In the past few years, the media has made a lot of noise about the concept of gender in people. It was suddenly not just wrong but bigoted to stand by the belief that someone is a man or a woman, male or female.

I don’t know how or when precisely it started, but one day everyone was talking about which bathroom a transgender person should use. If they used the one of the gender they were born with, it made them feel uncomfortable, but if they used the other, it made others uncomfortable. After hundreds of years of segregation, the barriers between the genders, at least as far as the usage of certain facilities went, were disintegrating.

This was made even more confusing by the single use of the word “transgender” to refer to two entirely different physical situations. One usage was to refer to a man or a woman who felt they had been given the wrong bodies and they were really meant to be the other gender. The term in English most used with this was that a person “identified” with a gender.

The second usage was for a person who had undergone the treatment and surgery to physically become the gender they claimed they were supposed to be.

The double usage of the term confounded the bathroom question because when a person has been physically altered, they now match what they “identified” with, so it would be normal for them to use the matching bathroom. That is, if a man becomes a woman, then she should now be using the woman’s room since the division between bathrooms has also been about properly facilitating the sex organs (urinals for males, etc).

But if the male has not changed physically, then you have a physical man using a bathroom built for women.

Gender Rainbow

All of that was just the tip of the iceberg, it was seem, for soon people were talking about gender not being just male or female, but actually “fluid”. A few dozen new words for gender appeared in the media and we were all suddenly expected what the proper term for ourselves was.

Terms like “androgynous”, “bigender”, “binary”, “cisgender”, “genderqueer”, “non-binary”, “transgender”, and “two-Spirit” were tossed around, like we should all suddenly understand and use these terms. And if you dared “assume” anyone’s gender by looking at them, someone was bound to scold you for being a thoughtless, heartless bigot.

What Does This Have to Do With Languages?

Well, many languages use two or three genders to identify nouns. This often affects the usage of other words around them, mainly the definite and indefinite articles. In English, we don’t assign gender to words, so our indefinite articles (a, an) and definite article (the) don’t really fluctuate.

Now, if a person doesn’t identify with a particular gender, then the terms we use for them, like in relating to a family, gets confusing. Being a son or a daughter depends on your gender, and we don’t have words for these relations which are nongender specific. Furthermore, even if we did, we don’t have the articles to be used for them. The closest would be neuter or neutral nouns and articles, which a few languages have.

Vietnamese in particular has a complex addressing system when speaking to certain people, and part of the determining factors in those titles is the gender. For example, to say “I love you”:

Anh yêu em. (male to female [or younger male] lover)
Em yêu anh. (female [or younger male] to male lover)

This can get even more complicated when you consider that there are languages in which the words used are altered by the gender of the person speaking, the gender of the person being spoken to, or both.

Hebrew, when referencing an action like loving, will have a different conjugation of the verb, depending on those involved. There are some African languages in which married women will speak a different dialect when they need to avoid certain words out of respect for the men, their husband, and in-law family.

In these cases, how should the concept of “gender is fluent” be handled?