I have been thinking a lot about pronouns lately.
Much of it stems from the recent debate over bathrooms and who gets to serve as the potty police. I am not transgender, and yet the debate is personal to me.
Among my people, I am considered a “Two-Spirit,” or someone who possesses both a male and a female spirit. This has always fit with how I feel myself, neither really male nor really female, but both. I am very comfortable in my own skin.
But there are those who are not comfortable with me. These are the ones who have called me “sir” since long before I cut my hair short. Some quickly apologize. Some laugh nervously. Some snicker.
Because I feel like I am both, it has never bothered me, except on the rare occasions when the person seemed hostile.
I fear those occasions are increasing. I see more and more reports of attacks on trans* people. And these attacks aren’t limited to trans* people. There are all sorts of gender non-conforming people being accosted in restrooms, even if they are using the restroom that corresponds with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.
One such person is a friend of mine who is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. She is part of the elite group of Marines who guard our embassies. And she has been thrown out of the women’s bathroom because she looks too much like a boy. A nice “thank you” for your service.
A recent piece by UCC minister Emily Heath describes a similar struggle. Emily is also gender non-conforming. They joke with their wife that if they aren’t back from a public restroom in five minutes, to come looking for them.
It is becoming less of a joke.
I fear it is a matter of time before I am accosted as well.
I wonder if this whole issue gives us an opportunity as progressive Christians to examine the language we use.
Because language matters.
When we refer to gender rather than sex and then insist on gender being binary, we negate the lives of those who live along the spectrum of gender.
We negate the lives of those assigned a sex at birth that doesn’t correspond with their identity, or those who fall into the at least three categories of intersex, meaning those with biological traits of both sexes. These folks too have typically been assigned a sex at birth, often surgically, and often incorrectly.
Likewise, when we refer to God as He, we negate the lives of women and their connectedness to the Creator. In my own church, and other UCC churches I have attended, we have struggled to find more inclusive ways to refer to God, whether calling God both father and mother, or changing the words to the doxology to refer to Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost rather than Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And often, we have shunned the use of pronouns.
What if we didn’t?
Many in the transgender and gender non-conforming community have sought a third way through the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.
I know there are those who reject the use of “they” in the singular. I confess to being something of a grammar nerd myself. Yet we have a history of using the pronoun “they” when the sex of the person about whom we are speaking is not known.
As I saw in a recent discussion of the matter, two wait staff noticed a customer left behind a coat. “I wonder if they know they left it?” “Let’s put it in the lost and found in case they return.”
See, we’ve been using it all along.
What if we used it for God?
What if instead of tying ourselves in knots trying to avoid using “He,” or at least using “He” and “She” together, we defaulted to “they?”
We’d be doing a number of things.
First, we would be referring to God in the way that They referred to themselves. In the plural.
Remember in Genesis 1:26, God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
And too in Genesis 3:22: “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”
If God, in referring to Self, says “us,” perhaps we should be saying “They.”
But using “They” would accomplish more than that. It would be a recognition of the radical inclusiveness that is God. The God that created all things, including all sexes and all genders.
It would mean that our understanding of God is limited by our understanding of ourselves, but that we recognize that God is not limited. Often, we are neither male nor female. Neither then is God. We were created in God’s image, male and female, because God’s image is male and female.
And by using “They,” we not only recognize the abundance that is God, but we welcome all of the abundance that is God’s Creation into the arms of our Creator and Their Church.
Michelle Schohn is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer posted with her wife to Pristina, Kosovo. She and her wife are members of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Silver Spring, Md.