How we're redefining gender in the 21st century

Story highlights
  • Heath Fogg Davis: Times are changing, and Americans no longer assume that everyone should fit into binary male or female categories
  • Organizations must respect individual gender self-determination and minimize the opportunities to incorrectly evaluate gender, he writes

Editor's Note: (Heath Fogg Davis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University. He is the author of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? (New York University Press). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. )

(CNN) In the United Kingdom, the gender-neutral honorific "Mx" is increasingly being used on driver's licenses and bureaucratic forms such as banking statements. Americans, however, have been slower to use Mx in lieu of Mr. or Ms.

The honorific "Ms." was first introduced in 1901, but it took several decades for it to be adopted by linguistic gatekeepers such as the New York Times, which only began using it in 1986 alongside "Mrs." and "Miss." How long will it take for Mx to take hold on our side of the pond?

New policies, language and forms of address recognizing nonbinary gender identities and classifications are prompting Americans to move beyond the assumption that everyone should assimilate into the categories of male or female. The times are changing, and so is our language.

Popular culture is starting to reflect this shift. In the Showtime series "Billions," Asia Kate Dillon, the self-described nonbinary actor who identifies as neither male nor female and uses the pronouns "they," "them," and "theirs," plays a nonbinary character named Taylor Mason who interns at Axe Capital, a billion-dollar New York hedge fund.

Once Taylor's financial prowess warrants a face-to-face meeting with Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, the CEO, Taylor rushes to tell him, "My pronouns are they, them and theirs." To which Axe (played by Damien Lewis) replies, "Those are the pronouns you use? Great, let's get down to business. How can you make me money?" In a crass way, the scene shows that gender is often irrelevant to "getting down to business."

Even the bureaucracy of gender is changing. Washington, DC and the state of Oregon now offer a nonbinary gender option on their driver's licenses, and New York has proposed similar legislation. Instead of M for male or F for female, these policies allow drivers to choose X for "unspecified." California lawmakers have proposed adding a third unspecified gender designation not only to driver's licenses but to birth certificates, too. If passed into law, parents in that state will be able to override the longstanding practice of letting medical professionals decide and record on birth certificates whether their children are male or female based upon the appearance of their genitals at birth.

But as anyone who has ever held a job knows, most workplaces are anything but gender-neutral. And one of the common objections to this type of public de-emphasizing of gender categories is that it will cause confusion about the "order of things." However, as more and more cities and state governments come to recognize nonbinary gender classification, other organizations, like businesses, universities and the media, will have to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

We could ditch honorifics altogether, and simply address each other by our last names if we want to maintain some semblance of formality. Or maybe it's time to let go of linguistic formality altogether. Millennials are doing away with much of that formality in their correspondence with customers by simply using first names in email and live chat customer service.

As the author of a book that offers pragmatic guidance on how to develop institutionally sound and trans-inclusive administrative policies, I offer three approaches for organizations to consider as they navigate this new terrain.

Let nonbinary individuals educate

Let individuals who identify as nonbinary educate other people on a case-by-case basis. In "Billions," we only see Taylor do this on two occasions: informing their internship supervisor, and then schooling Axe. In other scenes, Taylor interacts with fellow interns and co-workers without announcing their pronouns. We don't know, but it's reasonable to expect that news about Taylor's pronouns would reach co-workers via gossip -- especially since Taylor has been tapped as indispensable to the firm's success.

Establish a company norm

Have everyone within the organization, not just nonbinary people, announce their pronouns -- verbally and in print. Increasingly, I'm at meetings that begin by going around the table and having each attendee state their name and the pronouns they use. For example, I would say, "My name is Heath, and I use he, him, and his." Another way to establish pronoun statements as an organizational norm is to ask each person in the organization to include their gender pronouns in their email signatures. These reforms have the benefit of taking some of the pressure off nonbinary people who are typically in the minority. They don't have to explain their pronouns because others are reminded of them in meetings and in emails. It also makes binary people aware their pronouns may not be obvious to others in every setting.

Adopt a company-wide gender-neutral pronoun

Require that everyone adopt a gender-neutral pronoun such as "they, them, and theirs" when it comes to interacting and corresponding with others in the organization. Some object that this repurposing of the plural pronoun should be rejected because it's grammatically incorrect. But the meanings of words shift over time -- something that the writers of dictionaries know all too well. Indeed, Merriam-Webster notes that the use of "they, their, them and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender is well established ... in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts."

De-emphasizing gender in public isn't the same thing as saying that gender never matters. Whether someone appears to be male or female is typically the very first thing we notice about other people. But gender identity isn't always visually obvious.

Why put a restaurant server or customer service agent in the position of having to assess and ultimately guess someone's gender in transactions where gender is irrelevant? Out of respect for individual gender self-determination, we ought to minimize the opportunities for others to evaluate our gender and risk getting wrong something so important.