How Many Is Too Few? (Queering SF #27)

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

In 2014, Facebook worked in collaboration with some LGBTQ+ advocates and came up with a new set of gender options for Facebook users to select from. At that time, they offered 54 options. By 2021, that number had increased to 71 options. Similarly, the dating site OK Cupid increased options for would-be daters. They can select from 22 gender options and 13 sexual orientations. And yet, for both of these companies, they find that users just don’t feel as thought they have enough options. They find that their identity is not represented.

So, that begs the question: how many gender options are enough? How many gender identities? How many sexualities? How many sets of pronouns?

A. E. Prevost (they/them) writes fiction and is a “core writer” for an “educational series on linguistics” called The Ling Space. In 2018, Prevost published a short story entitled “Sandals Full of Rainwater” in a special edition of Capricious Magazine on “gender diverse pronouns” (ed. A. C. Buchanan [they/them]). That edition of the magazine was chosen for the Honor List for the James Tiptree Award (full disclosure, I was on the jury that year). In the Introduction to the issue, Buchanan writes that the English language has two gender pronouns, but that “Humans don’t always fit into these boxes.”

“Sandals Full of Rainwater” takes place in an unknown time and place. We know that there are two cities, Salphaneyin and Orpanthyre. In the former, they speak Tisalpha, and in the latter, they speak Orpan. The key difference here is the ways in which they each handle gender and pronouns.

In the story, Piscrandiol leaves the drought-stricken city of Salpaheyin and arrives in the rainy city of Orpanthyre. They miss a connection with a relative, and find themself at a boarding house. When they meets a family outside with no place to go, they suggest that the family stay with him. Piscrandiol settles down with parents Gislen, Annat, and Refe, and children Appi and Tafis. Before long, Piscrandiol has become part of the family and begun a sexual/romantic relationship with Gislen.

However, Piscarandiol finds themself overwhelmed by the pronouns in Orpan. They had studied them back home, but the system never made sense. They sort of knew the rules, but is perpetually flummoxed in practice. In Orpan, they use three grammatical genders, in three cases. The genders, however, are not based on the sex or genitals of the speaker, but, rather, “some sort of internal social sense of being.” As Piscrandiol notes, “whatever gender” they had, “changed depending on who they were talking to.” Orpan has 45 pronouns; Tisalpha has 9. In the interview that follows the story, Prevost notes that they have worked out the complete Orpan gender system, but they will not reveal how it works nor what all the pronouns are.

The foundations of gender in Orpan, the number of pronouns, their shifting usage leaves Piscrandiol at a loss. In Piscrandiol’s native city, they use no gender. “‘Our culture doesn’t present [gender] at all’” Piscrandiol tells Gislen. Being gendered at every moment makes Piscrandiol uncomfortable. They hate that other people make assumptions about their gender at every moment, in every interaction. Gislen tells them, “‘It’s just how we work.’”

In a moment of despair, Piscraniol rushes into the bathroom and cuts off “two feet” of red hair. They then ask, “‘So now. Am I different pronouns now?’” Gislen does stumble with the pronouns, but says it does not matter. Gislen loves Piscrandiol.

Two things happen. Piscrandiol’s cousin Geloul returns, and they discover that Geloul is fluent in Orpan gendered pronouns. Also, when Piscrandiol admits to Gislen that they feel like a burden, Gislen tries to address Piscrandiol in Tisalpha pronouns — and gets them all wrong!

“Sandals Full of Rainwater” illustrates both the arbitrariness of gendered pronouns and the profound effect they have on people. Two cultures and two languages handle gendered pronouns completely differently. One language (Tisalpha) makes no gender distinction; everyone is “they.” Piscrandiol suggests that that means that Tisalpha speakers are not reading others for clues of gender; they are not attuned to those markers of gender that we unconsciously look for: clothing, hair, body shape, secondary sex characteristics, tone of voice, etc. Certainly they look at one another with a discerning eye. They may look for characteristics that they find desirable, attractive. But they are not tied to gender or sex.

On the other hand, the other language (Orpan) makes multiple gender distinctions; everyone has a gender. However, Orpan gender operates differently than the one we are familiar with. They read a body for gender, but it has nothing to do with sex. They address a body as gendered, but which pronoun they will use also has to do with the relationship to the speaker. With their 45 personal pronouns, Orpan speakers must constantly be aware of the gender characteristics of the person with whom they are speaking, even if the sex of that speaker seems largely irrelevant.

I wrote an earlier essay on Ursula K. Le Guin’s (she/her) The Left Hand of Darkness. Although Le Guin defended her use of a universal masculine pronoun initially, she later agreed that she should have used a non-gendered pronoun to refer to the Gethenians. What reading Left Hand in 2021 reveals is how much the gendered pronouns overdetermine our reading of Estraven. Because Genly Ai uses “he” to describe Estraven, we the readers cannot help but be influenced in how we think of Estraven (and Gethenians). It also reveals how much we need to reconsider how we gender one another and what pronouns we use.

Prevost’s “Sandals Full of Rainwater” further complicates the relationship between bodies and pronouns. The two languages in the story represent two tendencies in English — to multiply gender categories and terms until everyone finds themselves represented. The other tendency is to get rid of the distinction altogether. Everyone is “they.” In the former model, everyone has their own box. Furthermore, that box is fluid and unfixed. In the latter model, no one has to make a choice. The relationship between body (social or physical) is broken down. Even so, I would not suggest that Prevost favors one system over the other. Both systems have limitations. Perhaps that is a limitation of language itself.

The difficulty in “Sandals” is that the two characters, Piscrandiol and Gislen, were raised into one of two systems. For each one, the system seems natural and comfortable; for each one, the other system feels uncomfortable and discriminatory. Gender and gendered pronouns have an effect on us. They shape our sense of self. They shape our interpretation of others. They shape how others see us. Keep that in mind the next time you introduce yourself, or someone takes the risk and introduces themselves along with their pronouns.

Ritch Calvin (he/him) is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).

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