Some months ago I decided to write a short story featuring a genderqueer, nonbinary protagonist to see, in part, how it could, and should, be done to make them human and relatable. The SF book above, released in 1992, did it by creating a new pronoun for the titular character: Cry. Cry was the pimp/madam of a futuristic brothel and a hermaphrodite, but not in the way you’d think: Cry was male on one side, and female on the other, requiring lopsided exercise equipment to keep both sides fit and in proportion. The novel’s plot was pedestrian, but oh that concept, as well as that anime-like face and pink hair/goatee on the cover.
Being neither 100% male nor female physically, though, and identifying as both male and female psychologically, posed some problems for me with normal English pronoun use. “It” is out of the question, “she” is gendered and too specific, and “he,” while it’s been the traditional go-to for beings not specifically gendered, like animals, is gendered as well, and my particular character would not think of themself as a “he.” (See how I have since trained myself to write using the general human pronoun “themself?”)
But they, their, and themselves, while theoretically grammatically correct in the case of my story, is not a perfect fit either. “They” carries the baggage of also being a plural pronoun, and to readers unfamiliar with it in an ungendered sense, can make it sound like the character has a split personality. I’ve gotten used to thinking in it, for this particular protagonist at least. But I do wish there was something better in the English language.
That’s inspired me to draw up this chart listing the alternatives.
Her / Hers
Their / Theirs
Kir / Kir’s
Xir / Xir’s
Zir / Zir’s
Hrer / Hrers
She, her, her / hers
Used as pronouns for all human characters in Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I haven’t read it, but I imagine it would be confusing, though the book is highly regarded. In a few SFF books I’ve come across characters that can change their gender to be serially male or female are referred to by those pronouns when in that gender’s form. I could never quite put them together as a whole character however. The “she” somehow overwhelmed the “he” – if I had to pick a gender for them, it would be she. Boobs trump penises, I guess.
He, him, his
Traditionally the preferred pronouns for the ungendered or the oddly gendered, the ubiquitousness of “He” is changing. Used in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left of Hand of Darkness to refer to Gethenians, an offshoot of humanity who are genderless most of the time except when they are sexually receptive. Admittedly “he” is more neutral than “she” when talking about creatures whose gender doesn’t matter (like a tuna on a fishing line you plan on eating) but it also disguises the true nature of beings with an ambiguous or nonbinary gender by making them into men. I’m sure I’m not the only one who pictured Gethenians as a society of males, despite the references to pregnancy. Storm Constantine’s hermaphroditic Wraeththu, too, are referred to as “he” despite pregnancy and splitting themselves, in some tribes, into traditionally gendered males and females.
S/he, hir, hirs
I’ve seen this used in a quite a few SFF pieces, enough for it to be semi-standard. To my mind the gender leans toward “she,” however, from the placement of the s in “S/he,” and the sound of hir. I would think of such a character as a female.
Ke, kir, kir’s
Used in Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed to refer to immature members of the native species, who have no gender until they reach puberty. It was serviceable, but as a reader made me confused. The narrator of the novel wound up thinking of the youngsters as he or she, putting them into a gender slot to fulfill her own preconceptions. As a gender-neutral pronoun “ke” is serviceable. I could live with it.
Xi, xir, xir’s
Used casually in genderqueer communities to denote nonbinary gender. To me it sounds skewed toward female, because of the soft way it sounds when spoken. Plus it’s a Greek letter which might be confusing.
Zi, zir, zir’s
Used the same way xi is, but not as frequently. Seems more neutral and I like it better. The angles of the Z are easy on the eye when reading and as Z is not a frequently used letter of the alphabet, it stands out and screams “Look at me! I’m a nonbinary pronoun! Better wrap your brain around the fact that the person I refer to is nonbinary!” to egg readers on. Plus, it’s a Z, the end of the alphabet. How cool is that? I’d support this choice if a vote were ever taken on it. Still, for a writer, it’s one choice out of many and would have to be explained in the text, as ki and xi were. S/he, though not standard, is easier on the intake.
Hre, hrem, hrer
Something I came up with as a blend of he and her. I know it sounds like someone clearing (hrer) throat, but for me it works while reading text. In speaking, however, I realize the h sound can dominate or be dropped, leading to confusion with he and her.
Ae , aem, aer
Another one I came up with, using the first letter of the alphabet. Easy while reading and easy to speak if pronounced ay-ee, ay-em, ay-air.