Weaponizing (bad) grammar

Beware when people try to gaslight you on grammar in order to justify their own homophobia — “they’ has always been singular.

This week has been a busy one for random transphobia online, beginning with an ignorant tweet brilliantly taken down by noted English author Neil Gaiman.

In that tweet, someone going by the ironic name of YesWeHomeschool posted, “Any English teacher who uses ‘they/them’ as a singular pronoun should lose their teaching license.”

At first, Gaiman just commented, “That’s beautiful,” but after someone tried to defend OP by insisting that the two instances of “they” in the sentence were in different contexts, Gaiman gave them a little English lesson ending with the reminder that “‘Their’ as a singular pronoun goes back to the 1300s…”

In fact, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary identifies its first use in this sense in 1375, in a medieval romance called William and the Werewolf. At least, that was the first written instance, meaning that its singular use may go back even further in time.

In discussions elsewhere online, people scoffed at this attestation, as it came from one obscure work without an author attached, only to be reminded that Shakespeare and other writers of his era used “they” in exactly this same singular fashion.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that English grammarians got their knickers in a knot over the “incorrect” singular usage of “they,” forgetting that “you” had originally been plural only, with “thou” being singular.

And let’s not even get started on the “royal we,” which nowadays also serves as the corporate we — a generally first person plural pronoun that serves to be singular as well. “We are not amused,” said the queen,” “We look forward to profits in the next quarter,” said the CEO of Reilly Bigg & Co.

Of course, 18th century English grammarians did more harm to the language than good. This was the same era that gave us that nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition based entirely on Latin, not English, grammar, which is a fake rule I’m sure a lot of people are aware of.

But none of this has anything to do with grammar, of course.

It’s about limiting people’s ability to identify themselves as they perceive themselves, trying to lock them into the he/she binary with no other options. But these people who have pronoun problems don’t notice that times are changing. A recent survey showed that one in four young queer people preferred “they/them” as their pronouns, for example.

Some people will use the mistaken “proper grammar” BS to insist that constructions like “he/she” are perfectly valid, but they’re not. Oh, once upon a time — maybe the 1970s? — using this form or “he or she” was seen as wildly new and inclusive, since the default gender and pronoun were always assumed to be “male” and “he.” So maybe back then it was ridiculously different and modern to acknowledge that women existed, too.

But do you see anything missing there? That’s right — it only offers a binary option and so is still exclusive nonetheless.

It got worse, though.

Later in the week, Caitlyn Jenner was booted from the Polo Bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel for violating their dress code, which is pretty explicit: No ripped denim. But she walked in wearing jeans with a huge gash on one leg just above the knee. Yes, probably part of the design but also, yes, a violation of the dress code.

She went into a royal hissy fit claiming that she’d never come back again, but she should have known that the Beverly Hills Hotel is famous for not putting up with celebrity bullshit because they don’t have to. Celebs have more to lose by not being able to go and schmooze there than the hotel does by refusing them service.

But, of course, any story with Caitlyn in it naturally dredged up the whole transphobe squad. Surprisingly, this included people who seemed otherwise left-leaning, as in women who basically said, “Now you know what we’ve had to put up with all of our lives.” Or, in other words, women get treated differently than men do.

They never dead-named Caitlyn or used the wrong pronouns or the phrase “real women,” but it sure as hell was implied. And the whole discussion quickly led to arguments over… JK Rowling.

Now if you’ve been living under a rock, Rowling pretty much shot her career in the foot when she came out as a TERF — trans-exclusionary radical feminist — based on one really dubious and shaky premise.

See, she seems convinced that there are no transwomen. Rather, they are just men who want to put on dresses and claim that they’re women so they can get access to women’s restrooms for a little rapey-time.

Never mind that since forever, men have never had to resort to such subterfuge in order to rape someone. Why would they? Just lurk in a dark alley, wait for a victim, grab and go.

I really doubt that the “cis-man pretending to be a woman to go rape in the women’s room” thing as even ever actually happened, and just trying to walk through the utter idiocy of that scenario can only lead to what itself is a classic British comedy sketch.

So let’s cast an actor who is completely bald on top but with hefty five o’clock shadow or, hell, even a beard. He puts on a badly fitting sundress with no attempt to pad or stuff anything and which shows off way too much of his hairy chest and back, then slaps on make-up (badly) — sloppy lipstick and too much eye-shadow — not even bothering to don a wig.

He grabs a purse, toddles clumsily on heels from the men’s room to the women’s room, and pushes past the startled attendant at the door, announcing in a deep bass voice, “Yeah, I’m Debbie. I’m a woman, and you can’t stop me.”

“Debbie” would have gotten his ass kicked in two seconds by the attendant, all of the women in that restroom, and anyone else who noticed what was going on. And not for an instant would anyone mistake “Debbie” for a woman, cis- or transgender — but that’s the kind of paranoid, deluded madness living in JK’s head and she just won’t let it go.

Now, for all I know, she suffered through the experience of having been raped at some point and, given statistics, that is entirely possible. In fact, I don’t have to say “for all I know.” In June 2020, she wrote about being sexually assaulted in her 20s, albeit as a way to justify her transphobic rants.

However, she strongly implied that it was more spousal rape than anything else (because she paired it with domestic abuse). At the very least, she never brought up the idea of a man dressed as a woman doing it. Her attacker was just a man.

But she did come up with this ridiculous doozy that shows how misinformed she (and so many others like her) is: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.”

Never mind that sex not being real would erase men, too. This just shows that she has no idea what sex and gender are and how they relate to each other. A very blunt way to put it is that sex is what’s between your legs and gender is what’s in your mind.

On top of that, gender is a spectrum, while sex is… more discrete, but hardly binary like we used to think it was. There are actually six common karyotypes, or combinations of X and Y chromosomes (not always in pairs) and there may be many more.

There are also people who may be chimeras, particularly in the case of conception of twins in which one was absorbed by the other not long after conception. This has actually led to a person identified as biologically female but who was discovered to have complete but separated sets of DNA with XX and XY chromosomes in them — one female, the other male — the result of conceived fraternal twins of different sexes coming back together to form one embryo.

It all really comes down to the age-old problem of humanity, though. There are those who embrace and accept the new and novel and know how to change, and those who cannot and who fear anything that threatens to alter “the way it’s always been.”

Except that if you’ve lived more than a couple of decades on this planet, especially in this era of rapid change, you already know that there is no “way it’s always been.” That’s just a comfortable illusion.

Ideally, as we progress further along in our acceptance of the new and different, we would be able to teach the fearful ones how not to be or, barring that, leave them behind while we evolve.

But if you’re going to get so bent out of shape just because a total stranger prefers to be addressed as they or them because the old pronouns don’t suit them… well, it’s only going to get worse for you in future. Brace for it.

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