The Arisia Convention and Interstitial Genders

If you have attended a science fiction and fantasy convention lately, especially here on the East Coast, you may have notice a fair number of people wearing pronoun ribbons.  Badge ribbons in general have been quite the rage, usually advertising one’s allegiance to a particular Worldcon bid or specialized Fandom (a movie, book, or tv show you love), and often featuring cryptic phrases only recognizable to those in the know.

These pronoun ribbons are a relatively new addition, and a more serious one.  In a world of ever-increasing awareness that gender is less fixed and obvious than we thought, pronoun ribbons (which announce one’s preferred pronoun reference) give some guidance to one’s fellow fans.  While she/her/hers is pretty clear, other options include ze/zer/zers (or “zhe”), and variations like Hi/hir etc.  They have also made ribbons suggesting the singular “they”  a convention adopted on Facebook, and in other places, but one which still makes my grammar-training twitchy.

The first time I remember encountering alternate pronouns, it was in a story by (I believe) Ursula LeGuin, and I found it simply confusing.  Now that I have (I hope) greater awareness of the issues involved, I find myself more aware of, and open to, their use. It seems like a recent phenomenon, and most day-to-day reference points suggest that gender is and has always been binary, but even the wiki page about gender-specific pronouns points out that alternatives have been suggested since the 19th century–though at that time, more to avoid referring to an unknown person as “he,” which was then the default.  On this blog, I tend to alternate, not always in a strict fashion, whether my dear reader is ‘she’ or ‘he’, and I hope this approach is acceptable.  (I suspect this is more disconcerting to men who identify with that gender than to others.)

Yet the new interest in such pronouns is linked more to individual’s gender-identification or lack thereof–or even the question of why it is important to be gender-identified at all.  It makes me think of the ranks of people with interstitial genders through the centuries.  In many cultures and folktales, hermaphrodites–individuals with characteristics of both male and female–have particular roles, often as mediators between the genders, or between humanity and the gods or spirits.  Sometimes, these individuals are referred to as “two-spirits” among Native American communities.

People are often uncomfortable around androgynous individuals whose gender is not made clear through their personal appearance.  I once met such an individual who worked as a private detective–an intriguing career choice, it seems to me.  Western culture tends to be more judgmental, as seen in the trial of Joan of Arc, one of whose major offenses was to wear men’s clothing (which, I should note, almost all of the women I know would be guilty of doing by 15th century standards.)

Individuals with third-gender or other non-binary self-definitions have always been with us, and pronoun badge ribbons are the latest way to push for a more open definition of humanity, less bound to binary gender.  I am proud to be part of the fandom community, which encourages exactly this kind of openness.  And now I am more curious than ever to rediscover the stories of inter-sexed individuals in mythology and culture as another way to invite conversation and acceptance.  What stories do you know?


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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