He, She, or They?

I’m excited to be the first guest blogger for the Human Nature Forum, and thrilled to have the opportunity to explore some of the topics that have intrigued me for decades. My background is eclectic, but I have always focused on the exploration of the human experience from the philosophical perspective. In school, I completed a degree called “College of Letters” – perhaps the most impractical but most fascinating academic program ever created. Oddly enough, as a full-time professional writer, that degree actually prepared me for life: reading extensively, thinking creatively, and expressing myself in words!  Finishing up that program, I proceeded to earn a degree called Masters in Divinity—another unique opportunity to explore human nature from a slightly different perspective (my program included classes in Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, as well as Biblical archaeology and Liberation Theology).

My career of choice is “renaissance writer.”  I write for children and adults, and for universities, museums, publishers, businesses, and even government agencies. I write articles and books, web content and storyboards, planetarium scripts and exhibit labels. My curiosity has led me to project on topics as wide ranging as space exploration, ancient history, mechanical engineering, CSS coding, and forensics.

In my application for this opportunity, I raised the question of gender as an important and topical issue within the larger topic of human nature. This is my first of at least a few posts on this topic, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject in the HNF Forum!

“Is it a boy or a girl?”  Almost from conception, the answer to that question colors our experience in life. In fact, sex identity has always been fundamental to being human. It is a deceptively simple and basic concept — but as it turns out, it’s not as simple as it seems.

To start with, biological sex isn’t as simple. Visible signs of maleness and femaleness—testes, ovaries, and other sex-specific organs — have been discovered to be only part of the picture. As it turns out, hormones, DNA, and other factors play an equally important role in defining an individual’s sex. Should parents even announce their child’s sex based solely on visual evidence from an ultrasound?

Then, contrary to our modern western assumptions, the connection between biological sex and gender isn’t simple either. According to the World Health Organization, gender describes “the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.” Can we make any assumptions about a person’s probably interests or behaviors based solely on their sex? Clearly not!

Sexual orientation, too, is a far more flexible concept than sex.  A person can be straight, bi, gay, celibate, or any combination without changing their femaleness or maleness.  Many people change their sexual orientation over time without any impact on their maleness or femaleness. Should we be labeling individuals (or should they label themselves) on the basis of their current sexual behaviors, or avoid such labeling altogether?

Throw into all that complexity the huge sea change has brought transgender identity to the fore, and the questions multiply.

Maleness and femaleness are no longer as basic to human identity as they once seemed to be.  We are challenged to add our “pronouns” (she/her, they, etc.) to our signatures and Zoom IDs. As a writer, I’m changing the words I use to describe human beings.  Instead of “he or she,” I write “they” and “them.” When writing about a person who is having a baby, I don’t write “mother.” Instead, I write “birth parent.”  I find myself frustrated by these requirements, in part because having to pick a pronoun feels oddly uncomfortable to me. Why can’t we all be “theys,” just part of the larger human community?

Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts about some of the questions I’ve raised. In particular – how do you feel about the idea of a universal “they?”  Might the use of he’s and she’s simply be outdated?  Please share!

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