How Language Fails Sexual Identity ~YE GAY OL’ VALLEY

By: Dani Langevin – July, 2017

Language, as do creation stories, can define us singularly and collectively. Every culture has its own language and creation stories or stories to explain why things exist. In my opinion, creation stories and those that explain certain human behavior can reveal a great deal about a culture and/or time period. Language can do that, too. What I think is even more important is not what stories and language have included but, what they have excluded. Have you ever heard a story that explains homosexuality, androgyny, or any other form of sexuality other than heterosexuality? I haven’t either until recently. What does this exclusion say? The answer to that depends upon whom you are asking. To me, it says the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t important enough to explain through myth or historical stories. This is not completely true.

Aristophanes, born over 400 years before Christ, relayed a story of the origin of love that he learned from Plato, his mentor. To summarize: All people were born androgynous, but we were attached to a soul mate. As a couple, they had two arms, two legs, one head, both sets of sex organs, and two faces. They were attached male-to-male, female-to-female or male to female. In order to move from one place to another, the couple rolled themselves up into a ball and rolled very, very fast. In fact they rolled so fast that they became arrogant and the gods were angered by it. Zeus wanted to keep the mere mortals in their place so he separated them, making them upright and with their own individual heads. They were scattered throughout the earth destined to search for their missing soul mate. Be it another male, another female or the opposite sex, they were burdened to forever seek each other out until, hopefully, they found one another and be whole again. Without soul mate, they were somehow less. This story did not explain human sexuality, it explained love between two humans and why we still continue to seek a soul mate be it the same sex or opposite and how wonderful it is all-inclusive, including androgyny.

Speaking of androgyny, which means that one does not identify as male or female, why is there no pronoun for those who define themselves as such? While those of us who identify as male or female have he, him, his and she, her, there is nothing for the androgynous person to use. What does this exclusion say about our society? Much to my surprise and delight, a coworker sent me an article sharing that finding terms for androgyny and then disregarding them is steeped in history. Kelly Ann Sippel noted in her 1991 graduate thesis that she discovered multiple attempts to devise gender-neutral pronouns for almost two centuries. Shey, hesch, co, per, and na are just a tiny sampling of these terms. “Sippell estimated that there had been approximately 80 suggested ways of saying “him or her” or “his or hers” in a single word that was not they or theirs.” This, to me, proves that since the time of Plato and most likely since people graced the planet, the world has had a population with countless sexual identities and ways to love and yet we still have no universal epicene third-person pronoun. Again I ask, what does this exclusion mean? Our society clearly does not find it important enough to create one.

Dennis Baron wrote American Speech in 1981. In it he, like Sippel, includes a laundry list of terms going back as far as the mid-1800s that attempted to be used as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. Unfortunately almost all of them failed except for the term thon. By definition it means, ‘A proposed genderless pronoun of the third person.’ To make it clear, thon would replace him, her, they, his, hers, he, she, theirs. In other words a conversation would go like this:

“Does thon want to get ice-cream?” (as opposed to, “Does she want to get ice-cream?”) Get it?
According to an article by Miriam-Webster, “Thon is thought to be a contracted form of “that one,” and was coined in 1858 by Charles Crozat Converse, an attorney and composer.” There is much evidence to show thon was widely used and known. It appeared in various publications of Funk and Wagnall, added to the Miriam-Webster dictionary in 1934, included in crossword puzzles and even Dinosaur Comics. People knew the term and used it. Then, for whatever reason, Miriam-Webster dropped it in the early 1960s with no replacement. Another way of saying, “Thon is not important enough to acknowledge.”

“So what,” you may say. It’s a big deal. If someone says, “She”, you know it refers to a female. If someone says, “He,” you know the person being referred to is a male but, if you use, “They,” to whom does this term refer to? The term THON would tell everyone that this is a person who identifies neither as a male or female, but still deserves respect. Words are important. Names are important. Every person is important. If they have no way to be identified, then they become unimportant and fodder for those who are incapable of embracing those that are not defined within the confines of their limited minds. Some Native American tribes believed that until a person was given a name, they did not exist. Naming ceremonies were a major rite of passage much like baptism is to most Christians. Excluding terms of identity from any language is sending a message that a particular person is not important enough to recognize, therefore, they don’t exist. But they do, we all do. We have since before Christ.