Back in June this year I attended a conference titled “They, Hirself, Em, and You: Nonbinary pronouns in research and practice”. It was a very giving experience, and the conference was quite unique both in terms of scholarly topic and with regards to more interpersonal aspects, so I’ve been asked to write up a brief account of the event.
The conference, in shorthand referred to as THEY2019, took place on June 11-13th 2019 at Queen’s University in the city of Kingston in Ontario, Canada. The topic was that of (quoting from the conference website) “nonbinary gender in language, particularly in pronouns”. That is, the work presented at the conference was concerned with language used by and about nonbinary people, i.e. people whose genders fall outside the categories of “female” or “male”. THEY2019 was explicitly cross-disciplinary and had two tracks for presentations: A L-track for linguistics papers, and an O-track for other disciplines. Since it was a relatively small conference with roughly 20 speakers including keynotes, only one presentation was taking place at a given time, and attendants were able to hear them all without having to choose some over others – fortunately, as all the talks were highly interesting.
There was a very special atmosphere at THEY2019. The organizers were all young and aimed to create as accessible a space as possible. This meant both that there was no attendance fee, and also that the conference allowed online attendance. About 50 people were at the conference in person, but more than twice that number, including some of the presenters, participated via video call and online chatrooms. As for the physical space, everything was wheelchair accessible, scent-free, and had gender neutral bathrooms and a pronoun policy. Given the topic of the conference and the fact that it was easy to attend both financially and logistically, a large percentage of the participants (myself included) and most of the organizers were transgender and/or nonbinary themselves. Everyone wore nametags that also showed which pronouns should be used about that person, and I know both from my own experience and from conversations I had with others that being welcomed like this (and also experiencing actually making up the majority for once, when you normally belong to a very minoritized group) felt very refreshing and comforting. (Trans people were not the only marginalized group to be considered, either; the conference opened with an acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples who occupied the land in Ontario before colonialism.) All this combined with the fact that everyone in attendance was really friendly and engaging, everybody seemed to be in a good mood all three days.
So what about the scholarly content? As mentioned, there was a L-track for linguistic topics and an O-track for other disciplines, talks being given in both tracks each day. The conference opened with an O-track session on nonbinary pronouns in translation and translation studies, where three scholars presented their work: One on translations of the book Stone Butch Blues, one on pronouns in an English-as-L1 class with a translation topic, and one on translating nonbinary language in English-to-Spanish dubbing and subbing of TV shows.
Then came the first keynote of the conference, titled “Pronouns as the nexus of grammatical gender and gender expression” where Lauren Ackerman presented their/her work on the processing of gender pronouns.
After lunch we had the first L-track session, where speakers presented quantitative overviews of neopronouns, grammaticality ratings and attitudes towards singular they, legitimatizing discourses of labels and pronouns on YouTube, and perspectives on Spanish elle.
On the second day of the conference, the O-track was about mainstreaming nonbinary language in institutions and policies. Representatives from university administration, an NGO working with private companies to heighten inclusion at the workplace, and academia talked about how studies and policies can inform and affect gendered language use and change.
This day had two keynotes, first Kirby Conrod presenting their work on the syntactic structure of pronouns (particularly they) and offering thoughts on language change, and then Lex Konnelly expanding on this with findings of their own.
The afternoon’s L-track looked more specifically on neopronouns, including my own talk on nounself pronouns, one on the morphological typology of neopronouns, and a language change perspective on neopronouns in contemporary English. The day was finished off with a casual and cozy conference dinner that turned spontaneous dance party.
The third and last day started with the final O-track, which had a critical theme. It offered a talk on pronoun negotiation strategies, one on the limitations of translation when it comes to nonbinary pronouns in other languages than English, and one that provided a historical account of singular they and various speaker attitudes towards it. Afterwards the final keynote of the conference was held by Brooke Larson, which, with the deceptive title of “How to study pronouns: deep structure and the nature of proper government”, put the entire conference into perspective by discussing the historical and political context of academic study and how nothing we do as researchers is politically neutral – we are always taking a stance and influencing our environment by choosing particular objects of study and particular perspectives on them.
Aside from the various presentations, the conference also had the aim of producing concrete outcome based on our combined knowledge. Each day ended with a working session, where groups of attendants planned a specific project related to nonbinary pronouns that we would like to create. The projects are currently being worked on, and during the next few months we should be able to present, among other products: Teaching material on pronouns for L2 learners and Linguistics 101 students, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on pronouns and pronoun usage practice, informational material about pronoun usage and policy, and more.
All in all, the THEY2019 conference was an exciting three days of both scholarly and interpersonal content. The organizers did important work in not only promoting a small and often overlooked field, but also creating a space where we who attended got the rare chance to inhabit our queer and trans identities in a professional setting: To not only be academics who happen to be queer and/or trans in private life, but to be queer and trans academics. Making the conference free of charge and accessible online, also ensured a diverse group of participants, many different ages, educational backgrounds, and nationalities being represented. Having such a wide variety of voices is important for achieving a nuanced discussion.
I hope the readers of Lingoblog found this account interesting, and that they will stay tuned for the products that are currently being worked on. In case your interest has been piqued, several of the slides from the presentations are available online, so feel free to send me an email if you would like to access them.
Ehm Hjorth Miltersen is a 1. semester MA Linguistics student