Although non-binary identities have existed for centuries, their legitimacy is still contested around the world. This misapprehension runs especially deep in countries whose languages lend themselves to the gender binary. In languages where gender-neutral “they” pronouns do not traditionally exist, for example, non-binary individuals struggle to semantically self-identity. Such is the case in many Latin-rooted languages, where singular and plural pronouns are always gendered: it is often argued that neutrality in French is conventionally expressed through masculine pronouns, the default rule being to use “he” whenever gender isn’t disclosed. In some Germanic languages, “they” pronouns exist, but exclusively denote plurality and sometimes share the same grammatical forms as female pronouns, as is the case in Dutch. It thus becomes tricky in these situations for non-binary people to legitimize their gender when any hint of neutrality can only be expressed in male and feminine terms. So how does one discover their identity if their own language doesn’t acknowledge it?
The internet has played a critical role in paving the way for non-binary youths to discover who they are, wherever they’re based. French university student Eels, for example, learned about genderqueer identity through chatting online in middle school. “Considering the [ambiguous treatment] of ‘they/them’ French pronouns, it’s much easier to meet a non-binary person online than IRL,” says Eels. They started using “they” pronouns online in English, and have only recently made the transition to using those in French: “iel,” a mixture of “elle” (“she”) and “il” (“he”). In recent years, “iel” has gained traction as a way for French non-binary people to articulate their identities. In a similar vein, Rushati Mukherjee says their newsletter Queering About was created as “part of a boom in openly queer content produced by openly queer people on a digital medium—a queer renaissance of sorts.” Despite the visibility of gender spectrums and orientations starting to sprout online, the newsletter is one of a kind; Mukherjee notes, “It came about because it was needed—there is no newsletter similar to it at the moment.”
Fortunately, cosmopolitan cities have facilitated the process of self-discovery for many. Beau, a college student from the Netherlands, discovered their identity once they attended university where they finally met other non-binary individuals. Within the linguistic frames of Dutch, Beau says that they’d previously ”stuck with the female pronouns” in their language, though they’d always known they didn’t fit into their gender like other girls around them did.
The main ways that have been found to nuance binary languages so far has been to invent new pronouns that refer to non-binary individuals. Similarly to the French case of “iel,” the Dutch sometimes use “die” to refer to non-binary people. The main problem with these invented problems is that they are rarely used unanimously as they aren’t “official.” Eels believes that academia and the common person recognizing “they/them” pronouns will help lead to non-binary identities being accepted as legitimate.
This lack of linguistic cohesion often leaves space for multiple non-binary pronouns to be invented in a single language, leading to confusion. In places where it is already barely fathomable for anyone’s gender to fall outside the traditionally established norms, such attempts are unsurprisingly met with debate: on one side are those who find the emergence of inclusive writing unnecessary, and on the other are ongoing dissensions as to which conceived term is best to use. Changes within a language do not happen overnight, and neither do attitudes. When asked about where the Dutch and the Netherlands are at in terms of gender inclusivity, Beau is pessimistic: “I’d say [we’re] pretty far behind. There aren’t a lot of options to use neutral words to describe a person. I can’t call someone my friend without immediately assigning them a gender. I also hear people make fun of alternative pronouns, so I’m afraid that’ll stay for a while still.”
But it seems that the struggle for non-binary identities to be accepted, other than for linguistic reasons, also has a lot to do with predominant social norms—in places like West Bengal and Korea, where the languages only have neutral pronouns, ideology is the primary concern for queer communities. As Rushati succinctly puts it, these countries’ languages involve a “gender binary [that] exists not in the semantics but in the concepts.” In other words, while pronouns are gender neutral in Bengal, societal expectations only leave room for “female” and “male”. Interestingly, historians and mythologists have asserted that queerness was present and accepted in India in precolonial times, which helps explain why, as Rushati says, “Indian society is more used to queer genders than many Western countries.”
This type of relationship between language and ideology is also observable in Korea, as the language’s use of neutral pronouns still assumes the exclusive possibilities of “female” and “male” binary; it does not suspect the presence of a gender that doesn’t conform to these two labels. As a result, Minji, a Korean student based in Berlin, only truly understood their gender identification once they had stopped living with their family: “I started to identify and accept myself as non-binary last year July in Berlin. Just as I was dependent on my family, I was, too, dependent on adapting one’s view and ideology instead of analyzing on my own. I started to get out of it a bit when I attended art class in my high school years, but I didn’t reach the point where I’d questioned my whole gender.” Overall, the attitude toward LGBT rights is still ambivalent in Korea: a survey conducted in 2018 by the Korea Institute of Public Administration found that 49% of Korean adults did not accept homosexuals. While these numbers are lower than those of previous years, with various studies showing an increasing trend of LGBT acceptance in the country, non-binary individuals may still have to wait before hoping for legitimacy. Minji explained to me that, while Korean society today maintains a certain proximity to Western trends and culture, its evolution in terms of gender inclusivity may not be going at the same pace. As they put it, “[The] queer community in itself is still seen as an entertainment factor rather than actual human beings.”
All of my interviewees admitted that their non-binary identity is still a hard concept to verbalize to their loved ones. Minji, for instance, says they tried to explain their gender to their family, but don’t think they really “understood the idea.” Still, others have found solace in compromise. Eels’s mother tries to use neutral nouns like “child” instead of “daughter” when they’re around but never uses neutral pronouns. The only way for Rushati’s extended family to somewhat understand their identity is to consider them a “manly woman” and know not to engage in certain topics of conversation.
As of now, it’s safe to assume that debates surrounding non-binary identity and its relationship to language are far from reaching a conclusion. Beau aptly summarizes the fight for linguistic changes in favor of non-binary inclusion, saying, “If it could help others, why put up a fight? Languages [have always changed with the times anyway].” But while open-mindedness is to be encouraged, it is difficult to ignore the fact that finding a middle ground with something as basic as language can be challenging. In Germany for instance, opponents of linguistic non-binary inclusion often argue that gender-neutral language is inconvenient to use and unpleasant to read and listen to—that “linguistic change should not be imposed top-down based on what they see as ideological grounds.” It seems that linguistic inclusion is facing obstacles because some people fear language losing some kind of orthodoxy by allowing the representation of a minority. Many people, after all, fear that fights in favor of inclusion may cause so much change in a language that said language will no longer be unified or credible. The question that remains is this: how are non-binary individuals supposed to further legitimize themselves? And at which point can a minority even gain a right for linguistic inclusion?
By Irène Schrader
Illustration by Adam Maida for The Atlantic