Gender specifics and being a Quaker

Steve and Janice Blakeney

Janice Blakeney, Tasmania Regional Meeting

are As a Friend for whom being a Quaker has meant finding a spiritual path that makes not just sense but gives me a better sensibility of all the living beings on our planet, it was a personal question for me recently to make “sense” of the need to be gender specific in everyday conversation with people. It’s now important to find acceptable forms of address that – to be honest – wasn’t a question when I was growing up. This isn’t to say my education or life experiences was either right or wrong, but it wasn’t so fraught with unintended slights nor a source of stumbling over what pronouns were appropriate addressing people I didn’t already know.

I think everyone should be addressed as they wish. No question. I prefer people use my birth name “Janice.” It is who I am, it is how I see myself, apart from being a linguistically recognizable “feminine” form of the old Christian first name “John”.  Otherwise I have not given a second thought to how people address me (unless of course it had been deliberately rude!). As a Quaker, I am committed to equality and integrity.  No issue here. Equal is how our loving Creator God made all beings, all of them. Equal means equal.

Lately, however, society has been asked to think along gender specific lines when using pronouns if we speak of someone or refer to ourselves. Pronouns.  In my school days (yes, back in the age of dinosaurs!) , Pronouns were defined as “words that take the place of nouns, such as in “He thinks”  or “She sings.” No one gave a thought how these words were to be applied. It was obvious … or was it? Worldwide society has been alerted to the reality (which was always there in truth) that humanity is many things gender-wise, sometimes at the same time in the same person, sometimes transitionally, but diverse. Again, no question. The natural world has endless variations on the theme of life. So how is it that “suddenly” society has to tie itself into knots trying to find pronouns that do not unfairly categorise another person or diminish their sense of being an equal member of the human family?

I wanted a basis for understanding the pronoun question both for myself and with reference to a shared understanding of indigenous people’s knowledge. This focus grew from my participation with a group of Friends meeting each month on Zoom to explore First Nations history and knowledge to better appreciate the story behind the oldest continuously extant human culture on our planet.

I started with some personal education about using pronouns as a gesture of respect at ACON’s “Pride Training” website. ACON (Aids Council of NSW) offers community based “training” for any sector of Australian society seeking to learn to incorporate gender-respect. I recommend this link. It answers the basic question: why are pronouns important to the LGBTQI community?

If I needed a guide to the how and whys of using pronouns to show acceptance and inclusion, then “Pride Training” had it covered.

Next, I sought more information on how – or if – indigenous peoples have used gendered third-person pronouns and what practices indigenous cultures both here and abroad are customary for non-binary people.

Claire G. Coleman writing for the Victorian Government’s website, for example, explains that “Many, if not all, Aboriginal languages in Australia do not have gendered third-person pronouns.”  Coleman continues, “Gendered pronouns appear to be largely a characteristic of Indo-European or most of European languages and Afro-Asiatic (North African and the Middle East) languages.”

“In many dialects of Aboriginal English, “him” has long been a substitute for the original non-gendered third person pronoun; it is, in fact used identically to the singular “they” in English (or the older gender-neutral use of the male pronouns in older versions of English).

“I cannot even imagine,” Coleman writes, “speakers of an Aboriginal language or Kriol complaining about the rise of the singular “they” in the English language. The use of “him” as a non-gendered pronoun suggests that people for whom an Aboriginal language was the only language as a first language had difficulty with giving those pronouns a gender. This is in stark opposition to the English speakers having trouble with a singular “they.”

Another source I found reiterated this view. Maggie Munn (they/them) a Gungarri person and campaigner for Amnesty International Australia, wrote in her article on “Non-Binary People’s Day (15 July) “, that observing pronoun etiquette was for her a foreign experience. Maggie says,” I never had a language to describe how I felt within myself in terms of my gender or sexuality. Terms like non-binary, gender non-conforming, gender diverse were foreign to me until recently, and once I learned what they meant I knew it was me. I never came out as non-binary, or queer for that matter – I just am and the people around me know that.”

I personally resonate with Maggie’s conclusions: “….the fight for understanding, for justice for my fellow non-binary babes is about more than pronouns and dismantling the expectation of androgyny, it’s about love and care that is affirming and validating.”

Going further, past language etiquette and its powerful character of affirmation, safety-making or acceptance is the ongoing need for society to work with more diversity. I found more information about gender diversity and how native cultures have lived within its changing definitions over the millennia.

I learned that in Native American Indian culture, non-binary people were described as “two-spirit people” – a positive term. As such, Two Spirit people were recognised as not just “different” but “Special.” They held a gift that others did not and were honored for it.

Closer to home, I found the “Transhub Mob” at who say that First Nations cultures have always recognized and integrated much richer and diverse concepts of gender than Western cultures. Tiwi Islander people have the largest trans population in the Pacific, fully 5% of the population identify as trans.

First Nations use the terms Sistergirl and Brotherboy.

Sistergirl is used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe gender diverse people that have a female spirit and take on female roles within the community, including looking after children and family. Many Sistergirls live a traditional lifestyle and have strong cultural backgrounds.

Noongar Sistergirl, Aunty Vanessa, member of Tekwabit Giz (a working group of the National LGBTI Health Alliance), wrote on the Trans Mob page:”My understanding and acceptance of who I was and where I come from as an Indigenous Person first and foremost, and the fact I am descended from the oldest surviving civilisations on Earth – that is who we are as a race of people.”

Brotherboys is a term used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe gender diverse people that have a male spirit and take on male roles within the community. Brotherboys have a strong sense of their cultural identity.

In broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, the Trans Mob group writer continues, “the terms ‘Sistagirl’ and ‘Brothaboy’ are used as terms of endearment, for women and men respectively, with no reference to gender diversity.”

If these examples can be taken as typical analysis of the gender diversity present day society is addressing, then it would seem those of us with European backgrounds have been out of step for quite a while.

By this research, I have been enlightened as well as encouraged by going within this subject. As a person of faith, it matters that I understand my fellow humans and can address them in a way that is respectful of their own view of themselves. I expect no less in return and that’s the outcome, I submit, that Friends as a society would find truthful.

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1 Comment

  1. Vidya

    Janice, thank you for this gentle exploration of gender and some of the indigenous societies where gender diversity is culturally recognised. Also for this perspective:
    “Worldwide society has been alerted to the reality (which was always there in truth) that humanity is many things gender-wise, sometimes at the same time in the same person, sometimes transitionally, but diverse. … The natural world has endless variations on the theme of life.”


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