gender being ‘assigned’ by saying instead that God gives us our gender. But even this is wrong. For it treats ‘me’ as somehow an entity who can be separated from my gender; there is a pre-gendered ‘me’ to whom God could ‘give’ my gender. But this is not so; there never was a ‘me’ who was anything other than a male or female me. God created us as one of the two sexes, male or female. There is no other humanity than male and female humanity.

Even to use the word ‘gender’ is potentially tendentious, for ‘gender’ is a linguistic term which, being to do with language, carries an inherent hint of arbitrariness (‘ship’ is feminine in English, ‘bateau’ is masculine in French). Better to refer to it as our sex, our maleness or femaleness. Our sex, then, is part of our very being. Human nature only finds actual reality in male or female persons.

The existence of intersex conditions in a very small number of infants is no obstacle to saying this. The unfortunate sufferers of such conditions are still certainly male or female; the fact that they suffer from a bodily abnormality which makes them display physical traits of the other sex is undoubtedly distressing but does not diminish the fact that they remain genetically and physically fundamentally male or female, even if (in extreme cases) it is not immediately obvious at birth which is the case.

And so there is no human being who is an ‘it’. This is very important; human personhood is always sexed, always found in an actual male person or an actual female person. The new campaign for gender-neutral pronouns can be seen simply as an attempt to overcome this basic fact of humanity; to try to believe in the fiction that there can be a human person who is neither male nor female, that maleness and femaleness are a veneer superimposed on a non-sexed humanity which lies beneath. But there is no such thing as non-sexed humanity; there are non-sexed objects and there are male and female persons. What there are none of is non-sexed human persons.

So when we are asked (as it looks like we all shall be, in due course) to refer to someone as ‘ze’ or ‘mx’ or whatever, we are in fact being asked to refer to that person as an ‘it’. When called upon to treat someone as if he or she were neither male nor female is to ask us to treat this person, who is the image of the living God, as a subhuman, an object. We might as well say ‘it’, for that at least makes clear what it is that is being demanded of us.

Which is why Christians must refuse to use such language. First, because it is a simple matter of truth-telling. Whatever the person in front of me might be called by others and call him or herself, this is a male or female image of God before me; I am not at liberty as a Christian to lie about that. And second, and more importantly, because I may not ever treat an image of God as an object, even if he or she is asking me to do so. It is out of love for our fellow-images, our fellow humans, our fellow persons, that we must refuse to treat them, in the language we use, as any less than that.

To call someone ‘ze’ is to reduce him or her to an ‘it’. We must honour the image of God in our fellow men and women – which is to honour them as men and women – far too much ever to do such a thing.